As we now know, this is a motion that we have to get to right away. A motion to adjourn debate has been put forward; therefore, that vote must happen.
We'll now vote to adjourn debate.
(Motion agreed to)
The Chair: That being said, we want to welcome the minister here today. This is our study that we approved some time ago, as Mr. McDonald mentioned. I'm going to read out, pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), the motion adopted by the committee on September 19, 2016:
||That the Committee, in light of the letter provided by the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard & the Minister of Transport, review and study the scope of application of the Fisheries Act, and specifically, the serious harm to fish prohibition; how the prohibition is implemented to protect fish and fish habitat; the capacity of Fisheries and Oceans Canada to deliver on fish and fish habitat protection through project review, monitoring, and enforcement; the definitions of serious harm to fish and commercial, recreational, and Aboriginal fisheries; the use of regulatory authorities under the Fisheries Act; and other related provisions of the act, and provide its recommendations in a report to the House, no later than Tuesday, February 28, 2017.
Appearing before us today, we have the Honourable Dominic LeBlanc, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and Canadian Coast Guard, and his parliamentary secretary, Mr. Serge Cormier. We also have, from the department, Catherine Blewett, Kevin Stringer, and Philippe Morel.
Minister LeBlanc, you will have 10 minutes.
Mr. Cormier, you, too, will have 20 minutes.... No, it's 10 minutes, sorry. It's only because we like you.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and through you, to our colleagues in the House of Commons.
Thank you for your invitation.
This is a special moment for me. It is my first opportunity to appear before you as , and I am delighted to do so. I hope that it will not be the last time.
I'm joined by some of the most senior officials of our department. Catherine Blewett, our deputy minister, is a new deputy minister in Ottawa. She had been the clerk of the executive council, the most senior public servant in the Province of Nova Scotia, and she joined the senior ranks of the public service in June. It's certainly Nova Scotia's loss and our gain that she's joined us in the department.
Mr. Chair, you introduced Kevin Stringer, the associate deputy minister, and Philippe Morel, the senior assistant deputy minister for fisheries management and ecosystems. Obviously, all of you know my colleague from New Brunswick, our parliamentary secretary, Serge Cormier, who will, as you said, Mr. Chair, have a few brief comments after mine.
As I said, this is my first appearance before your committee. I want to begin by saying how humbled and excited I was when the Prime Minister asked me to take on the portfolio of Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard.
As you know, our oceans are facing numerous stressors, such as overfishing, habitat loss and destruction, marine pollution and warming sea temperatures. All these factors have negative impacts on our oceans and ecosystems.
If we want to protect our commercial, recreational, and indigenous fisheries for future generations, one of the most sensible places to start is to protect fish habitat, because quite simply put, without fish habitat there will be ultimately no fisheries.
Unfortunately, in my view, amendments made to the Fisheries Act in 2012 and 2013 stripped out and weakened some of the environmental protections that were specific to fish habitat. Most startlingly, the fisheries protection provisions that are currently in the act don't even reference fish habitat. I've also heard that there is some increasing uncertainty as to which bodies of water and fish species are currently in fact protected under the act.
My concern is that many of these changes were made without consulting the people who were most impacted by these changes. Indigenous and environmental groups were especially concerned with changes made to the act and perceived these amendments as a weakening of what should be a shared goal of protecting fish and fish habitat. Industry partners also became uncertain with regard to the regulatory requirements for which ultimately they would be responsible.
Our government heard these concerns and we promised to take action. In my mandate letter from the Prime Minister, I was asked to review the previous government's changes to the Fisheries Act and look at ways in which we can restore lost protections and incorporate modern safeguards.
But we did not want to do it by ourselves, without consulting those that are potentially impacted by these changes.
Instead, we want to take a holistic approach to reviewing the fishery protection provisions contained within the act. With that in mind I am very happy—and I know my colleagues in the department are—with your committee's decision to consult with Canadians on how to better protect fish and fish habitat, and in so doing to ensure the long-term sustainability of Canada's fisheries. We recognize the importance of putting in place processes to ensure a robust dialogue with provinces, territories, and obviously indigenous people.
To that end, we are working through a special task group reporting to the Canadian Council of Fisheries and Aquaculture Ministers to discuss this issue. We have also set up a number of bilateral meetings between our department's regional staff and their provincial and territorial colleagues responsible for fisheries, environment and natural resource issues to discuss provincial/territorial perspectives.
As I mentioned earlier, indigenous people have expressed serious concerns with the amendments made to this piece of legislation five or six years ago. To help encourage their participation and to benefit from their traditional ecological knowledge, my department is holding face-to-face meetings with various indigenous groups and providing funding so that they can attend these meetings and share their views on the matter.
