The Cowichan River, and the fish that depend upon it, could benefit from the restoration of national fish habitat protection provisions. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)

Column Alistair MacGregor: We need to act swiftly to protect fish and fish habitat

These changes effectively removed protection of fish habitats from the legislation.

By Alistair MacGregor

Earlier this month some potentially damaging and unauthorized work was started on the bank and below the water line of the Cowichan River.

Due to the swift action of concerned citizens and local authorities, notably the Town of Lake Cowichan, the work was halted and remediated. The rainy season is soon to begin, and the resulting siltation of the river could have had disastrous effects on salmon breeding grounds.

One level of authority that was basically powerless to act was the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). I know that individual DFO officers and staff work diligently and want desperately to protect the Cowichan River. This waterway is a defining feature of our valley, an important salmon spawning run, an official Canadian Heritage River, and has been of central importance to the Cowichan First Nations since time immemorial.

Yet there is little that individual DFO officers and staff can do to protect it.

In 2012, the Conservative government passed two massive omnibus budget bills that included provisions to neuter the Fisheries Act. These changes effectively removed protection of fish habitats from the legislation. It goes without saying that attempting to protect fish but not their habitat is an absurd proposition.

This was all part of the Harper-era dismantling of any environmental regulations that could hold up any development, regardless of its implications.

During the 2015 federal election, both the Liberals and the NDP campaigned on reversing these changes. Yet almost two years into this Liberal government, the Harper-era legislation still stands.

I believe strongly that Parliament should act to immediately restore the so-called HADD provision of the Fisheries Act (Harmful Alteration, Disruption, and Destruction of fish habitat). The government should then undergo a thorough and comprehensive review and consultation to improve and modernize the Act.

A fully modernized Fisheries Act would prioritize the protection of fish and fish habitat, advance the Nation-to-Nation relationship with First Nations, and increase on the ground resources to enforce the Act.

In the meantime, the remaining language in the Fisheries Act still provides the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans with considerable discretionary power to establish and enforce regulations to prevent harm to fish. DFO officers could be empowered to issue stop-work orders, issue fines, and order immediate remediation as they have under previous governments.

I anxiously await working with Parliament to improve and modernize the Fisheries Act. For now, I urge the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans to move swiftly to empower DFO officers to protect the Cowichan River and its fish.

Alistair MacGregor is the Member of Parliament for Cowichan-Malahat-Langford.