Nikki Skuce

Nikki Skuce

A step toward good fish stories

Director of Smithers-based Northern Confluence Initiative is happy with changes in Fisheries Act.

The bright fly tied precisely onto the end of the line whips forward in an elegant loop landing in the cold flowing river. After hours of making the line dance and flow, a bite and reel of excitement. Feels like a 20-pounder. This is going to make a good fish story.

And this is what we need more of in Canada: good fish stories.

After two years of consultations, it was great to see the new Fisheries Act tabled on Feb. 6 that would restore habitat protection provisions and modernize the Act.

The proposed Act will reverse some of the bad news from 2012 when the Fisheries Act was gutted by the previous Canadian Government despite concerns expressed by hundreds of scientists. It went from protecting habitat and all fish, to only protecting fish that were part of a fishery. This new approach (along with cutting a number of DFO positions) made it nearly impossible to enforce, resulted in no prosecutions occurring for fish habitat damage, and created confusion on which projects needed an assessment.

As we all know, you can’t protect fish without protecting fish habitat.

Hopefully this new Act will be the start of more good fish stories. Changes include a return to strong habitat protections for all fish, a need for sustainability considerations, and identifying key areas for habitat restoration.

While one small project may not have much of an impact on fish, a series of projects on the same water body can devastate stocks. The Minister must now consider cumulative effects and there is a public registry that will hopefully help assess cumulative effects to rivers such as the Bulkley and Skeena.

The Act recognizes constitutionally protected First Nations rights and requires consultation. It must also consider Indigenous knowledge and expertise although protects that knowledge from public release without explicit permission.

For many of us across the Northwest, we’re all too aware of troubled fish stocks. Over 25 years ago the cod collapsed on the east coast and yet there’s still no rebuilding plan in place to attempt to return them to healthy populations. The new proposed Fisheries Act includes provisions for rebuilding although regulations will be important to accompany the law as well as implementation so fish don’t end up in the critical zone.

Minister LeBlanc also announced new funding when tabling the Act that is key for enforcement, planning and restoration. We need more boots on the ground and those with local and regional knowledge.

There are some things missing from the new Act (including climate change references and transparent decision-making), and some things that need follow-up (in terms of strong regulations, policies and programs to support legal references). It also doesn’t deal with fish farms on our coast.

In general, this new Fisheries Act should move Canada back to the forefront of protecting our rivers and coasts and fish for generations to come. It will hopefully provide an opportunity to ensure that our children — wherever they fish — can experience what it is like to reel in a “big one” and help us return to stories of abundance.

Nikki Skuce is director of Northern Confluence Initiative in Smithers.