We welcome the opinions of all Canadians, and encourage everyone to be part of this important conversation. To facilitate that, the department has launched an online public consultation. I'm sure many of you have already seen the site. It's called LetsTalkFishHabitat.ca. Here people can share their ideas about what protections are needed to ensure fish have a healthy environment in which to live, feed, and reproduce, as well as healthy corridors to migrate between such places. Should the committee find it helpful, we would obviously be very happy to share with all of you the feedback we receive through these various departmental consultations, at a time you would find appropriate.
As minister, and considering that amendments to the Fisheries Act are some of the most important responsibilities for somebody in my job, I thought that before these decisions are made we would ask Canadians to consider the following issues. What concerns do people have around the Fisheries Act changes and why? Where can we make improvements? How can we incorporate the latest science and traditional indigenous knowledge into this work? Will the amendments take into consideration future realities such as the impacts of climate change? Will additional enforcement measures and resources be required on the part of our department? Are the current penalties considered successful as the appropriate deterrence mechanism?
Mr. Chair, I look forward to the work the committee will do, to the recommendations it will formulate, to the evidence it will hear from Canadians and interested people. I think all of us benefit from having a very open and frank conversation about the ways that we can improve this important environmental and economic legislation.
That's why I want to thank all of you, and I know my colleagues from the department share that view, for having undertaken this work and to tell you that we are entirely at your disposal should you or your colleagues require any information, any briefings, any support. We're in the committee's hands as to how and when you'd like to receive regular updates on these ongoing consultations we're doing, either with the public or some of these more directed consultations with provincial governments and other groups, for example, indigenous groups.
With that, I look forward to your questions, but I know all of you look forward very much to hearing Serge Cormier's presentation. With your indulgence, Mr. Chair, I conclude my remarks.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Like the minister, I am going to take a few seconds to thank you for your work as chair of this committee. My thanks also go to all members of the committee for their excellent work. I love working with you and I am pleased to appear before you today.
As a Maritimer, and the son of a fisherman, I have strong ties to the ocean. I know from first-hand experience just how important our fisheries are from an economic, social and cultural perspective.
Today's appearance gives us an opportunity to talk about how our government is honouring the commitment we made to Canadians to review changes made to the Fisheries Act.
The Fisheries Act is one of Canada's oldest pieces of federal legislation dating back to the Confederation. It gained royal assent in 1868 and became an essential tool in the government's ability to sustainably manage our fisheries and protect the habitat that supports them.
Over the years, the act has been amended many times in order to keep up with modern realities. However, the most recent changes made in 2012-13 generated some serious questions about whether Canada is doing all it can to protect one of our more precious resources.
This shows the importance of your committee's decision to help determine if any of the fish and fish habitat protections that were lost during the latest amendment to the act should be restored.
We would also like to take this opportunity to explore legislative ways in which we can incorporate new and modern safeguards that will further strengthen fish and fish habitat protections.
Although the consultation process is still underway, over 5,500 Canadians have already participated in the online consultations. We are seeing a high level of participation, both through the surveys completed online, and the ideas shared through the online forum about modern safeguards.
So what are people telling us so far? As we expected, a good number of the opinions expressed deal with the state of fish and fish habitat, and with concerns about cumulative effects. As just one example, a respondent suggested prohibiting access to some areas in order to protect essential fish habitat. Another suggested focusing on the problem of culverts that have been poorly designed and installed, thereby reducing habitat for Atlantic salmon and several species of freshwater fish. The person who brought that matter to our attention proposed that the department should set up a partnership with provincial governments with a view to correcting some of the problems.
The theme of monitoring and enforcement also prompted a number of ideas and comments, such as delegating monitoring and enforcement to indigenous guardians; requiring greater catch data on all fish landings, including recreational, commercial, treaty, and more; and the need to hire more fishery officers. Not unexpectedly, Canadians are asking us to take a closer look at management practices and improve them, provide more data and information, and ensure it is available in a user-friendly format.
One such idea calls for an app that will help individuals and companies to locate their projects in areas that will have a lower impact on fish and habitat right from the start. This app will gather specific habitat information from provinces, municipalities, conservation groups, universities, the federal government, and industry, and will be combined into a national, online, publicly accessible fish habitat map.
Others have merely highlighted the importance of, where feasible, the need to modernize the government's fish counting tool in order to improve the efficiency of fish population surveys.
Once the online consultation period ends, we will happily share the feedback we have received with your committee, should you believe it to be of value to your study. We can also provide feedback that we have heard during consultations with the provinces, territories, indigenous groups, and other stakeholders.
From my perspective, Canada's wild fisheries and pristine waters are the envy of the world. By engaging in genuine and meaningful consultation with Canadians, I am confident that we will be able to chart an appropriate and responsible path forward when it comes to safeguarding Canada's aquatic ecosystems.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Thank you for the question, Mr. Finnigan.
I will speak personally. But I have no objection to my colleagues filling out my remarks in order to provide the committee with information. They have much more expertise in the details of how the act is applied than I do.
