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Fish habitat: Why rock the boat?

Last week's news that retired fisheries biologist Otto Langer obtained documents revealing planned changes to the federal Fisheries Act has sent ripples through the fisheries research community. According to Mr. Langer, the federal government is toying with the idea of changing some of the language in the act, which currently prohibits activities that result in the "harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat." The act would be modified to prevent only those activities that cause an "adverse effect" on "fish of economic, cultural or ecological value."

Unless you live in a coastal community, conduct environmental impact assessments or spend your days researching fisheries, this news probably flew below your radar. But fisheries touch all of us in Canada, despite receiving relatively little attention from the public.

That's because, for many of us, our connection to the fishing sector is not so obvious. We fish recreationally, and we buy fish from the store to feed our families or enjoy them at restaurants. If we follow Health Canada's Food Guide, we eat at least two 150-gram servings of fish each week. But many of us don't realize the indirect effects of fisheries on our jobs, economy and a multitude of other important aspects of our lives.

Even the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization must be forgiven for underestimating our global interconnectedness with fisheries. A study published by University of British Columbia researchers last December revealed that marine fisheries employ 260 million people around the world, a figure 1.75 times larger than original estimates by the FAO. This figure only accounts for marine fisheries, not freshwater ones, and only includes jobs tied directly to commercial, small-scale or artisanal fishing. Another 210 million people are involved in what is called "secondary employment" associated with marine fisheries, such as fish processing, canning or trade.

Jobs aren't the only benefit we derive from fisheries, although it may seem that way if you live in a coastal community such as Prince Rupert or Petty Harbour, Nfld. According to Statistics Canada's Survey of Recreational Fishing in Canada, more than 3.2 million adults bought recreational fishing licences in Canada in 2005 alone. With the adult population sitting at around 70 per cent of the total, this means that one in every seven Canadian adults wanted the opportunity to participate in fishing that year. Children were not considered in the survey, but we doubt that any recreational fishermen would deny their children the opportunity to fish if so inclined.

Even in Saskatchewan, a prairie province not well known as a recreational fishing destination, a study conducted for Saskatchewan Environment in 2006 estimated the total value of outfitted and non-outfitted recreational fishing to be more than $53-million per year, and to offer more than 1,500 jobs within the province.

Fish are also an important food source for many charismatic terrestrial and marine mammals that we know and love: grizzly bears, walruses, otters and whales, to name a few. Their role in our enjoyment and appreciation of these animals is critical. If we want to keep the whales, we need abundant fish to feed them.

Fish are the glue that binds us to many things we love. They support our economy, shape our cultural identity and are part of the natural endowment we pass down to our children. Swapping a few words in the Fisheries Act may seem inconsequential, but it would result in at least two major changes to the way fish are protected in Canada.

First, anyone challenging an activity under the Fisheries Act would need to prove that the activity in question was having an "adverse effect" which, as anyone who has dealt with health-related issues of any kind knows, is nearly impossible. If we still can't prove conclusively that smoking causes cancer or that eating cake leads to weight gain, the burden of proving an adverse effect of a project on a fish population is enormously heavy. That does not, however, mean an effect does not exist.

Second, a person would need to prove that the fish population in question was of "economic, cultural or ecological value" – another cumbersome burden to bear since values are based on social and cultural perspectives, which vary widely, and are infinitely difficult to nail down.

The current Fisheries Act is beautiful in its simplicity: Fish need habitat to survive, and harming their habitat will inevitably cause harm to the fish. It ain't broke, so don't fix it.

Rashid Sumaila is director of the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia. Ngaio Hotte is a fisheries economist at the Fisheries Centre.

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