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Commercial fishing boats make their way back up the Fraser River to Steveston Harbour to offload sockeye salmon near the end of a 32-hour fishery window in Richmond, B.C., on Thursday August 26, 2010.The Globe and Mail

The federal Conservative government consulted with both environmental organizations and industry associations before making controversial changes to the Fisheries Act last year, but listened primarily to industry.

When a section of one of the government's massive 2012 omnibus budget bills limited the scope of the legislation governing the protection of fish and their habitats, some ecologists said it was the biggest setback to conservation law in more than 50 years.

One of the most significant changes was to remove the broad protections that covered all fish habitats and to specify the law would now prohibit only "serious harm" to fish "that are part of a commercial, recreational or aboriginal fisheries, or to fish that support such a fishery."

Documents released recently to The Globe and Mail under federal access to information laws suggest that wording was offered by industry associations.

In 2010, the High Park Group consulting firm was commissioned by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to gather industry and business observations about the habitat protection provisions of the Fisheries Act. The feedback was not good.

The 23 organizations that were consulted, which included the Canadian Electricity Association (CEA), the Canadian Hydropower Association (CHA) and the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce (SKCC), roundly criticized the law.

The associations argued that it was too unpredictable, that it caused considerable barriers to infrastructure investment, and that it increased regulatory costs and timelines. "CEA/CHA and SKCC call for modification of the act's definition of 'fishery' to clarify that it refers to 'commercial, recreational, subsistence or aboriginal use of fish as a resource,' " the consultant's report said.

The High Park Group pointed out, however, that there was a dearth of evidence to back industry concerns and a "lack of cogent and substantive documentation of industry positions on the issue."

Meanwhile, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was providing another point of view after consulting with numerous environmental organizations between 2006 and 2009.

In a report also released under access laws, the department said the environmental groups praised the Fisheries Act saying it is "one of the strongest laws in Canada that can be used to protect our environment" and urged the government to strengthen and enforce it.

Many of those groups were shocked and furious when the changes to the Fisheries Act were unveiled in the budget bill last year.

The Fisheries department said in an e-mail this week that it is still focusing on preserving fish habitat but "is adopting a practical, common-sense approach that focuses on managing threats to Canada's recreational, commercial and aboriginal fisheries and the fish and fish habitat on which they depend."

But critics said it is clear that the government has allowed industry to write the law. "What we see here is a government listening only to industry concerns," said Andrew Gage of West Coast Environmental Law, one of the environmental groups that were consulted by the DFO before the law was rewritten. "When laws are written to pander to particular industries, Canadians get weak environmental laws, and weak protection for our fish."

John Bennett, the executive director of Sierra Club Canada, said "the federal government ignored serious advice from environmental organizations and accepted undocumented knee-jerk advice from self-interest industry groups who could not substantiate their complaints."

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said the department has obviously lifted "holus-bolus from industry comments a new definition for what a fishery is and completely [ignored] the comments from a wide consultation from people on the ground who are actually protecting the fishery." And Robert Chisholm, the NDP fisheries critic, said the government has subsequently had trouble writing regulations because department officials know "that if they continue to go down this direction that they are going to devastate the ability of the DFO to protect fish habitat."

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