Scientists and conservationists are bracing for devastating changes to Canada’s oldest environmental law — the federal Fisheries Act, — which protects fish and the habitat they need to survive.

Leaked documents indicate that the federal government is preparing to strike habitat protection from the Act entirely when the next budget drops. These plans have drawn sharp criticism, not just from groups like Ecojustice, but from leading scientists, former fisheries ministers, and local fishermen.

But we can also look to the not-so-distant past for a crash-course on why habitat protection is critical to protecting fish.

In 1977, Roméo LeBlanc — then Canada’s Minister of Fisheries and the Environment — introduced amendments to strengthen the Act. Those amendments, which enshrine habitat protection and the idea that polluters should pay for the harm they cause, are the same ones the current government wants to strike down.

LeBlanc, who was Canada’s longest-serving fisheries minster and later went on to become governor-general, spoke to the House of Commons clearly about why habitat protection was critical to the Fisheries Act and ensuring the long-term sustainability of one of Canada’s most precious natural resources, fish. While the big fishery issue of the day was the plight of Atlantic salmon stocks, his words still ring true today and are worth remembering:

Social growth and change bring forth new threats, dangers hardly dreamed of by the drafters of the original act in 1868. They lived in the days when the Atlantic salmon crowded the banks of eastern rivers. Since then, this famous fish has provided one of the best, or worst, examples of what a species can suffer from society…

…A Fisheries Act strong enough for its purpose of protecting fish and man’s use of fish has obvious side benefits. Although Canada has the longest coastline, and probably the most freshwater of any country, size has no necessary relation to health. Our water resists pollution no more than the water in Minimata. If our laws can protect the water, if we give the fish a place to live, we can have a better place for man to live. People should be able to see clean water, swim in it, maybe catch a fish. The changes we are suggesting will increase the government’s power to protect the fish and their waters.

These changes reflect a stronger public attitude that anyone whose actions affect these resources must take full responsibility. In particular, those who wilfully despoil should face strong penalties…

…But Mr. Speaker, as the case of Atlantic salmon shows so well, the regulation of fishing itself is only part of what we need. Protecting fish means protection their habitats. Protecting the aquatic habitat involves controlling the use of wetlands. The banks of streams, the foreshores of estuaries, provide nutrients to the larger eco-system of lakes and oceans in amounts far out of proportion to their size. The chain of life extending to the whole open ocean depends on bogs, marshes, mudflats, and other “useless-looking” places that ruin your shoes. Biologists have likened these areas to the cornfields and wheatfields on the ocean. These rich shore areas support salmon, lobster, herring and other local populations; their influence extends for hundreds of miles, even to the most rocky shorelines. They are the irreplaceable nurseries of fisheries well-being…

…Habitat protection will always remain a difficult battle because it runs against the energies of good people following their natural bent: developers, loggers, land reclaimers, and so on. The work of constant monitoring and restrain where necessary is hard, but the alternative prospect of forever losing sticks or species of fish is not acceptable.

LeBlanc passed nearly three years ago. We can’t help but think that if he were still here with us, he’d echo the thoughts of John Fraser, another former fisheries minister, who has spoken out about the proposed changes.

“To take habitat out of the Fisheries Act is a very serious error because you can’t save fish if you don’t save habitat,” Fraser told Postmedia News last week.

“People who want to eliminate the appropriate safeguards that should be made in the public interest, these people aren’t conservatives at all. They’re ideological right-wingers with very, very limited understanding, intelligence or wisdom.”

As our backgrounder page on the Fisheries Act clearly spells out, this law is about more than just protecting fish. The bottom line is simple. To protect fish, we must protect their habitat. And the act of protecting fish habitat also protects human health and our ecosystems.