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Sockeye panel fishes for feedback on planned Tory changes

Sockeye panel fishes for feedback on planned Tory changes
By Peter O'Neil, Vancouver Sun; Postmedia News
May 2, 2012

The federal government's bid to make sweeping changes to the Fisheries Act has prompted an 11th-hour scramble at the $26.4-mil-lion Cohen Commission, which was created by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2009 to study dramatic declines in the West Coast sockeye fishery.

Senior commission counsel Brian Wallace sent a letter to all hearing participants - including governments, industry, first nations, and environ-mentalists - late last week asking them to submit by May 14 their views on how the budget bill affects their previous positions on the state of B.C.'s top fishery.

The letter was in response to the Conservative government's tabling of a 431-page omnibus budget-implementation bill that includes Fisheries Act amendments that would, according to critics, "gut" key provisions to protect fisheries habitat.

Justice Bruce Cohen's commission published a technical report in February 2011 that described the federal legislation's habitat-protection pro-visions, first established in 1976, as "Canada's primary legislative tool" and an "effective backbone" to protect sockeye habitat.

The government's new bill "contains proposed changes to a number of pieces of legislation relevant to the work of this commission," said Wallace's letter, provided Tuesday to Post-media News.
Wallace, noting that Bill C-38 was tabled as the commission "is nearing completion of its work," said there are no plans to reopen evidentiary hearings on the effect of the bill. But he offered participants the opportunity to provide "supplementary submissions" no later than May 14.

Craig Orr, chairman of the Pacific Marine Conservation Caucus - made up of conservation and environmental groups such as the David Suzuki Foundation - said Bill C-38 is a "game-changer" that will necessarily affect the commission's work.

"I think this act does change how Cohen must view the ability of the federal government to effectively protect fish habitat in B.C. and across Canada and thus strikes at the heart of what this federal inquiry is trying to sort out," he said.

The current law prohibits Canadians from engaging in any activity "that results in the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat." The proposed new wording is far narrower and focuses on economic fisheries, banning "serious harm to fish that are part of a commercial, recreational or aboriginal fishery, or to fish that support such a fishery."

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