You asked me why we just did not go back to the 2012 or 2013 text of the act, that is, before the most recent amendments were made. We preferred not to do simply that. I know that some, including some scientists, have suggested that it would be better to copy and paste and use what was there before the act was amended. However, we believe that we can do a little better than that.
The Prime Minister's mandate letter mentions modern safeguards. Since the text of the act that the previous government amended had been in existence since the 1970s, for 40 or so years, and since measures were included in the act, it could, 40 years later, be appropriate to add to the interpretation of what modern safeguards mean to fish habitat, such factors as climate change and the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples.
We also preferred to listen to the voices of Canadians and to hear what experts, the fishing industry and farmers have to tell us. We have all heard past stories of how a country music festival had to be cancelled because of a problem with the Fisheries Act. We want to understand examples like that, because they clearly concern us. But we also wanted to hear the opinion of parliamentarians and of Canadians through this committee and through other consultations.
We will not be amending the Fisheries Act frequently. We will not do so in an omnibus bill. We will work transparently and I hope that your committee will continue to be part of the discussion.
We believe that we can bring in safeguards appropriate for 2016 and 2017 and not for 1976 and 1977. For us, what existed previously is the baseline. We want to make sure that we have a modern plan at least as solid as the one we had beforehand. But there are probably aspects that we can add or improve.
In our view, some aspects of the 2012-2013 reform were positive. We do not just want to discard what was done, but we want to keep and improve some aspects of the reform that seem to have been positive.
Thank you very much, Minister, and thank you to the parliamentary secretary and our esteemed officials for being here and answering our questions.
Minister, I'd like to start off with a few questions on the Fisheries Act, specifically section 35. Your party campaigned, as did ours, to restore the environmental protections immediately in your new term, specifically to restore the protections in section 35 of the Fisheries Act within...I'd take that to be within 100 days. That's what I think is “immediate”. Obviously, that might be open to discretion.
Since the election, there have been 35 organizations, national environmental organizations, as well as individuals and first nations, that have written to the minister stating their concern. They want to reverse the changes that were made in 2012 under the Harper regime and that essentially gutted the Fisheries Act. There has been a petition from West Coast Environmental Law, with 10,000 signatures, essentially calling for that.
The government has been in office for over a year, and still we have the 2012, essentially gutted Fisheries Act in place. We've had a review of the Site C dam go through under that. We will see the Kinder Morgan application go through under that same regime. Now that we're involved in a consultation that is going to take us into next year, how do you see restoring the Fisheries Act, and specifically the HADD, as being “immediately”?
Thank you, Mr. Donnelly, for your question. Maybe we have it right, if you think that we could have done it in 100 days and your colleague from the Conservative Party thinks we need to take more time, maybe if we land in the middle somewhere we have it right.
I do share your concern, Mr. Donnelly. I have taken note of what was an impressive list of scientists, indigenous leaders, and others who urged us to move very quickly. I was trying to express, perhaps imperfectly, that we share their concerns, and we don't see this as an interminable process or as something that should drag on and drag on. But we do believe that one of the reasons there was such a frustration with the changes that were made in 2012 and 2013 is precisely because they were made without any consultation, and frankly, through a parliamentary procedure that your party said wasn't very democratic or transparent, with which we agreed.
We're trying to find the happy medium in moving quickly and expeditiously. That's why we thought about things like the online portal. Over 5,000 people have visited that particular site since we launched it. The work your committee has generously undertaken to do should dovetail in a way such that we can move quickly. As I say, I'm undertaking not to wait the 120 days or whatever it is that the government would have to respond to a report. As a department, we're going to follow closely the work of your committee in order to respond as quickly as possible when we get your report and the recommendations.
I'll do something that is probably not wise. My hope is that in a perfect world we'd have legislation that we could table before the end of the spring session in 2017. There are reasons why that may get delayed, but it certainly wouldn't be my hope. I hope that as a department we can move quickly.
Then, Mr. Donnelly, we would again be in the hands of the House and parliamentarians. If we could find a way to have a quick debate at second reading in the House of Commons and send a bill to your committee for study and improvement, and if you find ways to improve our legislation, if you adduce evidence from people who have a better way to protect fish habitat, we remain open to that. I hope it's a collaborative process.
I recognize the frustration that people have, but as I said in response to Mr. Finnigan, we didn't want to just cut and paste what was there before, because there are a few elements of the reforms with which we agree. There are also, perhaps, ways to.... The Fisheries Act will not get opened up many times in a Parliament. It's quite rare. We want to do it and to try to do it as best we can. Hopefully, it will last for a generation if the previous one lasted for two.
I think there are two issues at play here. One is the immediate restoration of the habitat protection. That's the HADD, the harmful alteration, disruption, and destruction of fish habitat prohibition. I think that's what Canadians want reversed. I think they find, as I do, that taking a year and a half to do that is unacceptable. Now we're in a process of not just looking at the HADD.
