Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to lead off the debate today on Bill C-45, An Act respecting the sustainable development of Canada's sea coast and inland fisheries.
It is no exaggeration to say that the provisions of the bill represent some of the most sweeping changes made to the Fisheries Act since its inception well over a century ago.
Some of the decisions we will be making about the bill in the weeks and months to come will affect both our aquatic ecosystems and the future of tens of thousands of fellow Canadians in the decades to come.
With such an important piece of legislation before us, I hope my colleagues will indulge me a little if I take a step back and start by looking at the big picture of the fishery in Canada and, in so doing, putting it in context with the measures we are proposing.
Most Canadians know, either intuitively or through first-hand experience, of the importance of the fishery to the social and economic well-being of our nation. Most will know that we are the second largest country in the world, one of the foremost maritime nations on the planet and that we boast the world's longest coastline and the largest freshwater system.
Perhaps fewer know that we have the largest offshore economic zone, a zone equivalent to 37% of our total land mass. With such a maritime geography, it is no wonder our national fishery and aquaculture industries remain key to our economy. They provide over 100,000 direct jobs and substantial spinoff employment. More than $4.2 billion in fish products are exported every year. An estimated four million recreational fishers inject about $7 billion annually into the economy.
Since many Canadians live either on a coast or near freshwater, it is probably fair to say that most of us have or know someone who has some connection to the recreational or commercial fishery.
It is with great pride and pleasure that I stand before the House today with a very substantial piece of legislation in hand, legislation that cannot help but improve the state of the fishery and the lives of those who work in it.
I said at the outset that that enactment of the legislative proposals contained in the bill would make for the most fundamental, most sweeping changes to the Fisheries Act since it was first made law in 1868.
Although it has been subject to numerous reviews, the act has only been revised on a piecemeal basis over the years. Those changes tended to patch up holes for a while but we are in a new century and we need modern tools for a modern era.
Fisheries management is now a far more complex challenge and patchwork solutions will no longer do the job. The long and short of it is that the current act no longer responds to the evolving needs of the resource, nor does it reflect the expectations of those who fish the resource or of Canadians in general.
In our opinion, the act needs a complete modernization, which is exactly what Bill C-45 represents.
Before I get into some of the specifics of the legislation, I would like to acknowledge the hard work and input of our parliamentary oversight bodies on this file, the standing committees from both Houses and, of course, the Standing Joint Committee for the Scrutiny of Regulations. From licensing issues to aquatic invasive species and sanctions, three among many issues that these committees have identified as needing legislative action, committee members should quite rightly take great satisfaction in seeing some of their key concerns being addressed in the bill.
Bill C-45 follows on extensive cross country consultations and discussions over the past several years with all provinces and territories, as well as fishing interests, aboriginal groups and stakeholder groups. Through several processes, we have gained support for the broad principles of the bill from fishing stakeholders.
There is no doubt that we are asking a lot of the bill. We are seeking no less than to modernize the management of Canada's fishing industry, to enshrine conservation measures that safeguard the aquatic ecosystems and preserve our proud tradition of fishing on which tens of thousands of licensed fishermen depend, not to mention the survival of those who work in the spinoff jobs that the fishery provides. In the process, we want the new legislation to provide a framework that provides greater stability, transparency and predictability in all aspects of fisheries managements. It is a tall order for a single piece of legislation.
It is always a difficult proposition finding exactly the right balance between competing interests, but it is our job, frankly, to find that balance, one that does not compromise fundamental principles of good stewardship or good economics. I do not believe the two to be mutually exclusive. I think Bill C-45 walks that fine line quite nicely.
For the purposes of our discussion today, we cannot possibly do more than touch the surface of legislation that has over 250 sections. However, it is helpful to note that the current act does not provide direction or guidance to the minister or to DFO on the goals, objectives and management principles that should be the basis of fisheries and fish habitat management. It is that lack of direction and goals that we are correcting in Bill C-45.
The new version includes a preamble, a purpose clause and management principles that do define important values and objectives for fishing and conservation. They speak to such issues as stakeholder and public input in decisions that affect our fisheries; the fostering of cooperation with the provinces; the conservation and protection of fish habitat and its importance; the application of effective deterrents to illegal fishing; the economic viability of the resource and the industry; and managing consistent with existing aboriginal and treaty rights. Those are the major guidelines upon which those 250 sections are subsequently based.
