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Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo is urged to make amendments to the Fisheries Act in a letter released Thursday that is signed by nearly 50 law foundations, First Nations, conservation groups and environmental scientists.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Controversial changes to the Fisheries Act under the former Conservative government should be immediately repealed, and in the longer term, the legislation should undergo major revisions, the federal Liberals have been told.

Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo is urged to make the amendments in a letter released Thursday that is signed by nearly 50 law foundations, First Nations, conservation groups and environmental scientists.

Linda Nowlan, staff counsel for West Coast Environmental Law, said under the leadership of Stephen Harper, the former government in 2012 "gutted" the Fisheries Act, a bill that had long been considered Canada's most powerful piece of environmental legislation.

Among other things, the Conservatives removed a section of the act that prohibited the harmful alteration, disruption and destruction of habitat. That so-called HADD clause needs to be restored to ensure fish are protected, Ms. Nowlan said in an interview.

"The first thing that can be done really quickly is to repeal the changes to the habitat provisions that were brought in under the old government," she said. "Repeal that, bring back habitat protection the way it used to be, bring back the blanket prohibition on HADD … bring back what we had so it covers all fish, all habitat, all across Canada."

Ms. Nowlan said repealing the changes made by the Tories can be done "very quickly," and then the government should shift its focus to a longer-term redrafting of the Fisheries Act.

"The act does need to be modernized. It does need to be overhauled. It needs to talk about things like overfishing. It needs to address, head-on, indigenous rights and co-management. It needs to address climate change. It needs to be brought into the modern world of environmental law," she said. "It's an old law that really does need a thorough overhaul, but that will take longer."

Shannon McPhail, executive director of Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, a group fighting to preserve wild salmon stocks in northwest B.C., said the Fisheries Act currently doesn't have the teeth needed to protect fish.

"The main point is that habitat needs to be put back into the Fisheries Act," she said. "What's the point of protecting fish if you are not going to protect where they live?"

The letter, signed by such groups as Greenpeace Canada, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance and the Canadian Environmental Law Association, as well as a dozen leading environmental scientists, says habitat destruction is the most common cause of species decline.

"Canada is home to a vast amount of fish habitat. We have more than one million lakes with freshwater covering 9 per cent of the country's surface and the longest coastline in the world," the letter states. "We endorse the need for modern safeguards throughout the Fisheries Act in line with internationally accepted principles of fisheries and ocean management."

A brief attached to the letter outlines the key legislative changes that are needed. It calls for the restoration of habitat protection provisions "and prohibitions against the killing of fish as a first, urgent, short-term priority." As a second step, the groups ask Ottawa to conduct public consultations on modernizing the Fisheries Act.

When Mr. Tootoo was appointed Fisheries Minister, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave him a mandate letter that required him to review the act and to consult about changes with indigenous people, provincial governments, industry and conservation groups.

The minister couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday, but in an e-mail, he said he is working on a review of the legislation.

"I take very seriously my mandate from the Prime Minister to restore lost protections of the Fisheries Act that were enacted by the previous government and look forward to consulting with scientists, environmentalists and indigenous peoples in finding the best path forward to safeguard our oceans and waterways," Mr. Tootoo stated. "We share the same goals and I appreciate very much the advice provided by these organizations, some of which I have already met."

The Globe and Mail reported last November that with changes to the Fisheries Act and other legislation, the former Conservative government had "retreated – quietly, and to an unprecedented extent – from the regulation of water."

The article quoted lawyers, scientists and past federal employees as saying the Conservatives had reduced enforcement and weakened controls, putting the environment at risk.