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Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Wednesday March 14, 2012.Adrian Wyld

The Harper government is planning to overhaul the Fisheries Act to reduce federal protection of fish habitats, saying it will focus on "vital" waterways that are home to important species.

Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield said the existing rules treat all bodies of water the same, regardless of size or importance to fisheries.

The changes are part of the Conservative government's overhaul of environmental legislation that it says too often ties up development projects in meaningless red tape and open-ended reviews.

Last week, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver unveiled changes to the environmental assessment system that will reduce federal oversight on smaller projects, set strict deadlines for reviews, and hand over to provinces responsibility for assessing projects where the province is judged to equivalent standards.

Mr. Ashfield said the Fishery Act changes will allow Ottawa to focus its limited resources on important habitats.

"It makes good, common sense that the government should be able to minimize or eliminate restrictions on commonplace activities that pose little to no threat, at the same time, maintain appropriate, reasonable and responsible protection for Canada's fisheries," the minister said.

But critics argue the government is looking to reduce the regulatory burden on energy and mining companies, and the changes will jeopardize rivers, streams and lakes that are part of broad and important ecosystems.

"This announcement does indicate an intention to compromise for some of Canada's lakes, rivers and streams – whichever the government officials deem to be not vital," said Lara Tessaro, staff lawyer with the Vancouver-based EcoJustice group.

"In the context of environmental protection, it is a really bizarre approach to have government officials handpick which lakes are not important. … What fish need to survive is healthy and productive habitats, from spawning grounds to rearing grounds to habitats for their entire food chain."

Ms. Tessaro added that the legislative amendments are unnecessary if all the government wants to do is streamline the process for minor development projects, because they are covered by policy guidelines that could be easily changed.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said the government is clearly putting resource development ahead of environmental protection.

"They are trying to eliminate anything that could possibly impede the unconstrained growth of mines and fossil fuel developments like the oil sands," Ms. May said.

"This is all about speeding approval for resource-based projects and actually to do that they're prepared to push nature out of the way, to bulldoze nature to get what they want."