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Fisheries and Oceans Canada is considering significant cuts to the ranks of the workers who protect fish habitat across the country, according to internal federal documents obtained by The Globe and Mail and other media

These biologists have been the front-line protectors of the country’s salmon resource, especially in British Columbia, where there has been a large commerical fishery for decades. The biologists study the fish for signs they are suffering from disease, pollution or overfishing and monitor their habitats.

DFO memos show that expected staffing cuts in habitat protection will reduce staff in the Pacific Region from 90 to 60. Similar staffing cuts are expected across the country.

The cutbacks are part of the government’s deficit-fighting austerity program, which is forcing managers to attempt to do more with less.

In the department of Fisheries and Oceans, employees have been told that “a national staffing process” – which will lead to staff reductions and office closings – will begin on Nov. 16 and is to be fully operational by January.

33% cuts
While the nationwide details aren’t yet clear, a Pacific region organization chart for DFO approved on Oct. 19 says the species protection branch in British Columbia will be reduced to 60 positions from 90.

DFO wouldn’t provide comments on the leaked material late last week.

Environmentalists say the cuts are staggering because they go to the front line, where fisheries biologists who protect the environment are being removed from the field.

“We have a government which says trust us, no need to worry … but now we have fewer habitat biologists to protect fish in British Columbia, when fish are under more pressure than they have ever been before,” Gwen Barlee, policy director of the Wilderness Committee told the Globe and Mail. “That is really concerning because the biologists are the ones on the front lines…they just won’t have enough people in the field any more.”

Otto Langer, a former DFO biologist and chief of habitat assessment in B.C., has said in blog posts that the cuts shock him, saying this takes the DFO staffing back levels of about 33 years ago.

“I never, ever thought it would get this bad.”\

Dark Days
Sue Scott, VP communications with the Atlantic Salmon Federation, told SCT, ” The changes to major environmental protection Acts, such as Fisheries, Environmental Assessment and Navigable Waters Protection is a national crisis, especially coming in tandem with cuts to habitat, science, and enforcement staff. 

The Amendments to the Fisheries Act, she says,  were thrust upon Canadians undercover of the Conservative Government’s Budget Omnibus Bill, without consultation. 

“In answer to public outcry,” she added, “Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Minister Keith Ashfield promised consultation in the Fall. The deadline for approval of the Fisheries Act Amendments  by
Order-in-Council of January 1, 2013  is fast approaching, and DFO has arranged for no meaningful consultation before this happens.”

Scott says DFO staff are under the gun trying to consult with Provinces and develop scientific data that would guide the amendments.  “Basically,” she said, “the emphasis has gone from protecting fish habitat to protecting “important commercial, recreational and Aboriginal fisheries”. 

Scott and others who have been observing the cuts at DFO and the diminishment of habitat protectiopn say that there are many terms to define such as what constitutes a recreational fishery, serious
harm to fish, and permanent damage to habitat, including assessing cumulative impacts. 

One change is that the new Fisheries Protection Program (formerly Habitat) will have only 16 service delivery points across the country. 

In the Atlantic region these offices are slated to be located in Moncton, Dartmouth and St. John’s, with no office in PEI, despite that province’s significant impacts on river habitat from
agriculture run-off.  

In Newfoundland five offices have been reduced to one and in Nova Scotia, at least four offices have been reduced to one.  In the Gulf
Region, two offices have been eliminated.

“It really is a dark day for Canada’s fish and their environment,” Scott adds

In B.C., Mr. Langer and others have been carefully tracking DFO and were able to provide a quick analysis.

Gary Corbett, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, told the Globe and Mail on Thursday that the union knows DFO was planning a 33-per-cent staff cut nationally, but details on which positions are being removed, and where, had not yet been made available.

“Everybody is trying to get a fix on that,” said Mr. Corbett, who had not seen the organizational charts.

Moving deck chairs on a sinking ship
Craig Orr, executive director of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, said the deep cuts to habitat protection in B.C. are dismaying because salmon stocks are in decline, and development is increasingly threatening the environment.

“For me, the reorg chart is a lot like moving around the deck chairs on the sinking fish habitat ship,” he said in an e-mail. “Better appreciate our rivers and fish while you can.”

DFO would only say to staff that they acknowledge that the changes “are significant and will require adjustments” in how they conduct business.

The note said human resources support is available for those “whose position may be declared surplus, and indeed for everyone who may be impacted by these changes.”