Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to speak to Bill C-68, an act to amend the Fisheries Act and other acts in consequence. Today, we are debating the Senate amendments to the bill, as was just mentioned. I initially spoke to this bill at report stage almost exactly one year ago today. I will be covering some of the same ground as I did then, but today I want to spend a little more time speaking in general terms about fisheries conservation.
Although I grew up in the Okanagan Valley far from the coast, my family has a 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. He was also an amateur fisheries biologist and historian. W.A. Munn not only researched the Viking sagas but was the first to suggest that Vineland was located on the northern peninsula of Newfoundland, which was subsequently vindicated by the findings at L'Anse aux Meadows. He wrote the first detailed account of the annual migration of codfish in the Newfoundland waters in 1922. I found that out when I was reading the assessment report on northern cod when it was declared endangered. It was cited in the report.
I will mention in passing that I am wearing my Memorial University tie this morning to honour that part of my heritage and history. I thank Bill Kavanagh for that.
Although I grew up in the interior, like most kids of that era, I grew up fishing, in my case, catching small rainbow trout in a small creek near our house. I knew the importance of cool waters and deep pools in a stream shaded from the summer sun, good fish habitat in my part of the country.
The Fisheries Act has long been the strongest piece of legislation that protected habitat, terrestrial or aquatic, in Canada. I used to be a biologist in my past life. I spent a lot of time working on ecosystem health, endangered species recovery and time and again my colleagues would point out that the only legislation, federal or provincial, that effectively protected habitat outside parks was the federal Fisheries Act. This habitat protection was at the core of earlier versions of the Fisheries Act. Conservatives took out that protection in 2012 with Bill C-38, one of their omnibus budget bills.
The action resulted in a public outcry. Four former fisheries ministers, including one of my constituents, Tom Siddon, wrote an open letter to the government urging it to keep habitat protections in the act. I saw Tom last weekend at an event in my riding and I am happy to say that he is still standing up for the environment.
This act still is deficient in a few ways regarding habitat. For instance, while it talks about water in the rivers and lakes as fish habitat, it does not discuss the amount of that water, the flow. That is clearly a problem as water is obviously the most important ingredient in fish habitat. Those deep, cool pools I fished in are becoming shallower and warmer. Bill C-68 would empower the fisheries and oceans minister to make management orders prohibiting or limiting fishing to address a threat to the conservation and protection of fish. I am fully in favour of that 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 been placed on the Species at Risk Act schedules. A bird or mammal in trouble is generally added to those schedules as a matter of course, but fish are out of luck. This attitude must change.
I am happy to see the Senate amendment that includes shark-finning laws proposed by my colleague from Port Moody—Coquitlam over the years and Senator Mike MacDonald in the other place. I am very happy to see those private members' bills rolled into this new act in the Senate amendments.
I am also happy to see there is a provision in this act that would give the DFO more resources for enforcement. I hope that some of these resources can be used to rebuild the DFO staff that used to be found throughout the interior of B.C. to promote fish habitat restoration, rebuild fish stocks and watch what is happening on the ground. There are no DFO staff left at all in my riding in the Okanagan and Kootenay regions, despite the fact that there are numerous aquatic stewardship societies across the riding that used to have a great relationship with the DFO. Volunteer groups that are devoted to aquatic habitats in the Arrow Lakes, the Slocan Valley, Christina Lake, the Kettle River watershed, Osoyoos Lake and Vaseux Lake could all benefit through a renewal of those staffing levels.
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 problems and solutions and then work hard to make good things happen. That is the story of restoring salmon populations in the Okanagan. This story involves many players from both the United States and Canada but it is mainly a story of the Syilx people, the indigenous peoples of the Okanagan, who came together to bring salmon back to the valley.
Salmon, n’titxw, is one of the four food chiefs of the Syilx and central to their culture and trade traditions. In fact, that is true for many other first nations in the B.C. interior and Yukon, indigenous communities hundreds or thousands of kilometres from the ocean that rely on salmon, that have always relied on salmon and whose cultures are inextricably tied to salmon.
When I was a kid in the Okanagan, very few salmon came up the river from the Pacific. The Okanagan is part of the Columbia system, and those fish had to climb over 11 dams to get to the Okanagan River and back to their spawning grounds. Most of the Columbia salmon runs died out after huge dams like Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph were built and blocked its free flow. The Okanagan flows into the Columbia below Grand Coulee, so a handful of sockeye came back to the Okanagan every year.
However, after years of work by the Okanagan Nation Alliance and other groups, we often see runs of over 100,000 fish, occasionally 400,000 or more. The Okanagan River is once again red with sockeye in the autumn. In most years there is a successful sports fishery for sockeye in Osoyoos Lake.
The ONA has spearheaded significant restoration projects on the Okanagan River, restoring natural flows to small parts of the river and creating ideal spawning beds in others. They organize cultural ceremonies and salmon feasts that bring the broader communities together to celebrate the cycle of the salmon.
The ONA has grown to be one of the largest inland fisheries organizations in Canada with 45 full-time staff. Compare that to zero for the DFO in my area. It has its own state-of-the-art hatchery and fish virology lab.
To make a difference, to change our country and our communities for the better, we must have a vision for a better future. The Syilx vision includes healthy lakes and rivers filled with salmon, salmon that enrich the entire ecosystem and enrich the lives of everyone in the region. I share that vision. The vision includes restoring salmon not just to the entire Okanagan system, but to the upper Columbia River as well, reviving the salmon culture in the Kootenays.
That small creek I used to fish in as a kid now has more than rainbow trout. Every year a few chinook salmon, the big guys, make it into that creek after their epic trip up from the Pacific. That is beyond my wildest dreams.
If we take care of our lakes, our rivers and even the smallest creeks, we can keep this country healthy and beautiful. As the Syilx Okanagan song says, “We are beautiful because our land is beautiful.”
The bill before us could have been bolder and more effective, but it is a chance to take a small step towards that end, towards that vision.