Minister, you mentioned that we're looking at concerns around the changes, improvements to the act, science and traditional ecological knowledge, future realities including climate change, and current penalties. I think there are also others. Those go well beyond looking at just the habitat protection.
That, I think, is the frustration. Even at this committee, I think we have asked what exactly we are looking at. From the government members, I've heard that we're looking just at habitat protections. However, what is on the website, what is opened up to Canadians, and what you have mentioned today at committee is far broader than that.
I share some of the concerns on this side that if you're going to open the Fisheries Act, which, as you've just mentioned and I agree, is one of the most fundamental pieces of legislation in this country when it comes to protecting fisheries, then you need adequate time. For instance, we've had over 80 people and organizations who have wanted to come to speak on this matter because of the broad nature of this, and not just on the habitat protections—which are of a critical nature—but on modernizing the act, etc. That is a different issue. In the meantime, we have major energy projects and other projects including projects going through municipalities that are being approved under the gutted Fisheries Act with those lessened habitat protections.
You have written to this committee essentially to direct us to look at the Fisheries Act. Can you clarify that what we're looking at is beyond the habitat protections? Could speak specifically to what you mean by modernizing the act?
Mr. Hardie, you're absolutely right. I've heard some of those same desires on my travels across the country, including in your province. The recreational fisheries sector in your province is well organized, well structured, and has a long-standing tradition of partnership with our department. The commercial fishery is the same, as are indigenous groups.
These are the people whose livelihoods and whose passion depends on the success and the health of these fish stocks. They have a very real, personal interest in getting it right. They also have, in the case of long-time commercial fishers or sports fishers or certainly indigenous groups, a vast body of knowledge of what works, what doesn't work, where has it been successful in the past, and where perhaps improvements could have been made.
We welcome any chance to partner with these groups. If we're going to get it right, it's because these groups believe that we found the right balance and the best way to ensure the best possible protection.
Laws and the respect of laws often depend on the confidence people have in those laws. One of the things I should share with your committee, Mr. Chair, is that the successive budget cuts at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans over a number of years have put us in the position—and I'm seeking to rectify this with my colleagues at the Treasury Board and the —where even if we had a better, more robust legislative framework, as I hope we get to, we would need increased resources around habitat protection, monitoring, and enforcement.
I talked about that in June when and I had a brief announcement about how we were hoping to proceed. However, I'm also conscious that the legislative text is one thing, but we need both in our department and other government agencies. Who better to partner with us than the people whose livelihoods depend on these resources? We would have a much higher degree of integration and collaboration and, frankly, boots on the ground in many cases to do the monitoring, to do the enforcement.
You can have the best laws on the books, but if nobody ever gets charged because you don't have the ability to investigate and prosecute offences, the laws are illusory, and people are left with a false sense that you've done something. That's certainly not what we're intending to do.
Mr. Hardie, you're absolutely right. You and Mr. Donnelly and Mr. Doherty and others would know your provinces better than I would, but certainly from my perspective, there is a heightened public concern around the potential impact of aquaculture on wild fish stocks. We should not be naive about that.
I know Mr. Donnelly has strongly held views on that, and he has legislation before the House of Commons now, which was debated last evening, I think, for the first time.
We recognize, as you said, Mr. Hardie, also that part of the reassurance for Canadians, who understandably are concerned, is that we have the most robust, transparent, publicly accessible, scientific, peer-reviewed information available to Canadians.
I shared with our colleagues in the Senate yesterday. It has done a report on the aquaculture industry in its fisheries committee, which I thought was quite instructive. I had the privilege of going to the Senate question period yesterday. In answer to some questions from our colleagues, I have told the Senate committee that we would be open to looking at the possibility of a national aquaculture act, for example. How that works and in what capacity obviously remains.... There's a lot of work to be done and we're not on the eve of doing that, but I'm prepared to begin the conversation, including with provinces and the industry and scientific groups, to see how that might work. Many of them have advocated for that. We would, obviously, at some future point want to come back before this committee, but that might be part of the medium- or long-term answer too.
I was really disappointed in the testimony from the minister and the parliamentary secretary for a couple of reasons because the words “farmer” and “municipalities” were not mentioned in either of your testimonies.
When I heard the latest comments on agriculture and farming, farmers being charged under the Fisheries Act is something I think they should be worried about. I know the farm groups—and I'm very close to all of them across the country—are very concerned about what the government is possibly doing to the Fisheries Act.
I should make the point as well, and I'm going to go on the record, that this notion that there are no habitat protections in our new Fisheries Act is completely disingenuous. The act says in section 35 that:
||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.
