Agriculture minister Gerry Ritz and fisheries minister Keith Ashfield seem to be using farmers as bait to get the public to swallow the changes to the Fisheries Act included in the omnibus Budget Implementation Act (Bill C-38).
They have stretched credibility to the breaking point by suggesting that the federal government is abandoning protection of fish habitat so that farmers don’t have to deal with red tape when they maintain their irrigation ditches.
I’m sure that like me, many farmers resent the implication that we are not interested in being good stewards of the water on the land we manage, which is essential for healthy livestock and wholesome crops.
Now that Bill C-38 has passed, the fisheries minister will be able to allow exemptions to current habitat protection provisions by listing works, undertakings and activities that would be automatically exempt and by listing certain Canadian fisheries waters that would no longer be protected.
The minister or cabinet will also be able to delegate their authority to permit harm to fish habitat to third parties. This is an invitation to industry lobbyists to push for automatic exemptions for their projects or to get third-party regulator status.
The act will later be amended to remove habitat protection altogether. Only fish that are part of a commercial, recreational or aboriginal fishery will be protected, and only from being killed outright.
It will be OK to damage, stunt or deform them.
Anyone with a bit of sense knows that you need little fish to get big fish. Consequently, by not protecting spawning grounds or small, non-commercial species such as minnows, there is a real risk that even the seemingly protected commercial fisheries will be seriously damaged as a result of this legislation.
Farm ditches and irrigation channels contain water that flows into natural water bodies, so they do form part of the larger watershed, and it makes sense to take good care of them.
According to the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) website archives, there have been no charges or convictions of farmers because of improper maintenance of irrigation channels or drainage ditches.
Farmers are clearly willing to comply with habitat protection requirements.
The government could make DFO’s activities more farmer friendly by providing more support for farmers and fisheries.
It could allocate money to help cover the cost of stream-side im-provements, give courses on how to better manage riskier operations and reward farmers who invent new ways to protect water on their farms.
These measures could easily be taken without changing the law. There is no conflict between farming successfully and protecting fish.
What the changes to the Fisheries Act will do is speed up approval of megaprojects such as the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. It will allow construction and any future spills to damage or destroy spawning grounds and feeding areas in the 600 rivers and streams the pipeline will cross to bring crude from the Alberta oilsands to the British Columbia coast for shipping to Asia.
Eliminating red tape for farmers is not the purpose of the Fisheries Act amendments. The proposed change is designed to benefit a few industry shareholders for a short time.
As a farmer, I will not be used to justify their actions. The streams, lakes, rivers and oceans and the fish that live in them were here before we were born, and it is our duty as farmers, citizens and human beings to protect the health of our water bodies for future generations.