Federal budget cuts $100 million from fisheries and oceans over three years

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OTTAWA – The Harper government took another axe to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Thursday’s budget.

The department will have to cut spending by $33 million a year starting in 2015-16 – the year the government vows to balance the budget.

But the federal Conservatives, who first cut Fisheries spending in the 2012 budget and watered down habitat protection legislation, tried to make amends with critics by increasing funding for habitat protection.

The money, more than $10 million over two years, will be aimed at local organizations who will presumably fill gaps left by the departure of Fisheries habitat officers since last year’s cuts.

Watershed Watch Salmon Society executive director Craig Orr said the $10 million boost could be helpful, but he added he would need to see more details.

And Orr is concerned about the additional budget cuts to DFO since they come before the federal government has responded to the Cohen Commission inquiry into loss of salmon stocks in B.C. The inquiry report cites “concern” over earlier staff cuts in DFO’s Pacific Region habitat management program.

“It seems to me with these big cuts, the federal government is ignoring the public interest in wild salmon,” said Orr.

The latest austerity measures start with a modest $4-million cut for this coming year and $5 million in 2014-15, then soar to $33 million annually for 2015-16 and subsequent years.

But the measures will target Ottawa headquarters and will be relatively painless to the regions, documents suggest. Bureaucrats are to target “administrative overhead,” reduce“duplication,” and improve decision-making.

“Organizational changes required to generate these savings will not impact front line staff or services to Canadians.”

The department has about 11,000 employees and an annual budget of just under $1.9 billion. The vast majority of its spending and staff are outside Ottawa.

Two measures in the budget appear to respond to criticism of cuts in 2012 of roughly one-third of habitat staff in B.C. and across the country.

Ottawa will contribute $10 million over two years across Canada for “partnerships” with local groups on fisheries and habitat conservation measures.

The Vancouver-based Pacific Salmon Foundation will see its funding increase from about $300,000 a year to $1 million as a result of changes in how the government allocates revenue from the sale of the conservation “stamps” fishermen have to purchase when they acquire licenses.

“This will allow the Foundation to fund additional projects to improve Pacific salmon habitat, in partnership with communities, first nations and non-profit organizations,” according to the budget.

Ottawa is sparing the aquaculture sector from austerity measures, extending for another year a program launched in 2008 aimed at enhancing “regulatory certainty” and “improving the conditions for a sustainable aquaculture sector.” The price tag for the renewal is $57.5 million over five years starting in 2013-14.

Mary Ellen Walling, executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, welcomed the funding earmarked for aquaculture.

She noted the aquaculture sector has been working for some time to get in place a regulatory framework as there is essentially none now.

The only mention of aquaculture in federal legislation is in the Bank Act, she said.

Salmon farmers in B.C. work under a one-year licences, yet it takes two years to grow a crop, added Walling.

“For us to see some investment specifically to enhance regulatory certainty, I think is really quite good news for the whole sector,” she said.

The government also budgeted $33.1 million in the 2013-14 to extend programs on both coasts aimed at covering the cost of “integrating first nations fishing enterprises” into commercial fisheries.

The program was first announced on the West Coast in 2007, when the government proposed the establishment of a $175-million, five-year fund aimed at ending long-standing tensions between aboriginal and commercial fisheries on the West Coast.

The money was to be used by Ottawa to create “one fishery” in B.C. by buying licenses of commercial fishers seeking to leave the business. Those licenses could be passed on to first nations businesses, as well as establish “enhanced catch monitoring” and “strengthen enforcement efforts.”

A similar program has been ongoing in Atlantic Canada. Federal officials were unable to say how the $33.1 million in new money was to be divided between the two coasts.



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