Serious harm is defined as “the death of fish or any permanent alteration to, or destruction of, fish habitat”, with fish habitat defined a certain way. To suggest there are no habitat protections in the revised Fisheries Act is not quite correct. I would quote from one of the officials in the room here, Mr. Kevin Stringer, who on November 6, 2012, when questioned in our committee regarding habitat said:
||Yes, that's correct. That's still the case under section 35, because if you look at the definition of serious harm, which is in section 2, serious harm to fish is defined as the death of the fish or the permanent alteration or destruction of habitat.
It's quite clear that at the official level in the department there was no suggestion that there were no habitat provisions in the act whatsoever. The habitat provisions in the act are still there.
I have a question. What quantitative evidence is there, and when I say quantitative evidence I mean values and numbers, that suggests that the alterations, the changes, to the Fisheries Act had any measurable effect on any fish population or community in Canada?
I'm specifically asking for numbers. What effect did the changes have on fisheries populations in Canada?
Ms. Jordan, the answer is yes.
I know a number of members of this committee had a chance to meet one of the leading environmental groups, Oceana. They had a conference in Ottawa last week, I think. I had the privilege of speaking at the opening of the session on Wednesday, a week ago today. I undertook to make scientific information and data much more available, and available in a user-friendly way. Not all of us have the advantage of a detailed scientific background.
I think Canadians share a huge concern that governments and everyone involved need to do the best they can to protect fish and fish habitat. They want to understand the areas of concern and what we can do better. It starts by making scientific and other analyses open and available by default.
I announced that we would be doing exactly that. We'd be putting out a report card, which this group asked our department to do, across 159 species. We're also preparing quite quickly to pull the historical data as well, in other words, go backwards and also make that available. I committed to doing it once a year, but if we're in a position to do so semi-annually, obviously, we'd be happy to do so. We're making the best efforts we can to open up more scientific data, but we recognize more work can be done.
After you hear from witnesses or from Canadians, if your committee has suggestions as to the specific areas of concern in terms of access to this information, again, we would.... It doesn't have to be a formal recommendation. If colleagues have suggestions for me, I'll work with the department to alleviate these concerns and raise our game as best we possibly can.
One of the concerns we have is that over the last five years the department suffered a series of budget cuts, $35 million, which led to almost 1,100 positions being eliminated. If you think about 1,100 positions over the last five years, many of them were front-line enforcement people, habitat protection people, and scientific people. We're also working within the financial structure we have to remedy that, and that will take us to a better place, we hope.
Thank you, Mr. McDonald, for that question.
Your chair was also a member of Parliament, as were a number of other colleagues at the table, when these changes were done in 2012 and 2013. To say that there was a review of the Fisheries Act changes, I think would be a pretty gross exaggeration. These were measures that were largely buried in an omnibus budget bill that was hundreds and hundreds of pages long.
We didn't think that this was the right way and that sentiment was shared by a number of parliamentarians in the House of Commons. I think to be fair, the New Democrats, the Bloc Québécois, Ms. May, the Green Party, became very concerned. I think it was Ms. May, in fact, who had us voting for 38 hours or something on some of these bills to draw the attention of Canadians to this abuse of process around omnibus budget bills suddenly changing fundamental protections of the Fisheries Act that are important, as you will see and as we are seeing, to many Canadians.
That's why we thought to ask your committee, and why we were so happy that you accepted, to undertake this work and then make deliberate amendments to the Fisheries Act in a transparent way, going through the regular parliamentary process. We'll hear from colleagues at every stage of the debate. The ultimate bill that we will table in the House of Commons, we hope and believe would be referred to this committee and you will then decide in your own wisdom how you wish to proceed with that legislation, from whom you wish to hear. We would encourage you to hear from a variety of voices and to try to not leave anybody out who feels strongly about this, on any side of the question.
The best way, we believe, to build legislation that enjoys a high level of public confidence is to do so in a transparent and democratic way. It doesn't mean that we always agree on it. Democracy begins and ends with a vote, but the process in between can be collegial and informative and transparent and open. That's certainly what we're hoping for.
You're right. It's not only in your great riding of Avalon that elected municipal leaders, and in some cases provincial leaders, would feel this sense of downloading. I've seen it in my province. Serge and I represent New Brunswick constituencies, and we hear the same thing from municipal leaders.
As I said, perhaps in response to your colleague, Ms. Jordan, the serious layers of reductions at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has meant that often it was—and back to Mr. Finnigan's question—community groups, volunteer groups, NGOs, environmental groups, municipal leaders, who stepped in to try to provide monitoring and perhaps shed some light on practices they thought may have been negative. They tried to get the responsible public authorities to take their responsibility.
In the case of our department, the deputy tells me that we went from 63 offices doing fisheries habitat protection down to 16. Don't be surprised if the people in Avalon found that it was harder to get to one of those offices. Therefore, goodwill citizens and other community leaders have stepped in. That's why if we get this right and build public confidence, and if we are successful in convincing our cabinet colleagues and others for a better allocation of resources to support this work, hopefully people won't have the sense that they're having stuff downloaded to them.
