(Citizen file)

Guest column: Expert advice for our watersheds? Find the courage to call!

“Don’t feel ashamed or feel you are ratting someone out.”

Guest column

Almost every month, the Cowichan Watershed Board hosts a free lecture series for the community in partnership with VIU-Cowichan Campus. Engaging and knowledgeable subject experts address topics relating to the health of our local watersheds.

The beginning of this year, lectures related to environmental laws that could or should protect watershed and wildlife values, but are falling far short. Professionals working in these fields, including an environmental lawyer, conservation officer, and fishery officer, all had one piece of advice in common. Speak up!

“Have the courage to report.”

“Don’t feel ashamed or feel you are ratting someone out.”

“You could be helping save the earth!”

These were words of advice from BC Conservation Officer Mark Kissinger and Federal Fishery Officer Willi Jansen on March 28 and they meant it.

Across the country, our government departments often have a long list of environmental or conservation laws to try to enforce across huge territories, with too few staff to ever do it all. Both officers encouraged the audience to help be their eyes and ears to leverage their impact. They acknowledged that it can take courage for everyday citizens to report polluters, poachers and other environmental bad actors, but they can’t do it without us. Citizens are needed to provide detailed, accurate information about observations regarding fish, wildlife or environmental degradation, anything from dumping garbage to poaching wildlife, and then to stand by their report if called upon to do so.

“If you have information, and you are not willing to testify, then we can’t prosecute and we can’t stop these behaviours.”

Drawing on his experience at the Swedish Police University in Umea, Kissinger pointed out that in Sweden poaching wildlife incurs a four-year jail term, and not surprisingly, it occurs less often. Here in the Cowichan Valley some years we have had up to 40 elk lost to poaching in a single year while considerably fewer poachers are caught. Audience members suggested that our government follow Sweden’s lead and increase penalties for wildlife violations here to strengthen the disincentive.

Jansen, a 24-year veteran as a fishery officer, stated that DFO’s number one priority is contaminated shellfish because it is a potentially fatal human safety issue. Marine-based Species of Concern are the second highest priority including southern resident killer whales (orca), early-timed Fraser chinook, rockfish and abalone. Jansen also spoke to the unfortunate reality that DFO’s efforts are often redirected to other conflicting priorities and not as much on proactive work like restoring the habitat that is so critical to fish and ocean health. (However Cowichan Tribes is currently leading a five-year “watershed to sea” chinook habitat restoration project in partnership with other organizations, funded by DFO’s Coastal Restoration Fund).

Both enforcement officers expressed regret that protecting and restoring habitats necessary to the long-term health of all species never gets enough attention and it is hard to prosecute to protect it, but citizens can help by calling these numbers to report observations:

• RAPP Report All Poachers and Polluters 1-877-952-RAPP (7277); cell dial #7277 (on Telus Network)

• Fisheries Infractions: 1-800-465-4336 24 hrs/day

• Spills or Environmental Emergencies 1-800-663-3456

In February, environmental lawyer Devon Page, executive director of Ecojustice Canada, gave an informative but sobering talk about Canada’s lax environmental laws and how that impacts species like the iconic orca population struggling to survive in our backyard.

Surprisingly, Page maintained that Canada lags the U.S. in legal tools to protect our environment.

“For instance, the U.S. has a Clean Air Act, a Clean Water Act, a Public Trust for future generations, and an Endangered Species Act since 1973,” he said.

Page relayed a story of a recent meeting with B.C.’s Ministry of Forests where staff expressed confidence that British Columbians were “pretty happy with forestry practices” because they didn’t receive many complaints anymore. Page said that legal decisions sometimes hinge on whether an issue is deemed to be in the public interest, and the measure of that interest is found in letters and phone calls to government and the media. Like Jansen and Kissinger, he urged the audience to help him do his job by picking up the phone to let B.C. Forests Minister Doug Donaldson’s office know if they have concerns about logging practices or salmon habitat.

Page also warned that an important tool to prevent environmental damage in Canada is currently being blocked by the Canadian Senate. He urged citizens to call B.C.’s Senate representatives to ask them to pass Bill C-69 Impact Assessment Act before an election is called (likely September). Contact links can be found here https://sencanada.ca/en/senators/

Submitted by Cowichan Watershed Board with content provided courtesy of Carol Hartwig.

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