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One of the guiding principles of the Fisheries Act that requires government to ensure that development projects do not cause a net loss of fish habitat was never meant to achieve "measurable" results, the Cohen Commission has been told.

A panel of top bureaucrats from the Department of Fisheries made the claim on Thursday, in response to questions posed by Brian Wallace, senior commission counsel.

Mr. Wallace said that since 1986 the Fisheries Act has called for "no net loss" of fish habitat. The principle states that development projects can only be approved by DFO if a proponent can provide compensation for any habitat damage.

But British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen heard testimony earlier this year, from DFO field staff, who said they are overwhelmed by the huge amount of development taking place, that many projects simply aren't reviewed, and that, when habitat is provided in compensation, there is no follow up to see if it works.

Mr. Wallace wanted to know how DFO could achieve its goal of no net loss, if the department is not measuring the impact of developments.

Deputy Minister Claire Dansereau replied that no net loss is only a "guiding principle" and it does not require DFO "to measure centimetre by centimetre" how much fish habitat is being lost or created.

"Are you saying it wasn't meant to be a policy that's measurable?" asked Mr. Wallace.

Ms. Dansereau replied that DFO is aspiring "to actually achieve protection for the fish," rather than measuring the impact of various development projects.

"What we have been doing ... is giving due consideration to what the fish required," she said. "The principle ... to ensure the fish have a sound habitat to survive and thrive is very much alive."

Susan Farlinger, regional director general for the Pacific, suggested the Fisheries Act provision is not meant to be taken literally.

"Is no net loss a metric that can be measured?" she asked.

Mr. Wallace pointed out that in 2009 the Commissioner of the Environment, for the Auditor General of Canada, criticized DFO for failing to measure habitat loss, and called for changes so those measurements would be made.

He said DFO's response at the time was that the problem would be fixed by 2010.

"You are still working on it ... why has it taken so long?" asked Mr. Wallace.

"It's a complicated policy and it's a big was overly optimistic of us to think we could have finished by 2010," said Ms. Dansereau.

Mr. Wallace said many small development projects are taking place "below DFO's radar" and he asked if the department is keeping track of the overall impact on fish habitat.

But associate deputy minister David Bevan said there is so much development happening in Canada that it is hard for DFO to keep up.

"The workload is just exploding," he said. "It's a huge challenge ... if you look at what we're doing right now, cumulative impact is not being looked at."

Judge Cohen also heard DFO experienced a 3-per-cent, $56.8-million budget cut last year after a review, and that another review is under way that will cut 5- to 10-per-cent more.

Fisheries enforcement is one area that is expected to face staff reductions, said Mr. Bevan.

But he argued that new intelligence-focused investigative methods, and more self-monitoring by fishing groups, will help make enforcement more efficient with less manpower.

Craig Orr, executive director of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, said outside the hearing room that the testimony by the DFO officials was dismaying.

"It tells me we will see less enforcement and less habitat protection in the future," he Dr. Orr said. "After sitting here 1,000 hours, I think this is the most depressing testimony I've heard."

The Cohen Commission was established by Prime Minister Stephen Harper after the Fraser River sockeye run collapsed in 2009, when only about 1 million of an anticipated 10 million fish returned to spawn. The evidentiary hearings are to end next week.