The former Tory minister responsible for the current Fisheries Act is openly criticizing his successor over proposed changes to the legislation.

Tom Siddon, who was minister of Fisheries and Oceans from 1985 until 1990 for Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives, says he is extremely concerned by the amendments being championed by  Keith Ashfield, the current minister.

"The minister of fisheries is the one remaining and most powerful person in Canada to protect this marvelous, historically important resource we have in Canada – our fishery. That’s his job," he said Tuesday during an interview for CBC Radio's The Current.

Omnibus Bill C-38, which is before Parliament this week, covers an array of legislation, including changes to the Environmental Assessment Act, the National Pipeline Act and the Canada Oil and Gas Exploration Act. Although the changes to the Fisheries Act are not the only flashpoints, they have hit a nerve with critics.

Government 'cutting corners'

"This is a covert attempt to gut the Fisheries Act, and it’s appalling that they should be attempting to do this under the radar," charged Siddon, who said he's sent several letters and attempted to make personal contact with Ashfield, but he hasn’t heard "boo."

Siddon argued that the government is clearing the way for major economic projects by speeding up the approval process and "cutting corners." 

"The minister of fisheries is the one remaining and most powerful person in Canada to protect this marvelous, historically important resource we have in Canada – our fishery. That’s his job." —Tom Siddon, former minister, Fisheries and Oceans

He added that habitat protection provisions, which have been a part of the act since 1976, were strengthened in the 1980s, but the proposed changes will hand key responsibilities over to private interests, local governments or even the National Energy Board.

"Who’s looking after the fishery in that type of process?" said Siddon, who argued the responsibility should remain with Canada’s fisheries minister.

Integrated planning overseen by the minister, he said, ensures all stakeholders are at the table – from environmental advocates to industry players. It's "absolute rubbish," he added, to suggest environmental and economic concerns are mutually exclusive.

Ashfield defends changes

Ashfield insists that the fishery is not in danger, and that his critics are mistaken on many points.

"What we’re proposing will bring a lot of clarity to the regulatory process," Ashfield said in his interview on The Current. "Any major projects will continue to have to go through a very stringent regulatory process. This process is not going to limit our protection of fish and fish habitat."

"This process is not going to limit our protection of fish and fish habitat." —Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Keith Ashfield

The changes are part of the government's plans to streamline the environmental assessment process for everything from dams and bridges to major energy projects, which supporters say can be done without dire consequences.

"There always has to be a balance between fisheries, environment and economic development but certainly not to the detriment of fish or fish habitat — that’s the primary goal of this department," said Ashfield, adding that the intent is not to limit protection of fish or contravene the act.

He said the changes will actually grant the government more power to enforce regulation and dole out stiffer penalties.

Targeted approach to protecting fish

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

Farmers and landowners have been pushing for changes to the Fisheries Act for years because it's too restrictive, Ritz told reporters during a conference.

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

"Most of the fresh water fish in Canada would not be considered to be of fishery importance." —Dalhousie University marine biologist Jeff Hutchings

These changes have alarmed critics, who say the amendments erect serious barriers to conservation and put fish stocks in danger.

Dalhousie University marine biologist Jeff Hutchings said it doesn’t make sense to single out fish perceived to be of commercial value in an interconnected system.

"Most of the fresh water fish in Canada would not be considered to be of fishery importance," said Hutchings, who is concerned that the removal of habitat protection provisions will lead to the endangerment and possible extinction of several species. Of the 70 freshwater fish deemed at risk, he said, 80 per cent would not be protected by the new legislation. 

"What affects one species will affect all other species in that ecosystem."