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DARRYL DYCK/darryl dyck The Globe and Mail

More than 600 Canadian scientists, including some of the county's leading experts in environmental protection and animal research, are asking Stephen Harper to abandon plans to remove habitat protections from the federal Fisheries Act.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, they changing the law "would be a most unwise action, which would jeopardize many important fish stocks and the lakes, estuaries and rivers that support them. We urge you to abandon this initiative as it is currently drafted."

The proposal to remove fish habitats from the law was revealed this month by a former federal scientist who obtained internal government documents with drafts of the revised legislation.

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Otto Langer, an aquatic ecologist who worked for the federal government for 32 years, says Mr. Harper and his ministers plan to remove a decades-old requirement in the Act to protect all fish habitats. Instead, the protections would apply only to fish that are of "economic, cultural or ecological value."

That would allow for speedier approval of megaprojects like the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which will have to cross 600 different rivers and streams to bring bitumen from the Alberta oil sands to British Columbia's coast for transport to China and other Asian markets.

The government has not denied the legitimacy of the document but says it has not made up its mind about the changes. A spokeswoman for Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield has said the federal policies designed to protect fish are outdated and unfocused in terms of balancing environmental and economic realities.

The Conservatives have previously embedded other controversial environmental changes into budget legislation and the Fisheries Act overhaul could turn up next week when Finance Minister Jim Flaherty unveils his new economic plan.

The 625 scientists, including 18 fellows of the Royal Society of Canada and more than 30 holders of endowed research chairs, say it makes no sense to protect fish habitats only in the case of fisheries of economic, cultural and ecological value.

"All species are of ecological value, a fact recognized by the current Act," they write, "For example, some of our most economically and culturally valued fish species feed upon minnows and so-called 'rough fish' species, which allow them to survive and grow."

David Schindler, a professor of ecology at the University of Alberta the lead author of the letter , said in a news release Thursday: "It is the explicit role of government to find the balance between protecting this habitat and encouraging sustainable economic growth – not to pit them against one another."

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