What modern safeguards should be instituted in order to ensure appropriate protections for fish and fish habitat?
Preemptive restoration of wild spawning, rearing and refuge habitats would have positive long-term economic and ecological effects. Proactively increasing habitat complexity (eg. artificial reefs, shoreline restoration, large woody debris additions) and returning fish assemblages to levels of self-sustainability will reduce future needs for reactive measures after ecological crises. Increasing a habitat's natural output will reduce the need to supplement with hatchery stock on an annual basis, preserving biodiversity and reducing taxpayer burden.
The revisions to the Fisheries Act under the previous government substantively changed DFO’s habitat management framework. The amendments collectively narrowed the focus of the Act from protecting fish habitat to protecting fisheries, and allow damage to fish habitat so long as there is no permanent alteration or destruction of habitat or death of fish. Administrative policies adopted following the Fisheries Act amendments further contributed to the dilution of the former statutory protections of fish habitat. All of this is compounded by a lack of financial and human resources required to undertake the studies and research required to make effective science-based decisions.
Impact of the Changes – A Case Study
A project (“Project”) submitted to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in April, 2016 for review under section 35 of the Fisheries Act serves as a useful case study of how the changes to the Fisheries Act, coupled with a lack of adequate sound scientific knowledge and study of our marine resources, operate in practice.
The Project involves a proposal to create an anchorages area for large commercial freighters. The Project area covers an area of water and fish habitat that is well over twice the size of Vancouver’s Stanley Park along the Georgia Strait coast of Gabriola Island, within British Columbia’s legislatively protected Islands Trust Area. An environmental overview assessment prepared by a private consultant engaged by the Project proponents did not include any site specific study, apart from a survey by a remotely operated vehicle of less than 1/1000th of the Project area conducted over a few hours on a single day.
Baseline conditions for the Project area were inferred from published literature that is neither area /site-specific nor based on quantitative data. The consultant repeatedly flagged the limitations of the assessment in its report: “Quantitative assessment of the Anchorage area was largely absent within this high-level EOA”. “[Consultant name (redacted)] recognizes that there is a lack of specific, quantitative information. There is potential that expert advice or quantitative information, should it become available, would change the effects characterization and significance determination(s)”.
Independent and highly regarded scientists, who are experts in their respective fields, reviewed the report and expressed their views that there is a lack of adequate quantitative scientific information to properly assess the potential impacts of the Project on fish habitat, CRA fisheries and marine mammals, including Species at Risk.
Notwithstanding these limitations, DFO’s Fisheries Protection Program decided that a qualitative assessment alone was adequate for this Project, and decided that the Project required neither a review, nor an authorization under the Fisheries Act.
Thus, a huge area of productive habitat in British Columbia’s coastal waters has been consigned to the waste heap. Scouring of the sea floor by anchor chains dragging along the seabed as ships shift in the wind and current, industrial activities including bunkering, transhipping of coal/ other cargoes, ship repairs, diesel generator noise, and turbulence created by anchor and chain deployment and redeployment, can now commence in the proposed Project area, (and based on this DFO decision, anywhere else in our territorial waters), without any knowledge of what organisms and species live or depend on the habitat there, without any reliable baseline information from which to measure the harm caused by these activities, and without any knowledge, understanding or quantitative study of actual impacts and their duration.
The DFO decision not to require comprehensive site-specific quantitative studies of the proposed Project area sets a precedent that carries with it the potential for cumulative, large-scale transformation of the entire ecosystem of the Strait of Georgia in the absence of reliable scientific baseline information about fish, fish habitat, marine mammals and other aquatic species and without any meaningful assessment of potential impacts.
This is the practical impact and legacy of the changes to the Fisheries Act.
- Restore the former prohibition against harmful alteration or destruction of fish habitat and reverse the introduction of the ‘permanent’ harm concept.
- Move away from a fisheries productivity model that focusses on protecting resources that are [presently known to be] inputs to producing fish for fisheries, to a model that recognizes the importance of protecting ecosystems, and gaining a better understanding of interdependencies and resources that are required to sustain them.
- Implement more rigorous review of proposed projects on a cost-recovery basis. Carefully review (and regularly reconsider) administrative protocols that provide for special or ‘light touch’ treatment of development proposals, including government or governmental agency-sponsored projects, to determine whether they are consistent with conservation objectives and based on sound, current, scientific knowledge.
- Address knowledge gaps. Where a comprehensive body of up to date, area-specific, quantitative information is not available, require such studies to be undertaken at the cost of project proponents, under the supervision of DFO scientists.
Thank you for recognizing that this review is required and for seeking input from those who have first-hand experience of the failings of the current regime.
DFO needs to require several activities of developers to ensure compensation and habitat banking is successful.
- Establish baseline data prior to compensation actions to facilitate site planning and long term assessments of success using prescribed methods.
- Accurately map and inventory newly constructed projects to facilitate future monitoring and research.
- Monitor and apply adaptive management to mitigate stressors in perpetuity, because compensation and habitat banks are always near human activity which carries the risk of future unforeseen impacts.
- Many completed compensation projects have failed because the above process was not used and DFO needs to systematically find and fix broken habitat compensation projects, to repay the habitat deficit to Canada that has accumulated since the No Net Loss principle was adopted in the 1980s
Compensation, Offsetting and Habitat Banking are ecosystem assets owed to Canadians in lieu of land development. It needs to be considered a permanent cost of doing business not just a one off expense by the developer. There are many financial instruments DFO can use to ensure habitat created is not lost due to neglect.
Require some form of online test before granting any form of fishing license. The test should be focused on species conservation and should test knowledge of the fishing regulations. Model the test after the hunting CORE test, maybe not as difficult a version.
Increase the number of fisheries officials in the field to allow better oversight to prevent overfishing.
Organize several research studies of the commercial, indigenous, and recreational fishing industries to gather data on illegal activity. Allow researchers to observe fishing activity in certain high-risk areas without announcing their intention, I.e. do not divulge that they are participating in research.
Issue a moratorium on open net fish farming. Require closed containment systems with a closed loop water source, thus preventing sea lice from leaving a farm pen and preventing fish from escaping the farm.
I would support an increase in income taxes to achieve these goals.