That certainly isn't our intention, but we recognize that we're some distance away from having solved that yet.
That question is a very accurate one in the sense that we believe the scope and the breadth of the protections were narrowed. Ambiguous language in a statute is often resolved or clarified by various court decisions. As I said, there haven't been enough of these court decisions to provide that clarity. We're hoping that Parliament will change the legislation to provide a greater degree of clarity.
Section 35, which concerns serious harm to fish, moved from what had previously been a broad prohibition of activities that would result in the harmful alteration, disruption, or destruction of fish habitat. Now, in our view, the prohibition is scoped down and applies to activities that would result in serious harm to fish that are part of commercial, recreational, or aboriginal fisheries, or fish that support those fisheries.
This change effectively, in our view, narrowed the scope of the application of section 35 and the number of species, or even, as I said in my opening comments, Mr. Morrissey, the bodies of water that might be subject to the provisions of this act. It is a technical and important question.
I don't know if Mr. Stringer could briefly add something. If you want more information, we'd be happy to get back to you.
Sure. I just referenced it in respect to a question from Mr. Donnelly. The independent fish harvesters, some of whom I met last week, raised it with me. That was one of the main things they wanted to raise.
It perhaps rejoins a question that Mr. McDonald had asked. The men and women whose livelihoods and whose economic capacity support their families and their communities are the ones most affected in a very direct way if there are bad decisions, bad laws, and bad policies that lead to a reduction in their capacity to sustainably prosecute their fisheries.
These people will have views on what is the appropriate way to preserve and protect fish habitat. They certainly have views that everybody at this table has heard around fisheries management issues. They're more than happy to offer advice on different management regimes. Their continued and formalized capacity to contribute to the long-term viability of their industry, including the protection of fish habitat, will make the economy and the ecology of the country a lot better, but that's the personal view that I have from conversations with a number of these particular people whom many of you meet regularly.
Again, as a perfect example, Mr. Morrissey, if your committee has a view on that, if witnesses talk about that and you think there's an intersection point, then we would benefit from that advice, but it's an ongoing conversation that goes back 40 years.
I want to be really clear. I represent an agricultural constituency the size of Nova Scotia. The agricultural community was basically traumatized by what happened in the early 2000s and the greatly increased fisheries enforcement. To have fisheries officers show up at farmer meetings in flak jackets and sidearms was completely ridiculous. The changes we made to the Fisheries Act were of great relief to the agricultural community, and we are bringing a number of farm groups to the table that the committee will hear.
I'm probably the longest-serving member. I've been on the fisheries committee since 2010—since I became an MP—so I think Mr. Stringer and I are probably the longest serving. I've been on continuously since I became an MP, so it's six straight years. I can assure you that there was lots of testimony in 2012, so to suggest there was no consultation or testimony when we made the changes to the Fisheries Act is not quite right.
Seeing as I'm not going to get any numbers in terms of the effect that our changes had on actual fish populations.... You talk a lot about how many enforcement actions there were, or budgets, or staff, or this or that, but not a word about effect on fish. I am a simple man so I think this is all about fish, but maybe that's too simplistic. Let me give you some numbers from the changes to the Fisheries Act. Due to the changes that were made to the Fisheries Act, we were now, as a government, encouraged and enabled to create partnerships with groups and that's how we created the recreational fisheries conservation partnerships program. I want to thank you, Minister, for retaining the program so far and we will be pushing to keep it retained.
I'm going to go back to the sage of the fisheries committee's staff, Mr. Kevin Stringer, again, who on February 24, 2015, gave us some metrics about what the changes to our Fisheries Act actually did. In terms of the RFCPP, Mr. Stringer said:
||...$3.1 million was spent. We had 74 different organizations, undertook 94 habitat restoration projects. In addition, with that $3.1 million we leveraged an additional $7.0 million that was brought to those same projects from partners. That's the 1:1.25 leverage ratio.
||There were 380 partners involved in those 94 projects. There were 1,700 volunteers...2.4 million square metres and 2,000 linear kilometres of recreational fisheries habitat were restored....
Those are the metrics and those are the kinds of projects that were enabled under the changes we made to the Fisheries Act.
I'm going to ask a fairly friendly question here. Minister, I would hope that you would be impressed with that program and impressed with what the recreational angling community has done. I belong to the Miramichi Salmon Association. They have been recipients of a number of grants. The cold water refuge program was excellent.
I was wondering, Minister, if you could comment on the recreational fisheries conservation program and the great work that the recreational fisheries community has done.
I'll offer a quick comment, but I know that Mr. Stringer or Monsieur Morel can probably provide a much higher level of precision.
