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Fisheries toughens ag enforcement

Farmers across the country have to expect a growing vigilance by governments in trying to stop contamination of inland fish habitat by farm pollutants, says the head of Environment Canada’s prairie enforcement unit for Fisheries Act violations.

“The big message to farmers is that they have to do whatever is necessary to stop runoff of manure and pesticides into waterways that contain fish,” Hal Sommerstad said.

There is a growing government effort across the country to protect fish habitat and a growing public insistence that offenders be charged, he added.

“You are seeing more charges because we have had an increase in visibility and more officers in recent years and that brings more complaints.”

It is evident across the country.

In Regina last week, the aerial spraying company Farm Air Ltd and its owner Norman Colhoun were fined $37,500 after he pleaded guilty to Fisheries Act violations in 2000 and 2001. Agricultural chemicals splashed from company planes onto the asphalt at Regina airport and were washed into Wascana Creek.

In Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island’s largest corporate farm was charged under the Fisheries Act with allowing organic waste from a potato operation to leach into a brook that drains into a river. Cavendish Farms, owned by the Irving family of New Brunswick, are scheduled to be in court May 28.

In February, a hog farm in Cambridge, N.S., was fined and assessed damages of $12,000 because of a manure spill into a ditch in July 2002.

Increasingly in recent years, farmers and their organizations have been expressing alarm at the aggressiveness of environmental officers enforcing Fisheries Act rules in inland Canada.

Sommerstad’s message is that they should get accustomed to it. Complaints are rising from neighbours, downstream water users and provincial agencies about farmers polluting waterways.

And virtually every ditch, gully and slough drains into a waterway that is home to fish.

But he said there are higher levels of charges and convictions in some areas of the country than in others.

Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada are particularly sensitive to the issue and provincial governments and agencies are aggressive in pursuing offenders.

On the Prairies, Environment Canada receives fewer complaints and takes a less aggressive approach, Sommerstad said. There are just 20-30 complaints a year and the department often handles them with a letter and a warning rather than a legal prosecution.

He said the Fisheries Act’s regulations and actions to reduce waterway pollution are embedded in Agriculture Canada’s agricultural policy framework and Environment Canada sits on the advisory committee created to deal with the framework’s environmental stewardship pillar.

“This is part of the new policy environment,” he said.

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