Fish Failure, by Jeff Hutchings


Fish fail

By Jeffrey Hutchings

I like to think Canadians generally aspire to be responsible members of society. And for those of us who cherish the outdoors, that responsibility is synonymous with looking after the habitats of animals and plants, both on the land and in the water. The benefits of environmentally responsible stewardship are many: sustainable populations of fish and game; access to secure sources of food; healthy ecosystems; clean water; beautiful landscapes; the recovery of endangered species; and on it goes.

In most democracies, the boundaries of this environmental stewardship are responsibly enshrined in law and reflect the broad aspirations of a broad swathe of society. Here in Canada, however, the recently revised Fisheries Act is anything but responsible, instead reflecting political opportunism and an alarmingly simplistic view of nature.

Under the federal statute, habitat is now protected only for fish that are part of a commercial, recreational or aboriginal fishery, or fish that “support” such fisheries. That means upwards of 80 per cent of Canada’s native fish no longer have their habitat protected. (Some believe the Species at Risk Act will provide a safety net for native fish no longer protected by the Fisheries Act, but SARA only protects the “critical habitat” of listed species, something that is rarely defined.)

Perversely, the revised Fisheries Act prioritizes habitat protection for non-native species as long as they are part of a fishery. This even includes hatchery-produced hybrids, such as splake (a mix between brook and lake trout).

To put the revisions to the act in some perspective, it’s instructive to look to the past. The law dates from 1868, a time when no woman, no aboriginal person and not even every man could vote. Post-Confederation laws permitted enormous discretionary power, affording government ministers czar-like powers. Most laws passed by Ottawa provided few obstacles to ministerial whim.

For some federal ministers, the same is true today. And there’s arguably no law that better protects ministerial discretion than the Fisheries Act. There’s nothing in the act that states what the minister must do if a given set of circumstances should arise, such as shut down a fishery due to overfishing.

Not that the Fisheries Act hasn’t had its redeeming moments, notably in the 1970s when Canadian law increasingly reflected the aspirations of our then globally engaged and environmentally aware society. It was in 1976, in fact, when the Fisheries Act first introduced protection for the habitat of all fish. And by protecting all fish habitat, the act also indirectly protected organisms such as the insects that fish feed on, as well as the shoreline and streamside vegetation that many fish depend on for reproduction and protection from predators.

Surely it’s a good thing to have laws that protect many entities, such as the multiple species that are part of Canada’s aquatic ecosystems. Enlightened legislation presumes that each species is important, even if we don’t always know precisely how. Consider the rivets that hold an airplane together—which rivets are more important than the others? The same goes for the myriad species that make up our aquatic ecosystems. Which ones can we afford to lose, or not to lose?

While the revised Fisheries Act of 1976 reflected the progressive political vision of the time, the revised Fisheries Act of 2013 is instead indicative of political ideology that favours perceived economic growth over a strong and healthy environment. In the view of most aquatic scientists, the revised act represents a huge setback to the protection of most native fish, as well as aquatic species at risk. They also say it impedes Canada’s ability to fulfill its national and international obligations to conserve biodiversity, and curtails future fisheries development, particularly in the north.

Canada is the second-largest country in the world. We are responsible for one-fifth of the world’s freshwater and one-third of its boreal forests and associated aquatic environments. We also watch over the globe’s longest coastline. But this geographical wealth comes with a responsibility to serve as internationally respected stewards of this vast environment. Under the latest changes to the Fisheries Act, however, we are anything but.

Jeffrey Hutchings is a fisheries biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax.