WITH the recent passage of the federal Conservatives' omnibus budget bill, North Shore conservationists say they are mourning the loss of some of their most valued federal environmental legislation.
The government, however, maintains their worries are misplaced.
Bill C-38, which survived a marathon attempt at derailment by opposition parties earlier this month, contained amendments to dozens of federal laws, many of which centre around the Fisheries Act. Those changes, according to environmental groups, have weakened protection of fish habitat, most importantly by altering the rules around environmental reviews. Under the new law, reviews are no longer necessary for projects near waterways that don't contain species involved in commercial, aboriginal or recreational fisheries - or species that support those fish.
"That, in a nutshell, is just really unacceptable to stewardship people," said John Barker, co-ordinator of West Vancouver Streamkeepers. "I support the idea of streamlining, but I don't support the idea of weakening habitat protection provisions of the act. That's very distressing."
Barker said he couldn't speculate how West Vancouver streams, specifically, could be threatened by the legislation because he is not aware of any applications for major projects nearby, but he worries habitat in other areas could be badly damaged as a result.
The bill brought even stronger condemnation from the David Suzuki Foundation.
"This is absolutely terrible," said John Werring, an aquatic habitat specialist for the advocacy group.
Bill C-38 is particularly frustrating for scientists who feel they have been shut out in favour of businesses, he said.
"Big industry wins big time on this, but the other people that use the resources aren't being consulted, and they're ignoring their scientists who are saying: 'Don't go down this road,'" Werring said. "Because there is no trigger anymore, there is no process, and it saves (businesses) a lot of time and a lot of money.
"It puts us in the dark. We have no idea what the implications of these projects will be from an environmental standpoint down the road, nor will we ever have any idea what the cumulative impacts might be."
But Ottawa has insisted the legislation does not erode protection for fish; rather, it simply streamlines the environmental approval process.
Canadians need to look at Fisheries Act changes in the broader context of balancing environmental concerns with a shaky economy, said John Weston, Conservative MP for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country.
"I am committed to a government that reflects the need to keep our economic momentum going on the one hand, and to keep our precious environment and fisheries preserved for future generations on the other," Weston said.
Instead of "gutting" the act as critics like to say, the changes will simply mean a re-focusing of government priorities off of "all ditches and all culverts on every piece of farmland across Canada," Weston said. "Anything can be described as habitat now. Instead, it will focus on important habitat like migratory streams in British Columbia and fish-bearing habitat that we really want to focus on."
Barker, for his part, said Weston had worked closely with his group in the lead-up to the bill's passage, and that the MP had taken streamkeeper concerns directly to Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield and the Prime Minster, but that in the end, that hadn't been enough.
"(Weston) has been really attentive to the concerns of the stewardship groups and taking our concerns forward sincerely," Barker said. "(But) the reality is, they voted forward this omnibus bill, and with it comes the sadness that the existing Fisheries Act has lost some key provisions."
Further consultations about fisheries regulations are scheduled for this summer, Weston said, and he plans "systematically and energetically" to keep working with local environmentalists through the process.