Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to speak tonight to Bill C-68, the new Fisheries Act. Although I grew up, and still live, far from the coast, my family has deep history in coastal fisheries. My mother's family, the Munns, once controlled the cod fishery of Labrador. My great uncle William Azariah Munn was what one might call a cod liver oil baron. Luckily, my mother hated the stuff so much that she did not force it on me and my siblings.
Getting back to the bill, the bill comes from a Liberal promise in the last election campaign when both the NDP and Liberals ran on platforms that included the repealing of Conservative legislation that gutted all of the environmental protections of federal legislation. We are very happy the Liberals have finally acted on this, although I am not sure why it took so long.
The bill would finally restore protection for all fish across Canada. When I say all fish, I would like to point out that under the previous Conservative legislation, all fish were not created equal. Only those fish that were part of a commercial or indigenous fishery were protected, and they were not protected as strongly as they were in the past. I am happy that some of our rarest and most vulnerable fish species, like the speckled dace of the Kettle River, are now protected in this manner once again.
In the past, the Fisheries Act was the strongest piece of legislation that actually protected habitat in Canada. As many here know, I was a biologist in my past life, and I spent a long time working on ecosystem recovery plans and species at risk. Time and again, my colleagues would point out that the only legislation, federal or provincial, that effectively protected habitat, was the Fisheries Act. As a biologist who worked on land, I was always a bit jealous of my fisheries colleagues since there was little or nothing that had the same power of protection for terrestrial habitats.
This habitat protection was at the core of earlier versions of the Fisheries Act. The Conservatives took this habitat protection out in 2012 through Bill C-38, one of their omnibus budget bills. This action resulted in a huge public outcry, and among the voices were four former fisheries ministers, including one of my constituents, Tom Siddon, a former Conservative fisheries minister. He wrote an open letter to the government, urging it to keep habitat protections in the act.
This new act is still deficient in a few ways regarding habitat. For instance, while it talks about the water in rivers and lakes as fish habitat, it does not discuss the amount of that water. That is clearly important. Increasingly, low water levels in our rivers and lakes are causing difficulties for fish. Many of our fish require good quantities of clean, cool water, and more and more often they are faced in late summer with low levels of warm water that can be lethal to fish, especially to salmonids.
This act also does not address the habitat conflict between wild salmon stocks and the practice of open-net salmon farms. We should be moving in an orderly fashion toward closed containment farms to isolate fish health issues caused by the farms that impact wild salmon stocks under the open-net regime.
Bill C-68 empowers the fisheries and oceans minister to make management orders prohibiting or limiting fishing to address a threat to the conservation and protection of fish. Of course, I am fully in favour of this power, but I wonder how often it would be used, despite the fact that it would likely be recommended on a regular basis by scientists.
Fish are consistently treated differently from terrestrial species in conservation actions. As an example, of all the fish species assessed as threatened or endangered in recent years by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, less than half have actually been placed on the Species at Risk Act schedules. If a terrestrial species is in trouble, it is generally added to the list as a matter of course. However, but if a fish is in trouble, it is out of luck. This attitude has to change.
As well, the bill would give a lot of discretion to the minister to make decisions based on opinion rather than on scientific evidence. This practice must be limited and only used in exceptional circumstances. I am always concerned when it is enshrined in legislation and seemingly encouraged, as it is here and in other recent legislation, such as Bill C-69 on environmental impact assessments.
I am happy there is a provision in this act to give the DFO more resources for enforcement. I hope some of those resources can be used to rebuild the DFO staff that used to be found throughout the British Columbia interior to promote fish habitat restoration and rebuilding fish stocks.
There are no DFO staff left at all in the Okanagan and Kootenay regions now, despite the fact that there are numerous aquatic stewardship societies across my riding that used to have a great relationship with DFO and its work, and which benefited from that work. Volunteer groups that are devoted to aquatic habitats on the Arrow Lakes, the Slocan Valley, Christina Lake, the Kettle River watershed, Osoyoos Lake, and Vaseux Lake would all benefit through a renewal of those staffing levels. They talk to me regularly about that, and that they miss that help.
I would like to close with a good-news story that shows what can happen when Canadians take fish conservation into their own hands, identify the problems and solutions, and then work hard to make good things happen. That story is the restoration of salmon populations in the Okanagan. This story involves many players and funding from the United States as well as Canada, but it is mainly a story of the Okanagan Nation Alliance, ONA, the first nations of the Okanagan, who came together to bring salmon back to the valley.
Salmon, or n’titxw, is one of the four food chiefs of the Okanagan peoples, and is central to their cultural and trade traditions. When I was a kid in the Okanagan, salmon were in very low numbers. The Okanagan is part of the Columbia system, and those fish had to climb over 11 dams to get back to the spawning grounds. Most of the Columbia River salmon runs died out, but a few sockeye came back to the Okanagan every year, though maybe a only a couple of thousand in some years. However, after years of work by the ONA and other groups, we often see runs of over 100,000 fish. The Okanagan River is once again red with sockeye in the autumn. The ONA has taken an ecosystem-collaborative restoration approach that combines cultural ceremonies and salmon feasts with technical restoration. They work collaboratively with provincial and federal authorities, and everyone in the region has benefited, with recreational fishery openings, an increase in licence revenues, and local salmon to the public. I enjoy the sockeye out of Osoyoos Lake every year now.
This approach has enabled the ONA to grow to one of the largest inland first nations fisheries organizations in Canada. It has 45 full-time staff, which is probably 10 times the staffing level of DFO in the interior of B.C. It has its own hatchery, biology lab, habitat restoration course, and courses that are even taken by DFO staff.
However, even though they have been working collaboratively with DFO, they have still identified some serious issues to me.
First, there is a need for a harvest sharing agreement between Canada and the U.S. There is no agreement in place to ensure minimum food fishery requirements for first nations, and there is no other place in the Pacific region where there is up to 150,000 salmon harvested between Canada and the U.S. that does not have such an agreement in place.
Second, ONA has asked for support for the Columbia River Treaty renewal and the importance of Canadian salmon. Okanagan salmon are the only Columbia River salmon returning to Canada, and they are directly affected by how Canada stores water in its treaty dams.
Third, it points out the need for support for ONA's salmon restoration in the upper Columbia, which is in the Kootenay region. There are no salmon there now. ONA submitted a proposal to DFO and asked the minister back in September 2017, but it has received no response.
Fourth, the ONA regrets to see the overall exclusion of first nations at the Columbia River Treaty table, which is something that is very important to them.
To conclude, we will be supporting Bill C-68, but there is clearly still a lot of work to be done to protect our fish and our fisheries.