Some of Canada's oldest laws are designed to protect fish and fish habitat, cornerstones of our nation's culture, economy, and environment. Two of the most important environmental hearings in Canadian history have recently revealed that Canada's wild fish populations are not well protected. Pollution and habitat destruction are major threats. The Canadian government knows this, yet it allows pollution and habitat destruction to continue across the country.
Canada's fish are in big trouble. That's the lesson from the ongoing Cohen Commission in BC and the recently-concluded Darlington New Nuclear hearing in Ontario. The Cohen Commission is investigating the decline of the sockeye salmon on the Fraser River. The Darlington hearing was supposed to assess the environmental impacts of building up to four new nuclear reactors on the north shore of Lake Ontario.
In British Columbia, Justice Cohen is looking for explanations for the collapse of Fraser River salmon populations. In 2009, about 10% of the forecasted fish population returned to the Fraser River, prompting the federal review. Here in Ontario, the fishy focus of the Darlington nuclear hearing centred on cooling water technologies. One of the least-discussed byproducts of nuclear power generation is the destruction of close to one-billion fish, eggs, and larvae each year on Lake Ontario. The plants suck in enormous amounts of water to cool reactors and then discharge heated water back into the lake. This once-through cooling process is considered antiquated elsewhere in the world.
The Canadian government is supposed to protect fish by making sure that habitat is not altered or destroyed, that "deleterious" substances are not added to the water, and that fish themselves are not destroyed by means other than fishing. The hearings reveal that these things are happening every day in Canada, with the full knowledge of DFO and Environment Canada, and with little response or penalty.
If developers need to fill in or alter fish habitat in some way, they need authorization from DFO first. To obtain authorization, developers are supposed to create new fish habitat somewhere else so that there is "no net loss." Evidence emerging from the Cohen Commission suggests that this no net loss policy is a dismal failure, with anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of government-approved habitat destruction resulting in a net-loss for the country.
One senior DFO witness confirmed that the department's "no net loss" goal is not being met. He agreed that habitat in Canada is disappearing, and stated that the government does not know how much habitat is lost because, "we have no true way to measure." Another DFO staffer criticized BC's new, "modernized" approvals process. Around 2005, the government shifted to a voluntary compliance model that caused patrols to drop by 75% and violation reports to drop by 1,000%. He told the Commission that, "we don’t have a handle on what is actually going on."
How does this happen? The Darlington hearing sheds some light on the pressures faced by government regulators. Ontario Power Generation tried to persuade the panel that its preferred once-through cooling water system - which will kill millions of fish, eggs, and larvae every year - is an environmentally attractive option. The community, OPG says, does not want to look at unsightly cooling water towers.
OPG tried to persuade the panel to approve its warmed water discharges as well, even though government presenters suggested this could be an offence under the federal Fisheries Act. We also learned that OPG's existing Pickering and Darlington nuclear power plants have been out of compliance with the Act for years.
The pressure on regulators to look the other way is enormous. Shockingly, it is working. OPG won't be charged for its Fisheries Act violations. Instead, Environment Canada staff informed the Darlington panel that the Fisheries Act will probably be rewritten; the nuclear industry will be exempted from the law that says no one can deposit a deleterious substance into waters frequented by fish.
The Ontario government, too, is embracing what we now know is a completely inadequate approach to environmental protection. Our own Ministry of the Environment is re-writing enforcement and compliance programs, chasing the same "modernization" dream that DFO foisted upon BC with such disastrous consequences. The Ministry says BC is a model for effective environmental management. The evidence says otherwise.
Our government's failure to adequately protect fish and fish habitat has serious consequences. Freshwater and saltwater fisheries long-ago collapsed on the east coast and the Great Lakes. Overfishing was a big part of the problem historically, but pollution and habitat destruction are the reasons that fish populations are not rebounding. The more we learn at these hearings, the more we understand that government policy-makers are doing virtually nothing to make things better.