Skip to content

Fisheries Act no longer protects fish & fish habitat

Fish Lake

A joint letter by Maude Barlow (Council of Canadians) and Mark Mattson (Lake Ontario Waterkeeper)

We’re writing to tell you that the Fisheries Act no longer protects fish.

The Fisheries Act was arguably the most important piece of anti-pollution legislation in Canada.  The Act’s purpose was to safeguard public interest by protecting public health and safety and ensuring environmental health and sustainability.

In 2012, the federal government introduced two omnibus budget bills that gutted the Fisheries Act. The bills removed protections from 99% of lakes and rivers under the former Navigable Water Protections Act and amended the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, effectively cancelling 3,000 Environmental Assessments. Access to information requests revealed that changes to the Fisheries Act were made following the advice of industry associations.

Despite widespread opposition from indigenous, environmental and labour groups as well as scientists and members of the public, we expect to see new rules finalized this spring.

You should care about these changes.

The most significant part of the old Fisheries Act was the part that said no one could deposit a deleterious substance into water frequented by fish.

New rules, drafted behind closed doors with no public consultation, strip the legislation of its teeth by proposing exemptions to the above-mentioned provision.  Exemptions would be made for broad categories of activities:

  • Pesticide use for fish farming;

  • Undefined “aquatic research”; and

  • Activities supervised by other provincial or federal bodies.

The new rules allow the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans to authorize deposits of deleterious substances if the “whole of the deposit is not acutely lethal to fish.”  The regulation defines “acutely lethal” as a deposit that kills more than 50% of fish at 100% concentration over a 96 hour period. This threshold does not take into account that sometimes the most damaging pollution is slow and chronic.

The new rules allow for more pollution in Canadian waters than ever before.

You should expect to see an increase in major resource development projects with less consideration for environmental impacts. Law firm, Osler, states that these changes by the federal government will “provide for a significant shift in the regulatory regime for managing water quality in Canada.”

These changes to the Fisheries Act are just another step in removing the public’s right to clean water, a right we have both championed our entire careers.

These regulations violate public trust principles which hold that governments must protect natural resources for current and future generations. The United Nations has recognized the human right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation and governments must ensure its implementation. These regulations further call into question Canada’s ability to uphold this fundamental human right. With the federal government’s clawback of environmental regulation, there is more reason than ever for individuals and communities to take action to protect their watersheds.

The Fisheries Act can still be saved. Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Hon. Gail Shea, still has the ability to reject the new rule for the sake of our swimmable, drinkable, fishable waters. We await her decision.

On World Water Day, the Council of Canadians sent a letter to Prime Minister hopefuls Justin Trudeau of the Liberal Party of Canada and Thomas Mulcair of the New Democratic Party of Canada asking them to rollback the changes the Harper government made to environmental legislation and recommit funds needed for water research. The Council gave the Prime Minister hopefuls until Earth Day, April 22, to respond. It is critical to know how Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Mulcair plan to address the clawback of our fresh water protections and so we urge you to do the same.


Maude Barlow and Mark Mattson

Rick Lindgren, CELA
Lake Ontario Waterkeeper