Was it overly restrictive? I think we all have anecdotal examples of where some of them were very serious for certain individuals or communities, where we may have thought that particular applications in fact left people with a sense that we hadn't found the right balance. I do believe, however.... As to whether we weren't able to authorize some experimental practices, again, I don't have the history. Mr. Stringer, I think, has been with the Department of Fisheries since 1868.
Voices: Oh, oh!
Hon. Dominic LeBlanc: I think that's when he joined, so he could speak to the specific examples.
In my own province of New Brunswick, I know of a number of circumstances where experimental or community activities certainly improved fish habitat or better protected it. Perhaps, Kevin, you could offer more on that.
I obviously don't share Ms. Hipson's view that we're not interested in listening. I have heard from a number of people, and I know colleagues at this table have talked to me about concerns they've heard in their own constituencies, and you and I, Mr. Donnelly, had a conversation about it.
I'm very sensitive to the heightened public concern around the health and safety of wild fish stocks, and the interaction with, principally but perhaps not exclusively—I'm not a scientist—finfish aquaculture in open pens in open waters.
I had a rather robust conversation with our colleagues in the Senate yesterday about exactly that, saying that I think one of the obligations the government can move forward with very quickly is making all of the scientific data, all of the scientific information, available as transparently and as easily, understandably as possible. I'm not sure that's the right English, but I mean make it available in a way that people can understand.
We will be, as I said earlier to one of your colleagues, endeavouring to do that on an ongoing basis. We've made significant investments in science, $197 million, which largely recoups the cuts by the previous government in science. It's never enough. In my view, it's a good beginning; it's a good down payment. I'm hoping—and I believe—we can do more because that's the way we can reassure Canadians that we have the right balance, and that's also the way we can make the best decisions around these management issues.
As I said, Mr. Donnelly, a national aquaculture act, a number of people have called for that for a long time. I'm not sure it sees unanimity easily, but I think—back to Ms. Hipson—we should be open to understanding whether that would also be a way to ensure that the very best regulatory, legislative, and scientific measures are in place, enforceable measures are in place, and then listening to people like Ms. Hipson and other scientists who have strongly held views.
It may not surprise you I'm not sure I agree with you. It's a trick question. We're confusing an oil tanker moratorium with a moratorium on major projects.
But no, the deputy tells me that about 170 of those staff reductions were in the habitat protection area. We went, as I say, from 63 to 16 offices. They were closed and that speaks to public confidence, too, Mr. Donnelly, in the sense that in Mr. McDonald's riding in Avalon they can't find somebody at an office who can answer their questions. It creates, I think, an unnecessary concern.
Of the 135 new scientists we committed to hiring with the money that budget 2016 gave us, as of April 1 of this year, we've already hired over a hundred of those, many of them working in world-class facilities in your province, like the West Vancouver Laboratory that I had the privilege of visiting this summer.
We're hoping to do a lot more, but the government will take its responsibility to look at some of these major energy projects.... I can imagine, perhaps, you're referring to one in particular, or a couple that may have come by this past summer. We will look at those—
Mr. Donnelly, others have raised that with me. It's an interesting legislative construct. I'm told that some jurisdictions that have it have treated it fairly pro forma. You throw it up on the website once a year, you cut and paste last year's plan, just change the date, and put it out as a rebuilding plan. I think that feeds public cynicism and doesn't help the common objective of better managing our fisheries and aquatic resources. We have internally at the department, as you noted, a number of policy measures, and certain cases, like the Species at Risk Act, and so on, have different provisions. You're correct. You were referring to the Fisheries Act. You're absolutely right.
Again, if this committee feels strongly or has views on how that could be looked at as part of a modern regime.... I'm not sure it touches lost protections around habitat, but it's very much part of the conversation, past failures to either protect habitat or, to use your example, of overfishing. There have been examples for generations on every coast of decisions, made perhaps in good faith, that led to very difficult consequences.
The people who have suffered those consequences, in the case of Newfoundland and Labrador around northern cod, will want to know that their government, and maybe their Parliament, are seized of this issue. If you have suggestions as to how we could do that in a legislative context, I would be open to looking at them. But I certainly share the root of your concern and would want to work with everybody to find the best way to do that.
Thank you, Ms. Jordan, for the question.
I share your view. I have had, as a member of Parliament from New Brunswick, a chance to work directly with some of the local and regional officials of our department in various branches of Fisheries and Oceans, which is a highly decentralized department.
We now have the Canadian Coast Guard as partners in our department, a remarkable group of women and men, as well. To the person, the people that I've had the privilege of working with, as a member of Parliament, or certainly in the few months I've been the minister, are an outstanding group of Canadians. They care deeply about the environment. They care deeply about the protection of our oceans. They're inspired by the hard work of women and men who earn their living on the seas or lakes. Many of them volunteer with community groups and go to meetings in the evenings because they want to be actively involved in their communities and because they live in many of these communities that are directly affected by the decisions that they participate in taking.
