Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named North Vancouver MP Jonathan Wilkinson as the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans in July, 2018. As the minister steps into his new role, Devon Page, Ecojustice’s Executive Director, has some words of advice:
Dear Minister Wilkinson,
Congratulations on your new role as Canada’s Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard.
As the executive director of Canada’s largest environmental law charity, I am looking forward to working with you to meet your mandate to “protect our three oceans, coasts, waterways and fisheries and ensure that they remain healthy for future generations.”
Canada’s coastlines are home to an incredible array of species and ecosystems, and people living along the coast — including your constituents in North Vancouver — rely on you to protect it.
Stewarding these resources is a huge responsibility, so I wanted to offer you three suggestions as you settle into your new role.
First, when it comes to protecting our oceans, there is no time to waste.
In the last two weeks, we’ve seen heartbreaking images of a female Southern Resident killer whale carrying her dead calf on her head. Experts say the calf only survived half an hour, making it the latest of these endangered orcas to die before reaching adulthood.
In 2015, the year of the last federal election, there were 81 Southern Resident killer whales. Three years later, the population has dropped to just 75, the lowest level in three decades.
Scientists say a combination of threats are fueling the dramatic decline: a dwindling population of Chinook salmon, which are the whales’ preferred prey, contamination in the marine ecosystems where they live and physical and acoustic disturbance from boats. If we want to ensure Southern Residents are around for future generations, we need to take swift action.
Fortunately, as the new Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, you have the power — and the responsibility — to do just that. Your predecessor found that threats to the Southern Residents are imminent. This means that, under the Species at Risk Act, you must recommend cabinet issue a special “emergency order” to protect these orcas, before it’s too late.
Suggestion number two: Canada needs strong and enforceable laws to protect marine species and ecosystems.
Policies and research are good first steps, but they need to be built upon laws that will hold decision makers and industry to account.
My colleagues and I were pleased when the federal government tabled a bill to amend the Fisheries Act in February, 2018. If passed, the bill would help set up the legal protections necessary to safeguard Canada’s fisheries and the lakes, river and oceans that sustain them.
Going forward, we will need your leadership as Minister of Fisheries and Oceans to ensure that this law is fully implemented to protect our precious aquatic resources, now and in the future.
Finally, one more word of advice: if the government (and you) are unable to do what’s necessary to protect marine species and ecosystems, then be prepared to go to court.
In fact, Ecojustice lawyers will be seeing you there this September, as they represent independent biologist Alexandra Morton in her fight to keep wild salmon healthy.
Wild salmon are an intrinsic part of the Pacific Northwest.
Unfortunately, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans — that’s you — currently allows fish farm operators to transfer farmed Atlantic salmon into open-net pens along wild salmon migration routes, without screening for a virus called piscine orthoreovirus.
This practice is both dangerous and illegal, which is why Ecojustice launched a Federal Court case against your predecessor on Morton’s behalf.
Under the Fishery (General) Regulations, the minister cannot issue a transfer license if the fish to be transferred have “any disease or disease agent that may be harmful to the protection and conservation of fish.” And the science is clear: piscine orthoreovirus is harmful. In fact, a recent study co-authored by a Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientist showed that piscene orthoreovirus can enter blood cells in Chinook salmon and replicate until the cells burst “en masse.”
In the 28 years since Ecojustice first opened its doors, our legal team — backed by thousands of Canadians from coast to coast to coast — has gone to court countless times to defend nature, combat climate change and fight for healthy communities. We also work with decision-makers and elected officials like you to build strong laws and to ensure these laws are enforced on the ground.
So whether it’s inside or outside the court, we look forward to seeing you soon, Minister Wilkinson.
And I hope that, in the meantime, you’ll consider this advice.
Devon Page, executive director of Ecojustice
Photo of a heron in the fog in North Vancouver by Bruce Irschick, via Flickr. Image obtained under Creative Commons.