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Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, shown here at an agriculture ministers meeting April 20, announced changes to the Fisheries Act Tuesday that would see the government streamline the environmental assessment process, including lifting restrictions for some waterways. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The federal government will no longer protect all waterways that may contain fish, under proposed changes to the federal Fisheries Act.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said Tuesday that the new law will protect only water that contains fish used for commercial, recreational or aboriginal fisheries.  

The changes are  part of the government's plans to streamline the environmental assessment process for everything from dams and bridges to big energy projects.

Ritz told reporters on a conference call that farmers and landowners have been pushing for changes to the Fisheries Act for years because it's too restrictive.

"We have heard from Canadians across the country that the current rules protecting fish and fish habitat go well beyond their intended conservation goals, bordering sometimes on the bizarre," he said.  

Ritz says there are lots of examples of the current Fisheries Act preventing activities like "farmers flushing out their irrigation canals... or cottagers prohibited from keeping up their properties."  

He says the proposed new law "will adopt a common sense approach to managing real and significant threats to fisheries and the habitat that supports them while minimizing the restrictions on everyday activities that have little to no impact."  

As for waterways like small streams or wetlands that have no commercial fisheries, Ritz hinted the job of protecting them could be downloaded to provinces and territories.   

Need for new law questioned

The Conservative government is being criticized for proposed changes announced last week to speed up and streamline environmental assessments.  

Recent leaked documents suggested it also planned to gut the Fisheries Act by removing an existing section that prohibits any activity that harms fish "habitat."

That section triggers the need to hold environmental hearings into any project that affects water that could contain fish: projects like resource developments and pipelines.  

'It's clearly part of a larger plan to dismantle Canada's environmental laws'—Environmental lawyer Lara Tessaro

Ritz pointed out the word "habitat" is still in the new law and his government is committed to maintaining "appropriate and reasonable protection."  

But environmental lawyer Lara Tessaro says there is no need for a whole new law.  

"If the Fisheries Act goes too far the government can simply change how it's applied," Tessaro said in an interview from  Vancouver.  

Tessaro, who's an expert in marine protection with the environmental group Ecojustice, says drawing up a new Fisheries Act is an attempt to weaken environmental protection.  

"It's clearly part of a larger plan to dismantle Canada's environmental laws," she said.  

She says it's ridiculous to protect some bodies of water and not others since all water "is fish-bearing in some way" or provides food and water flow for lakes and rivers that do contain fish.  

As for the crucial word  "habitat," she says details of the new  law are so vague it's hard to tell what that means.  

"It's good news for Canadians that habitat is not gutted from the Act, but it remains to be seen how the government will protect fish habitat."  

New 'special status fish'

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May expressed concern in a press release Tuesday that the federal government's protection of ecosystems is at risk with these changes.

"As the Fisheries Act reads now, any water inhabited by fish and any habitat used by fish require federal protection. Now the Minister has proposed a fundamental weakening of the Act by changing the meaning of the word 'fish,'" said May in the statement.

Instead of protecting all fish, the law would now only apply to fish of recreational, aboriginal or commercial importance, the Green party suggested, an approach that "has no meaning in an ecological sense."

The press release also expressed concern about changes "clearly designed to speed the growth of fossil fuel and other resource extraction" that remove the requirement for Fisheries Act authorization before any development that results in a loss of fish habitat if the fish are not the kind of "special status fish" specified as applicable under the Act.

A current policy of "no net loss" of fish habitat is also under review, noted the Green party release.

The government plans to roll out its new Fisheries Act sometime this spring, followed by several months of consultations with provinces and territories, as well as parliamentary hearings.

With files from CBC News