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Gutting the Fisheries Act

Aquaculture action group back together to oppose reduced enforcement of pesticide use

by Miles Howe

Retired Environment Canada scientist Bill Ernst can see no reason - other than industrial lobbying - for amendments to the Fisheries Act. [Photo: M. Howe]
Retired Environment Canada scientist Bill Ernst can see no reason - other than industrial lobbying - for amendments to the Fisheries Act. [Photo: M. Howe]

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) - It is 2015. We are only now coming to understand the implications and effects of 'Ocean Acidification'. There is a massive garbage island in the North Pacific Gyre. The Philipines has acknowledged that the impacts of climate change are beyond its capacity to deal with. All in all, it seems like a good time to be very, very careful about what we put in our Oceans.

Here in Nova Scotia, the recently released Doelle-Lahey report appeared as a refreshing breath of science-based sanity, as it attempted to reign in the 'wild west' mentality under which the open net pen finfish aquaculture industry has operated in this province. A key polluter and ruiner of coastal bays, a recent study from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Saint Andrews University found that anti-sea lice pesticides, used by the industry, were having a toxic effect on lobsters, sometimes kilometres from their point of delivery. Lobster, that delicious bottom-feeding crustacean, is one of the few successful fisheries that the East Coast has left.

Groups from across the province – groups that knew best the health of the oceans and coastlines on which they thrived and depended – applauded the Doelle-Lahey report as the “next best thing” to a full moratorium on the highly-pollutive industry. Finally, so the thinking went, reality had re-entered the building, and the power of coastal people had trumped the deep pockets and lobbying efforts of finfish aquaculture industry. Finally, some notion of sustainability might enter the conversation.

Not so fast.

Enter the Canadian federal government and their recent tinkering with the century-old Fisheries Act. Omnibus bills C-38 and C-45 have put key sections of the Act on the chopping block, specifically section 36, which addresses depositing 'deleterious substances' – such as the pesticides upon which the finfish aquaculture industry depends – into waters frequented by fish. The worry is that the potential of wide-sweeping exemptions and ministerial discretion might now find their way through the newly-porous Act. Such exemptions might include pesticide application to finfish aquaculture farms.

The same one hundred-odd groups that so recently celebrated the Doelle-Lahey report have now banded together again in issuing an open letter to the Harper government, requesting that they leave the Fisheries Act alone.

“In my opinion, the real reason to implement this legislation is the fact that quite recently it was the section of the Fisheries Act that was used to charge certain companies that were involved with illegal pesticide use in New Brunswick,” says Bill Ernst, a retired scientist with Environment Canada. “I think that there's been a fair amount of lobbying on behalf of industry that's convinced the politicians and bureaucrats that that section of the act [that deals with] oversight should be removed. I really do believe that this sets back environmental protection and standards in our country decades at this point.”

Ernst, who himself noted the increasing difficulties he experienced in simply trying to do his job – science – under the Harper regime, categorically could not come up with any explanation for the amendments to section 36; other than industrial pressure. Simply put, there's no secret upside to allowing more dumping of pesticides into the oceans – only pure industrial greed is at work here.

Then there is the question of oversight of the gutted Act. The group notes that proposed changes to the Act would see oversight and enforcement removed from Environment Canada, and instead sloughed onto Health Canada and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Health Canada, notes Ernst, has shown a willingness to approve the very pesticides and drugs it is now to be tasked with monitoring. The department also doesn't have the same mandate to provide environmental protection.

“These are the same kinds of pesticides that Health Canada has approved for agricultural use,” says Ernst. “In agricultural use, these pesticides are prohibited from entering watercourses through the enforcement of buffer zones. There's no reason why aquaculture should be treated differently.”

Ernst elaborates that with Health Canada potentially taking charge of oversight and approvals, the issue of aquaculture applications of pesticides could spill over into increased leniency in on-land, agricultural use of similar pesticides. If an aquaculture farm can dump the stuff directly in the water, then what's the point of having a buffer zone in, say, a pig farm? Or so the argument risks going.

As for the role of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), Maria Recchia, executive director of the Fundy North Fishermen's Association, notes that the department has already shown itself to be stretched in its ability to do oversight and enforcement. Recchia worries that handing the DFO another helping on what is already an over-full plate makes no sense, especially when Environment Canada enforcement officials are already trained-up in the very skills the DFO will now be expected to learn from scratch.

“The DFO surveillance branch is underfunded, and unable to do basic surveillance,” writes Recchia in a prepared statement. “How can they take on increased responsibilities? There will be a significantly worse process than we have today.”

Dr. Suzanna Fuller, Marine Conservation Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre, shares Recchia's concerns with the DFO's stretched capacity.

“The DFO no longer even funds research on the effects of toxins. It's been downloaded to academia and the private sector,” says Fuller. “We're asking the government to maintain the provisions of section 36. It's the last bit of environmental protection we have.”

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