I will start with the matter of accountability. There is no doubt that the system needs to be more open and more accountable. Consequently, we have removed from the act the absolute discretion of the minister but that does not mean the minister is no longer responsible for running the fishery. He or she will remain in charge of making the overall policy decisions and many other decisions. However, the new law says that ministers must answer for their actions and explain why decisions were taken. That is significant because it finally eliminates the perception that ministers can make allocation decisions based solely on politics.
I have heard my colleague, the member for Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, call on the minister to end the perceived political interference in the system. Bill C-45 would do exactly that.
In addition to wanting more transparent decisions, one of the things fishing groups tell us all the time is that they want the chance to formally sit down with DFO on a more regular basis. It does make sense that local stakeholders would want to take on some responsibility, authority and accountability of their own. The act would strengthen shared stewardship through fisheries management agreements, a very important provision in this new act. It would increase the influence of fishers over matters that affect their livelihood, which is where the establishment of advisory panels will prove useful. As well, members of the public would be given a more active role so that the process of making the rules is more transparent.
The legislation now recognizes in law the existing high level of intergovernmental collaboration by allowing the federal government to sign agreements with provinces and territories to set joint goals and coordinate policies and programs. It formally authorizes governor in council to delegate the appropriate fisheries management powers to a province or territory.
In our opinion, this too makes sense. Our regional counterparts have close ties to the communities and, in several cases, administer freshwater fisheries for us. Of course, jurisdictionally the provinces already play a role in managing the processing sector and aquaculture. It is clearly advantageous that we share information and harmonize our programs where possible.
The new act would create the ability for provincial regulations that protect fish habitat to be deemed equivalent to federal regulations in cases where they meet or beat the national standard. This would eliminate unnecessary duplication of regulation across levels of government and allow the department to focus its resources on projects that pose a higher risk to fish habitat.
I am very pleased to confirm that provincial and territorial governments are openly supportive of the act's overarching principles and proposed concepts. In fact, they unanimously showed their support for new legislation in the final communiqué of the Canadian Council of Fisheries and Aquaculture ministers in their meetings last October.
I do not think it is an overstatement to say that at the heart and soul of the proposed new Fisheries Act are the provisions that will safeguard our aquatic ecosystems.
If we do not succeed in that endeavour, then all other considerations fall by the wayside. They provide the key proactive measures to conserve and protect fish and fish habitat.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it is in the area of habitat protection where we find the most polarized views on the part of stakeholder groups. Environmental organizations, on the one hand, clearly and quite rightly, have concerns about any weakening of the protection offered by the act in its current form. Industry stakeholders, on the other hand, are looking for increased transparency, predictability and efficiency in decision making.
I must say something that is very important. The proposed legislation does not look to change the fundamental elements of the habitat protection provisions. It does seek, however, to make modest changes that would make the administration of these sections more effective in the conservation and protection of fish habitat and more efficient in its application.
A weakness in the current act is that it treats fish habitat protection and pollution prevention as issues separate from fisheries management.
Habitat protection in the new act becomes an integral element of proper fisheries management. This one item alone is probably the single most fundamental change to the current way of doing things. Under the new act, impacts to fish habitat must be considered prior to allocation decisions or issuance of licences. The minister's authority and duty to do this is stated explicitly in this legislation.
The new law would also extend the scope of inspectors' powers to cover any project that could be harmful to fish habitat, in addition to those dealing with the release of deleterious substances, as is now the case.
Inspectors will work with the public to help them better understand the provisions of this act but they will also be able to confirm that conditions of habitat authorizations are being met and, where necessary, give directions to remedy harm to fish habitat. Most important, these new inspector powers will support efforts to monitor the effectiveness of habitat regulatory requirements and allow the department to adapt its requirements based on what it learns.
Of course, fisheries officers will continue to support the habitat program by conducting high risk enforcement activities and supporting prosecutions where necessary.
Those are some of the changes the government is proposing to improve the effectiveness of the habitat protection provisions.
Members will recall that earlier I mentioned that we would allow provincial regulations to be used where they meet or exceed federal ones. However, the legislation, quite rightly, allows us to reinstate federal regulations where provincial ones are not doing the job.
What is also new is the enshrining in law, for the first time, a precautionary approach to conserve aquatic resources and putting in place a science based ecosystem approach to fisheries management. That is very important.
Some other highlights include the provisions concerning aquatic invasive species. We only have to think of the sea lamprey in the Great Lakes to understand the incredible destruction that can be wrought by the wrong species invading the wrong habitat. Clause 69 would ensure, for the first time, that whenever aquatic invasive species are released, transported, imported or exported, such activities may be carried out only in accordance with regulations enacted by the governor in council.
