A federal government policy intended to ensure there is "no net loss" of fish habitat in Canada is failing to achieve its goal, a panel of experts from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has testified.
In 1986, the government established a habitat management plan that stipulates that when fish habitat is damaged by development, then an equal or greater amount of habitat should be created or restored nearby, as compensation.
But three DFO experts appearing Monday at a judicial inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River all agreed fisheries habitat is being steadily eroded, because the habitat provided in compensation often doesn't match in size or productivity the habitat that has been lost to development.
Patrice LeBlanc, director of Habitat Policies and Practices, from DFO's headquarters in Ottawa, said it is hard to know exactly what the overall net loss is.
"We do lose some habitat," he said in responding to questions from Brock Martland, associate commission counsel. "I'm not sure if it's 10 per cent or 50 per cent - we have no true way to measure."
Mr. Martland asked Jason Hwang, an area manager in British Columbia for DFO's Habitat and Enhancement Branch, if Canada is achieving no net loss.
"From the operational level, all the indicators are no," replied Mr. Hwang.
Mr. Hwang said over the years he has seen tremendous change to the habitat in his region around Shuswap Lake, "most of which are not positive for salmon."
Mr. Martland put before the commission a Policy and Practice Report, prepared in March for the inquiry, which reviewed and summarized documents disclosed by DFO.
Those documents include several reports by the Auditor-General, the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, and internal DFO audits, all of which concluded the no-net-loss policy "does not seem to be working."
One audit looked at studies of 103 habitat compensation projects across Canada, and found that "over one third clearly did not achieve no net loss." Another study involved 52 site visits and it found that in two thirds of the cases, there was a net loss of habitat.
Mr. Martland also questioned the DFO experts about a "modernization plan" that DFO has been implementing in an attempt to improve habitat management.
According to a DFO report, the plan, which was launched in 2004 and has met strong resistance within the department because "it is predominantly perceived as lowering the bar on habitat protection."
According to the report, internal DFO discussions showed some staff felt "the primary objective [of the plan]was to promote economic development."
The Cohen Commission of Inquiry was appointed by the federal government to examine the long downward trend of sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser River. It has until June 30, 2012, to report.