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An aerial photograph shows the Port of Vancouver in 2016. British Columbia has been escalating its efforts to block the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta’s oil sands to the West Coast.Ben Nelms/Bloomberg

As Ottawa comes under fire for approving a controversial pipeline expansion through B.C., the federal Fisheries Minister has announced proposed changes to toughen the Fisheries Act that he says should highlight a national commitment to protecting coasts from negative effects of heavy-oil projects.

Federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc outlined the planned amendments at a news conference in Vancouver, but did not directly link them to the controversy over the proposed expansion of Kinder Morgan Canada Ltd.'s Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta's oil sands to the West Coast.

The release of the amendments came a week after the B.C. government escalated its efforts to block the pipeline expansion, and on the day Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said her province will ban wine imports from B.C. in retaliation against the B.C. measures.

"We understand the concerns of British Columbians, of all Canadians, about pipelines. We don't minimize the public concern," Mr. LeBlanc said.

"But the amendments we are proposing to the Fisheries Act and the investments of additional resources we think are a continuation of our government's commitment to Canadians of having some of the most robust, modern and effective protection of oceans, and fish and fish habitat in the world."

He said Ottawa's commitment to coastal protection began with a $1.5-billion oceans protection plan, which the Prime Minister announced in Vancouver in 2016.

Asked about the relevance of the Fisheries Act amendments to pipeline development, a senior Fisheries Department official told a briefing earlier on Tuesday that the minister would now have to consider cumulative effects and the ability of an area where a project is proposed to sustain increased development.

Rather than just assuming at the beginning that the habitat is in good condition, the department will need consider the state of the area to determine whether it can sustain additional development, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"These are additional factors that need to be taken into account under the Fisheries Act."

The proposed changes announced on Tuesday include reforms to protect all fish and fish habitat. The current legislation protects only fish habitat related to a commercial, recreational or Indigenous fisheries.

A summary of the proposals provided by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said the amendments would take Indigenous traditional knowledge into account in habitat decisions.

The summary said government also wants to prohibit capturing aquatic mammals such as whales and dolphins with the intent to take them into captivity unless authorized by the minister for an animal that is injured, in distress or needs care.

And the government will invest up to $284.2-million to support restoring lost protections to fish and incorporating modern safeguards. That is a five-year commitment of new money, and decisions on how it will be distributed are still to come, department spokesperson Carole Saindon said in a statement.

Mr. LeBlanc said the federal Liberal government is seeking to reverse changes to the act that the former Conservative government passed.

In a statement, Todd Doherty, the Conservative critic for Fisheries, and Mel Arnold, the deputy critic, defended the 2012 measures for improving fisheries conservation and streamlining an "overly bureaucratic process."

They said they feared the Liberal measures could have a "chilling effect on much-needed development projects, especially in rural areas."

Megan Leslie, president and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund Canada and a former NDP MP, said the amendments would capably restore the habitat-protection provisions lost in 2012.

"These amendments do that and more," she said in a statement. "Equally important is the inclusion of an ecosystem-based approach to the protection of fish habitat, which will bring Canada in line with international best practices, safeguarding freshwater and marine wildlife."

Mr. LeBlanc said he hoped to see the legislation enacted "as quickly as is reasonable" allowing for input from the opposition.

"We would be open to amendments," the minister said. "We think that some people will have positive ideas of ways to improve the legislation."

Ottawa says it will spend $284-million on enforcing fish habitat protection as part of changes to the Fisheries Act. Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc says a “renewed” relationship with Indigenous groups is key to managing fish stocks.

The Canadian Press

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