Other new provisions would allow the minister or a designate to authorize the destruction of an invasive species in order to protect native habitats. The regulations would introduce a number of controls to manage invasive species in all Canadian waters.
There are many more features aimed at protecting our aquatic resources but the ones I just outlined should give members a flavour of the new act.
I would like to talk for a moment about enhancing competitiveness. Protecting the resource cannot help but improve the business of the fishery. Secured access and allocations to Canada's oldest industry are essential to the economic prosperity of fishing enterprises, fish processors and hundreds of coastal communities. Predictability is central to keeping the industry thriving and, by extension, those communities. Therein lines the problem.
Industry stakeholders see the current licensing and allocation process as unstable and unpredictable. Consequently, they find it hard to plan, raise capital or make rational business choices and that is why the legislation has specific provisions that improve the business operating environment of resource users. To that end, the new act would provide for stability, greater clarity and fairness.
The criteria and considerations for getting a licence for the first time will be sharply defined in the regulations resulting from the bill. The minister will make policy decisions for police. It will be the job of licence officers to issue licences to individuals based on these regulations.
We believe much peace of mind will be derived from the prospect of long term allocations, potentially up to 15 years, and will ease the burden of business uncertainty for fishing enterprises. It will permit them to plan ahead in greater confidence. Let me highlight that this move will benefit the individual fishers in the boat. Despite alarmist empty rhetoric to the contrary, which we will undoubtedly hear repeated by members in the days to come, this does not open the door to foreign countries to fish in Canadian waters. Let me say that again; this does not open the door for foreign countries to fish in Canadian waters.
In addition, the new act will provide the tools needed to sustainably manage the fisheries from oceans to plate with provincial partners and stakeholders. In effect, this will mean more value, more benefits and more support for Canada's rural coastal communities at a time of great need. On balance, those on the industry side will be very pleased with these changes to help them better plan and manage their activities.
Finally, all stakeholders want a better system to deal with rule breakers. Most involved in the fishing industries are committed to keeping the laws and regulations and are frustrated when they find some who are not and who are not dealt with in an effective way.
The current court based system is inefficient, ineffective and unwieldy. We need more clout to deal with people who step out of line. Currently the minister can only suspend or cancel a licence for breaches of licence conditions, not for breaches of regulations or general prohibitions of the act. All we can do is spend a lot of time and money dragging violators into court where fines are just about the only penalty.
The legislation envisages an arm's length Canada fisheries tribunal that would hear licence appeals and impose sanctions and financial penalties to licensed fishers in coastal fisheries. Minor violations would result in tickets and would only be heard by the tribunal if they were contested, just like a traffic ticket. The system would be fairer, more credible and more efficient. It would also be a more effective deterrent because some penalties would affect the ability of offenders to keep fishing, as well as hit their pocketbook. That is why a sanctions tribunal is so popular within the fishing community.
Other contraventions of the act, such as habitat destruction, infractions in inland fisheries managed by a province, and poaching would continue to be handled by the courts. I like the idea of using the penalty system to support conservation measures.
Before I conclude my remarks, I want to say a few words about aboriginal participation in the fisheries.
The proposed act affirms that Parliament recognizes the importance of the fisheries to many aboriginal communities. Aboriginal groups bring great knowledge and experience to modern fisheries management. The bill provides first nations and other aboriginal groups a more direct role in the management of their harvesting of fish. This would be done through such mechanisms as fisheries management agreements where details on involvement in management and the decision making process could be identified.
The proposed bill also provides for the consideration of traditional knowledge in decision making where such information is available to DFO. In addition, one of the guiding principles in the bill stipulates that those involved in the administration of the act must seek to manage fisheries and conserve and protect fish and fish habitat in a manner that is consistent with the constitutional protection provided for existing aboriginal and treaty rights.
As my allotted time is almost up, I will bring my remarks to a close. As the minister has said many times, his job is to sustainably manage our public fish and oceans resources on behalf of Canadians and for the maximum benefit of Canadians. He does not own the fish, nor does his department or the government as a whole. As Canadians we all own this common property resource and passage of this legislation will help us in this task.
This bill should pass through second reading quickly and move on to committee where it can be improved, if necessary. The time to act is now. The livelihood of too many Canadians rests on our decision to give thoughtful, but reasonably expeditious, passage to this legislation. I look forward to the House passing it.