Mr. Speaker, certainly it is an honour to rise in a debate on the fishery at any time in the House. I am more than pleased to rise on debate today.
I have listened closely to the comments from my hon. colleagues. It has been quite a wide-ranging debate. I would like to bring it back to the motion, which is:
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2) and the motion agreed to by the Committee on May 16, 2006, the Committee has studied small crafts harbours and recommends that the government consider the advisability of raising the current budget of $86.6 M contained in the 2006-2007 budget by $15 M for the fiscal year 2007-2008.
All of the subjects aside, all of the issues that are confronting the fishery, all of them are important, but it is also important to speak to the motion as it has been spoken to by some of the other members. Some members have got slightly off-track of the original motion.
First and most important, we are supporting the motion. There is not a disagreement or debate in the House, really. We are supporting the motion. We support the motion as it is presented to the House. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Fisheries has said that and several other members have said that. We will be supporting the motion.
I do not think I am overstating the matter when I say that all members of the House recognize the importance of the small craft harbours program, certainly those familiar with the ocean and with the fishery and those of us who represent coastal ridings. The small craft harbours program is an essential service for the commercial fishing communities in Canada. As well, it helps sustain the many coastal and inland communities served by the program.
As a member of this House and a member of the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, I am a strong advocate for the program. More important, I recognize the significant contribution small craft harbours make to the 1,200 communities they serve in almost all the provinces and territories in Canada.
While the program is primarily intended to support the local fishing communities, these harbours perform a much broader function. They often provide a vital transportation link to adjacent communities or major hub communities. In some cases they are the only link. They are frequently the centre for community social activities or services centred for other economic pursuits, such as tourism, transport and other marine based industries. These services are very often critical to the welfare of our coastal communities. They can also serve to attract other businesses to the area. In short, small craft harbours are of great value to the many and varied clients they serve. The government is among the first to recognize their importance.
Having said that, I know that the current conditions of some core fishing harbours are not as good as we would like to see them. Reports indicate that about 21% of the facilities at these harbours are in poor condition. The overall network of small craft harbours is aging and increasingly in need of maintenance and repairs.
The program, with more than 1,200 harbours, maintains assets with a replacement cost of over $2 billion for the core fishing harbours alone. These assets require constant maintenance and repairs. They are aging or are subject to normal wear and tear, let alone storm related damage as was mentioned several times by several of the speakers.
Because of the limited budget, the small craft harbours program has had to very carefully assess on a constant basis its most pressing and critical core harbour repair needs. The priority has been safety and making sure that the basic harbour operations are maintained, or impacted as little as possible.
The program has managed so far to risk mitigation measures to avoid having to close any core harbours, but the level of services has diminished. I say that very clearly. Many of the members who spoke to this motion were members of the former government. Quite frankly, we have been in government for less than four months, just barely four months. It is quite a responsibility to suddenly have all of the problems of the last 13 years.
The fact is there had been a government in place that ignored small craft harbours. It ignored rural and coastal Canada and did very little to mitigate the damages and the wear and tear the harbours were subjected to. All of a sudden, members of the former government are standing and saying that there is a crisis. Where were they when the crisis was upon them?
We now have a government that is prepared to approve this motion, to work with fishermen, to work with coastal communities in a responsible and measured way. Apparently that is not enough. I would ask, what is enough?
Since the late 1980s the management and operation of core fishing harbours has been assumed by local harbour authorities. Harbour authorities are not for profit corporations. They represent harbour users and other local stakeholders. With about 5,000 volunteers these organizations have enabled the program to devote more scarce resources to the maintenance of assets while improving service to the harbour clients. Mainly, harbour clients are fishermen.
These harbour authorities have taken on great responsibility. Quite frankly many are now beginning to suffer fatigue and burn out largely because of the deteriorating conditions of their harbours. They need our support to continue. Improving harbour conditions will go a long way to relieve them of some of the burden. It is a very heavy burden that these harbour authorities carry. They do not have the funding. It was never put in place under the previous government. They do not have the access to resources.
There is a responsibility for government but government has to take a major and responsible approach to that responsibility. We just cannot suddenly declare tomorrow that we are going to satisfy all the ills of 13 years of neglect of the harbours.
These are not the only pressures facing the small craft harbours program. Indeed there are many others. As our fisheries and fishing industry in Canada continue to evolve, so too do the needs of the program's clients. The numbers and sizes especially of the vessels are changing. Fishing activity and patterns are shifting geographically and in other ways. More first nations communities are participating in commercial fishing. Aquaculture activity continues to expand and locate in new areas. Add to this the use of small craft harbours by non-fishing vessels. It is easy to see why many of our harbours are congested. This in turn leads to a reduction in the quality of services that users expect and contributes to deteriorating conditions at over-subscribed facilities.
Fifteen years ago the beams of the vessels were much narrower than they are today. Three vessels could actually be tied side by side. We could tie them abreast of one another at the wharf. Today two vessels can be tied side by side at the wharf because the beams have increased in size by that much. They are that much wider. The boats themselves have changed and the demands have changed with them. This in turn leads to a reduction in the quality of services that users expect and it contributes to deteriorating conditions again at over-subscribed facilities.
The program will have to invest in new capacity to address the new demands and reduce this congestion. As well, existing locally operated commercial fishing harbours outside of the program are seeking federal assistance to repair their deteriorating facilities.
In addition, Nunavut Territory, where no federal small craft harbours presently exist, has requested financial assistance to establish a number of community harbours to support the growing fishing industry. This translates into a demand for resources the program simply does not have at this time.
It was in the mid-1990s that the government began to focus its efforts exclusively on core commercial fishing harbours. This resulted in the divestiture of some 1,300 non-essential harbours. About 347 remain to be divested. Their early divestiture would provide financial relief to the program's ongoing budget. However, again because of limited resources available to maintain the core commercial fishing harbours, little funding has been set aside for these divestitures.
As a consequence, the previous pace of divestitures which was financed by now expired special funding has slowed considerably. This means that many harbours which should be in the hands of the community remain in poor condition with only the very basic repairs afforded by the program.
This delay has frustrated some communities waiting to assume these harbours and to see repairs made. What they want is simply a functional, safe and accessible harbour and wharfage.
Moreover, as the pace of divestiture slows, conditions at these harbours continue to deteriorate resulting in additional downstream costs to the program. The costs are escalating, the conditions of the wharves are deteriorating and government is in a very precarious position with only so much money at its request.
Our government will do its very best to explore all the options to deal with these pressures. However, DFO faces a number of other pressures and priorities, in addition to the small craft harbours program. We are truly committed to examining all possibilities. We are willing to work with other departments, various levels of government and the community at large to ensure we can continue to serve the many hundreds of fishing communities that depend upon the services of DFO.
This government supports the small craft harbours program, the vital core services it provides and the Canadians it serves. I would hope that we can all count on the support and the constructive input of this House because we need constructive input to save the small craft harbours program and our commercial fishery, quite frankly, because a lot of pressures are facing the commercial fisheries. The wharfage issue is only one of them.
In that way, our coastal and inland fishing communities can receive the infrastructure support they need to ensure their livelihoods and the quality of life that they rightly deserve.
The government is supportive of the motion and would like to see additional permanent increases provided to the small craft harbours budget to meet all its key program requirements and respond to the most essential of the clients' needs.
I do think this is a fairly complicated issue, one that really does not benefit from the use of partisan positions and rhetoric and one in which our government has taken a leadership role in a very short period of time.