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DFO biologists, who work at the front line of B.C. salmon resource, may soon find themselves out of work.JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

Fisheries and Oceans Canada is considering significant cuts to the ranks of the workers who protect fish habitat on the Pacific Coast, according to internal federal documents obtained by The Globe and Mail.

These biologists are the front-line protectors of the province's salmon resource. They study the fish for signs they are suffering from disease, pollution or overfishing and monitor their habitats.

The cutbacks come as the federal public service struggles to implement the government's deficit-fighting austerity program, which is forcing managers to rethink long-established programs in an attempt to do more with less.

In the department of Fisheries and Oceans, employees have been told that "a national staffing process" – which will lead to staff reductions and office closings – will begin on Nov. 16 and is to be fully operational by January.

While the nationwide details aren't yet clear, a Pacific region organization chart for DFO approved on Oct. 19 by deputy minister Claire Dansereau shows the fisheries protection branch in British Columbia will be reduced to 60 positions from 90.

DFO wasn't able to provide an official to comment on the leaked material on Thursday, and a media spokesperson said the department needed more time to respond to questions about staff reductions.

But environmentalists say the cuts are staggering because they go to the front line, where fisheries biologists who protect the environment are being removed from the field.

"We have a government which says trust us, no need to worry ... but now we have fewer habitat biologists to protect fish in British Columbia, when fish are under more pressure than they have ever been before," said Gwen Barlee, policy director of the Wilderness Committee. "That is really concerning because the biologists are the ones on the front lines...they just won't have enough people in the field any more."

Otto Langer, a former DFO biologist and chief of habitat assessment in B.C. before retiring in 2006, said the Pacific region cuts shock him.

"In 2002-03, they had about 120 staff [in B.C.]. They will now go back to staffing levels of about 33 years ago," he said. "I knew they were cutting at DFO, but I never, ever thought it would get this bad."

Mr. Langer said the Pacific situation is probably reflected across the country, but the leaked organization charts did not include details on current numbers, so the size of the cuts in each region was not immediately apparent.

In B.C., however, Mr. Langer and others have been carefully tracking DFO and were able to provide a quick analysis.

Gary Corbett, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, said on Thursday that the union knows DFO was planning a 33-per-cent staff cut nationally, but details on which positions are being removed, and where, had not yet been made available.

"Everybody is trying to get a fix on that," said Mr. Corbett, who had not seen the organizational charts.

Craig Orr, executive director of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, said the deep cuts to habitat protection in B.C. are dismaying because salmon stocks are in decline, and development is increasingly threatening the environment.

"For me, the reorg chart is a lot like moving around the deck chairs on the sinking fish habitat ship," he said in an e-mail. "Better appreciate our rivers and fish while you can."

A note giving a breakdown of the Pacific cuts suggests that several DFO regional offices – in Prince George, Campbell River, Mission, Nelson, Williams Lake, Smithers and Port Hardy – will be shut in the reorganization.

"We acknowledge that the changes are significant and will require adjustments in how we conduct our business," states an e-mail sent to DFO staff on Wednesday by Trevor Swerdfager, assistant deputy minister, transformation. "All employees in the current habitat management program are affected by the realignment of our structure and our activities."

The note said human resources support is available for those "whose position may be declared surplus, and indeed for everyone who may be impacted by these changes."

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