God is not a Fish Inspector

Commentary, Natural Resources, Robert Sopuck

Manitoba writer W.D. Valgardson wrote a book of short stories about his family, Lake Winnipeg commercial fishermen. It recounts in poignant detail the village life of bygone days. The title story recounts the give and take between a kindly fisheries officer and an old, retired commercial fisherman who set illegal nets to feed his family. What the old fellow kept muttering as he pulled up his nets gave Valgardson his title: “God Is Not A Fish Inspector.”

Today the tables are turned and it is the fish inspectors who are trying to play God. In 1999, the federal government, through Fisheries and Oceans Canada (FOC), took fish habitat protection away from the Provinces. To do it, they used Section 35 (1) of the federal Fisheries Act, arguably the most powerful piece of environmental legislation in Canada. That section makes it illegal to destroy fish habitat. That sounds good, until you consider its ramifications in practice.

The Act says, “Fish habitat means spawning grounds and nursery, rearing, food supply and migration areas on which fish depend directly or indirectly [my emphasis] in order to carry out their life processes:” Furthermore, Section 35.(1) says:

“No person shall carry on any work that results in harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat.”

Communications documents developed by FOC note that “The Act also states that no one is permitted to deposit a deleterious substance into water containing fish.”

This program, explored in the most recent Frontier Centre paper, The Federalization of Prairie Freshwaters (see www.fcpp.org), introduces more uncertainty into the development process, especially for rural communities. It is now unclear as to what, if any, jurisdiction the Provinces or local communities have over natural resource development, since the definition of fish habitat now includes entire watersheds and extends the reach of the federal government into unfamiliar areas such as watershed planning.

Under the program, all fish habitat is considered “important” which removes any regulatory discretion. Our lack of knowledge about Prairie fish populations makes implementation of the program very difficult. So if there are three scrawny pike in a pool, they take precedence over you.

FOC does not consider the costs of its regulatory program to Manitoba. Staff in the provincial government estimate that the costs of maintaining or creating drainage infrastructure will increase by 25-30% in order to comply with the new fisheries enforcement efforts. At Netley Creek the Province was required to build two new channels around the existing creek, because FOC would not let the “natural” watercourse be disturbed. What happens when these new channels silt in? Will the Province be required to build two more around the now three channels? Think about this as you are waiting for health care services.

This is but one example. A municipal staff person notes that the FOC program adds a whole new layer of uncertainty to development projects. One can only imagine what kind of economic disasters may befall communities, as much-needed infrastructure projects are delayed or placed out of reach.

It is up to those communities to fulfill the terms, regardless of cost. Not only that, the new FOC program is layered on top of other regulations like the proposed Species at Risk Act, the new animal cruelty provisions in the Criminal Code, and the odious Firearms Act. The regulatory burden is therefore increasing exponentially. The FOC program may well place other environmental and stewardship programs at risk as even they will be put through this “fish screen.”

The ultimate problem relates to the “stovepipe” organization of governments. The FOC bureaucrats say their job is to enforce the Act, not promote community well-being. It’s clearly fish before people with this department. And rural communities will pay the price.

Seems like God is a fish inspector after all.