Metro Vancouver is calling on the federal government to maintain fish habitat protection rules in response to widespread fears that Ottawa is poised to greatly weaken the Fisheries Act to speed development.
The concern was sparked by a leak of an internal Fisheries and Oceans Canada document last month that suggests the act’s ban on the “harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat” may be watered down to instead “reduce the adverse effect” on fish of economic, cultural or ecological value.
“We have good reason to expect this to be diluted,” Metro environment committee chair Heather Deal said. “This would be a major unravelling of habitat protection.”
Fish in semi-urban streams in Metro Vancouver might be more at risk if home owners and developers are no longer barred from building walls or other works near the edges of creeks and altering the flow of water, Deal said.
When major projects do go ahead that damage fish habitat – such as Vancouver’s new convention centre or the South Fraser Perimeter Road – proponents are required to build fish habitat improvements to offset the losses.
Deal said she’s concerned that mitigation process could also be lost in any changes.
Habitat upgrades are now underway in Metro’s Colony Farm Regional Park to make up for losses incurred through the construction of the new Port Mann Bridge and Highway 1 widening.
The motion from the environment committee still has to go to the Metro board.
The new federal budget gave no clue that a gutting of the Fisheries Act is in the works, but it did pledge speedier environmental assessments – a move seen as aiding the construction of new oil pipelines across B.C.
Watershed Watch Salmon Society executive director Craig Orr said conservation groups fear changes to the Fisheries Act may still be coming.
“They should not be relaxing habitat protection to promote development,” he said.
Orr said damage to salmon habitat would harm a broad range of species that use aquatic habitat, including insects, frogs and birds.
While there’s intense public focus on major projects, particularly pipelines, he said fish habitat could be badly damaged by a plethora of much smaller developments.
“This could be a death by a thousand cuts,” Orr said. “That’s a bigger concern – that we’ll see a large cumulative impact by the degrading of habitat.”
Development groups have long complained that habitat protection and remediation requirements add greatly to their costs, and note the current rules extend to ditches if salmon are able to colonize them.