I share your view that perhaps they have not felt as supported, as valued, as they should have been and as they are by Canadians. Some of it has been the financial constraints that the department has lived under. We're trying to remedy that. There's often never enough money to do all of the good things we want to do, but the deputy and I, along with the commissioner of the Coast Guard and the senior management of the department, have been working with the Treasury Board and ultimately the Department of Finance. I'm told that I'll have a chance to meet with some of the Treasury Board people in the coming months and hopefully resolve what we've been calling an integrity gap in the sense that we have more and more programs that Canadians expect the department to deliver on and, in some cases, we don't have the adequate resources to properly deliver those programs.
Ships are breaking down in the Coast Guard because we're not doing the maintenance because we have to use that money for operational purposes. That's not the way to run a multi-billion dollar institution, and that's not the way to best serve Canadians who care deeply about the work that the department should and can be doing. We hope to get to a better place.
But the mistakes, Ms. Jordan, will be mine, and the hard work and the insight that comes from the department will be from the remarkable group of almost 10,500 women and men who work in the department.
I think you'll agree with me, Mr. Doherty, that we may not agree on the modalities of the moratorium or how and why there should be one, but I hope you'll agree that we were transparent in the election campaign with Canadians. It was a formal commitment that we made in the platform and it's a mandate letter instruction. We've taken the unprecedented step of making these mandate letters public, so Canadians can see that it's an instruction that both and I have received. Marc Garneau, the Minister of Transport, obviously has the lead on this. I've been working with him.
We believe that there is understandable and reasonable concern on the northwest coast of British Columbia around oil tanker traffic. We believe that British Columbians care deeply, and I saw it in Bella Bella on Sunday. They care deeply about the protection of the coast, as you call it, and as they call it. Your magnificent province is defined by a deep attachment to the coast, and to an iconic species like salmon.
We're trying to find the right balance between economic development that's sustainable and responsible, and also reacting to scientific and public concern around the cumulative effects of some of these shipping routes.
To be honest, Mr. Doherty, I would suggest that on those questions, Mr. Garneau really has.... He has visited the coast of B.C., he's met with people like those from the organization you referred to, and he's in a better position than I am to address the specifics. I'm trying to give you a sense of the political commitment we've made to Canadians.
Again, I thank you, Minister, for spending the time here with us and answering our questions.
I have a number of comments that I want to add, and I'll finish with a question.
We referenced the Coast Guard, and I just want to thank the government for reopening the Kitsilano Coast Guard station. People on the west coast were absolutely welcoming that move and happy to see that.
On Vancouver Island, though, they are not so happy about the closure of the Comox MCTS station. Of course we've just recently had the sinking of the Nathan E. Stewart and we have Chief Marilyn Slett of the Heiltsuk Nation who, I believe, is in Ottawa this week to talk today about how that is impacting their aquaculture, their food, and their way of life.
In the remaining time, I just want to mention my bill. As you mentioned earlier, I have a bill on moving to closed containment on the west coast. There was mention last night from the of there being no evidence of impact from aquaculture. I hope that isn't the view of the minister and of the ministry, because I think there has been ample evidence shown that it is clear there is an impact. In fact, Justice Cohen recognizes that.
There was also a comment about unproven technology. We have Kuterra leading the way on the west coast and Sustainable Blue on the east coast, both using the proven technologies, Kuterra being probably a year away from profit.
Do you share those comments about there being no evidence and this being unproven technology?
You can't offer a politician a nice compliment, as you did, Mr. Donnelly, without allowing him a chance to thank you for it.
I do share your view. It was special for us, at Kitsilano, that you could participate in that announcement. I have learned from my colleagues from your province about the deep attachment people have to that Coast Guard base. We made a commitment to reopen one in a different but similar circumstance in the province of your committee chair, and we're hoping to have some news on that also in the coming days and weeks.
With respect to the aquaculture question you asked, maybe I'll ask Serge. I didn't see his speech last night; I was at another meeting. I know there is evidence around the economic viability, and some questions. “Evidence” is a legal term, but there are concerns and questions about the economic viability of moving to closed containment in some cases. I've heard that from a number of people, but as I said, I think the debate around your bill will enlighten that; it will offer some insight. Our department has contributed some money for various pilot projects to better understand how that might work. I know there are other jurisdictions in which it has been successful.
What I've said publicly is that we understand the heightened level of public concern around how this can be done safely and what the risks are. I won't answer with a leading question. What are the risks to fish and fish health, wild fish and fish health, of some of these practices? The public wants answers to those questions. Our department has a key role in helping them understand that through more science, and more transparent, accessible scientific evidence.
People who do not follow the conditions of their permits or who are not able to follow the appropriate measures that are in place to ensure there's no risk to fish health need to suffer, in a severe way, the consequences of not respecting those conditions or those undertakings. I've already spoken to the department about ensuring that we're very robust in that as well.