The Fisheries Act and swimmable water?

In 1857 how Canadians treated fish and fish habitat became subject to government legislation, known as the Fisheries Act. The Fisheries Act addressed three main things: the control of fishing activity, the protection and conservation of fish, and the protection of fish habitat, which included prevention of pollution and destruction of fish habitat. Also of note, government agents from the Department of Crown Lands took on the role of enforcers of the Fisheries Act laws. Local or private agents were no longer the authority of sea-coast or inland fisheries.

Canada’s federal government has held exclusive jurisdiction over the protection of fish and fish habitat in marine and freshwater fisheries since the 1867 Constitution Act. In the same year the Department of Marine and Fisheries was called into existence.

You may be asking yourself, what does a 150 year-old piece of legislation, influenced by Magna Carta, and implemented during the time of the fur trade, and the Dominion, and called the FISHERIES ACT, no less, have to do with swimming?

The short answer is “everything.”

Photo by Jenn Mitchell

How does the Fisheries Act impact where I swim?

The power of the Fisheries Act to protect swimmable, drinkable, fishable water goes back to one of the first lessons I learned as Swim Guide program manager: water quality standards that sustain life are the same ones that protect us from getting sick when we touch the water. If fish, and the ecosystems that sustain them, are thriving, you know you’ve got a healthy, protected place to swim, paddle, surf, dive, and, of course, fish.

Up until 2012, the Fisheries Act was the strongest anti-pollution legislation in Canada. The Fisheries Act was also the only piece of federal legislation that protected swimmable, drinkable, fishable water. Moreover, baked into the Fisheries Act was the protection of public health. By default, the protection afforded to fish and fish habitat in the Act, and the criminal laws that prevented pollution and destruction of habitat, benefitted everything and everyone swimming, drinking, and fishing in Canada.

2012: Gutted

In 2012 the Fisheries Act was flipped on its head. Rather than protecting fish and fish habitat by making it criminal to destroy fish and fish habitat, and deposit deleterious substances into waters frequented by fish, the changes to the Fisheries Act enabled pollution and destruction. Virtually all protection of fish habitat was lost when the Act’s habitat protection provisions in Section 35 were changed, from this:

No person shall carry on any work or undertaking that results in the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat.

To this:

No person shall carry on any work, undertaking or activity that results in serious harm to fish that are part of a commercial, recreational or Aboriginal fishery, or to fish that support such a fishery.

Photo by Sookie

Let’s talk (Swim Drink) Fish habitat

The Government of Canada is reviewing the 2012 changes to the Fisheries Act to ensure the protection measures for fish and their habitat are the right ones.

Comments are accepted until November 25th, 2016.

Have your say. How does the loss of the strongest, oldest, and only regulation protecting swimmable, drinkable, fishable water affect you? The laws that protect fish and fish habitat are the same laws that protect swimmable water. If fish and fish habitat are not protected, neither are your favourite places to swim protected from pollution and destruction.

Remember, it’s not just about fish.

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