Four former federal fisheries ministers are questioning the government's motives behind the inclusion of environmental protection changes to the Fisheries Act in the Budget Implementation Act.

Mulroney-era Conservatives Tom Siddon and John Fraser, and Liberals Herb Dhaliwal and David Anderson, who both served under Jean Chretien, say in an open letter they don't believe federal ministers have given plausible explanations for why so much environmental legislation has been included in a money bill.

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Four former fisheries ministers have sent an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, questioning his government's decision to include major changes to the Fisheries Act in the omnibus budget bill. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"Quite frankly, Canadians are entitled to know whether these changes were written, or insisted upon, by the minister of fisheries or by interest groups outside the government. If the latter is true, exactly who are they?" ask the four in an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The letter calls on Harper to have the Fisheries Act provisions reviewed by the parliamentary fisheries committee and not a sub-committee of finance.

"We find it troubling that the government is proposing to amend the Fisheries Act via omnibus budget legislation in a manner that we believe will inevitably reduce and weaken the habitat protection provisions," the four former ministers write.

The environmental changes will receive just four days of committee hearings, not including a surprise appearance by three ministers 10 days ago.

Bill C-38 — the Budget Implementation Act — includes changes to seven environmental statutes. Among the alterations are a complete re-write of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and a major shift in direction in the Fisheries Act. The new Fisheries Act will no longer protect fish habitat but will instead focus on the protection of economically viable fisheries.

The government doesn't agree the process is being rushed.

"We consult regularly with Canadians. We've heard from farmers. We've heard from the fisheries, whether it be commercial, aboriginal or recreational fishery folk," Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield explained to the CBC.

Changes aimed at red tape, government says

The main explanation the government offers for the Fisheries Act changes is that farmers will no longer have to navigate a sea of red tape to clear out drainage ditches or alter what they consider insignificant bodies of water.

'A fish is a fish no matter how small'—Mike Yee, Rideau Valley Conservation Authority

"We believe it's an opportunity for us to make the changes that Canadians want us to make. We want to come out with a more common sense approach to managing the fishery," adds Ashfield.

The law, as it's written now, protects all bodies of water with fish in them regardless of size or whether they are natural or man-made. In the new act, it's unclear what will happen to smaller streams.

That lack of clarity worries some fisheries scientists.

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Mike Yee, manager of biology and water quality for the Ottawa-area Rideau Valley Conservation Authority, points to Mud Creek, which he fears may not be protected under proposed changes to the Fisheries Act. (CBC)

"It's hard to know exactly what that (changes in the act) is going to mean. The things that are more ditch-like, they may not have any protection," worried Mike Yee as he stood on the banks of Mud Creek in Manotick, Ont. just outside Ottawa. Yee is the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority's manager of biology and water quality.

Mud Creek is a small natural waterway that flows into the Rideau River but it is classified as a municipal drain. Much of the water that flows into it comes from drainage ditches emptying farm fields. Despite its unflattering classification, Mud Creek supports an abundant population of small fish.

"A fish is a fish no matter how small. So if we can better protect that, we know that further down, we're not going to have greater impacts," said Yee.

He compared Mud Creek and its tiny tributaries to a hand in explaining how the health of bigger bodies of water depends on the small ones.

"You've got main arteries and main veins. If you start to take away the smaller blood vessels, you start to lose functionality. Your hand will not work as well."

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Farmer Dwight Foster says the current legislation creates long delays in dealing with drainage ditches on his property. (CBC)

Dwight Foster couldn't care less about the minnows in his ditches. The Rideau Valley farmer is more interested in feeding Canadians. He can't do that if his trenches are full of weeds backing water up and flooding his fields.

The Fisheries Act changes will make for fewer bureaucratic delays.

"If we want this drain cleaned," explained Foster as he pointed to a ditch on his land, "it could be as long as two years. It's very unlikely to have it done the first year."

He wants the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to stay out of his business.

"They seemed to screw up the cod fishery. So I don't know if they thought they could come in here and screw this up too," joked Foster.

Changing to a more serious tone, he added, "there's nobody who has better interest about the land and the environment than a farmer."

But Siddon, the former minister, said the government shouldn't rush to make the changes.

"There needs to be a thorough review of these proposals ... rather than rushing this all through before the end of June," said Siddon, who will nevertheless appear before the finance sub-committee investigating the environmental changes in the budget bill this week.

Without that legislative rigour, Siddon foresees a bleak result.

"I think we are in a sense dangerously treading on the verge of tearing up long and hard fought for regulations and provisions to protect our natural environment."