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. 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, they have stretched credibility to the breaking point. And 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.
As soon as Bill C-38 is 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 (oceans, rivers, lakes, streams) 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 setup is an invitation to industry lobbyists to push for automatic exemptions for their projects, or to get third-party regulator status. In other words, the fox would be asked to guard the henhouse.
Later, the Fisheries Act will 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 — so 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. Protecting the banks from erosion, reducing contaminated run-off, and providing cooling shade over streams improves water quality in our recreational lakes and streams where we can swim, fish and boat with our friends and families. Having intact fish habitat also helps with flood control and reduces the impacts of drought.
According to the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) website archives, there have been no charges or convictions of farmers due to improper maintenance of irrigation channels or drainage ditches. Farmers are clearly willing and able to comply with habitat-protection requirements. To make DFO’s activities more farmer friendly, the government could provide more support for farmers and fisheries officers to work together to come up with solutions to specific problems on individual farms. It could allocate money to help cover the cost of stream-side improvements. It could give courses on how to better manage riskier operations. It could 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.
So it looks like the line about the drainage ditches is just a red herring. Getting rid of red tape for farmers is not the purpose or intent of the Fisheries Act amendments. The proposed change is designed to benefit a very few industry shareholders for a very short time. As a farmer, I will not be used to justify their actions.