COVID-19 stimulus funding: The salmon in the room

It’s been encouraging to see reports that three federal ministers have been leading internal discussions about “green” COVID-19 stimulus funding for infrastructure: the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, and the Minister of Canadian Heritage.

Three is nice, but four would be better. Wouldn’t it be great to see the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), the Honourable Bernadette Jordan, at the table?

Community infrastructure (like roads, bridges, dams and dikes) has significant impacts on fish habitat – some large, and many, many, smaller, but cumulative impacts. Decades of academic and government-sponsored research has confirmed this.

Happily, in 2020, there are examples from Canada and all over the world of ways to avoid these impacts, ranging from retrofits to nature-based design. What’s more, Canada’s renewed Fisheries Act offers a fresh federal mandate to get this done – in fact it requires that the Minister consider cumulative effects on fish and fish habitat when developing regulations. DFO is exploring how to fulfil its mandate regarding cumulative effects, and here is an opportunity to be proactive.

Minister Jordan is also mandated to lead the development of a “comprehensive blue economy strategy,” which would presumably involve investigating all opportunities for federal investments that have multiple benefits. In BC, for example, it’s estimated that wild salmon contribute more than $600 million to the economy each year – so it would make sense to prioritize infrastructure projects that create jobs, serve local needs and protect salmon.

It seems like there should be a wonderful alignment of ministerial interests and mandates…but where is Minister Jordan? Minister McKenna has been talking energetically about double or triple values for money invested in infrastructure, and investing in “people and the communities they live in.” She has referred to the need to have infrastructure policy that includes a climate lens and considers social factors – but are she and Minister Jordan missing an opportunity for quadruple values, by protecting and recovering vital fish habitat?

Why does it matter?

On the west coast, salmon are keystone species, meaning many other species depend on them for survival. However, there is a salmon crisis in the Fraser River.

DFO’s own assessment of Fraser salmon well-being shows that their health is steadily declining over time. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada has found that half the Chinook salmon runs are endangered, the most serious designation, and most of the rest are headed in the same direction. Many sockeye salmon runs are also classified as endangered.

Last year, after yet another disastrous sockeye salmon return, DFO noted that habitat loss was one of the main challenges facing salmon in the Fraser.

At the same time, then-Fisheries Minister Wilkinson acknowledged the critical importance of salmon for Indigenous nations and for the economy in the region. Indigenous leaders have described how their community members depend on salmon for both cultural and physical sustenance, in a relationship where the salmon are not just valued, but sacred.

For the salmon, habitat loss and degradation (particularly in urbanized areas like the Lower Fraser) are often connected to infrastructure and related land-use decisions. Because they migrate on epic journeys from freshwater to sea and back again, and need a range of habitats for different parts of their life cycle, salmon are vulnerable to impacts from infrastructure anywhere in and around streams, rivers and coastlines. They need to get upstream to spawn, but their journeys are impeded by a myriad of flood gates, road crossings and drainage structures.

Salmon also need coastal and riparian habitat for sustenance and protection, but the construction of dikes and jetties has led to the loss of streamside vegetation and wetlands along rivers and in estuaries. Plus, urban and industrial development – which relies on drains and pipes for stormwater management and releases inadequately treated wastewater – leads to polluted waters for salmon as they swim up and down rivers and creeks.

Why is DFO missing from infrastructure funding discussions?

Recently, through DFO, the federal government allocated significant funding for fish habitat restoration initiatives. This includes projects supported by the Coastal Restoration Fund, the BC Salmon Restoration and Innovation Fund (jointly with the Province of BC), and the Canada Nature Fund for Aquatic Species at Risk. A number of these projects are aimed at reversing the harmful effects of previous infrastructure, such as dikes, jetties, roads and flood gates.

It seems strange, then, that DFO has been invisible in discussions about funding for new and renewed infrastructure for communities. All of the funding programs for fish habitat restoration have been oversubscribed, so it’s not the case that there’s no further work to be done. While it’s true that not all infrastructure projects have significant impacts on fish habitat, some will, if they are not designed with fish and fish habitat in mind. And in cases where aging infrastructure needs to be replaced and/or upgraded, it’s an opportune time to retrofit existing structures and restore habitat, including habitat connectivity, that has previously been lost.

It’s also an opportunity to start investing widely in natural infrastructure (managing natural systems like wetlands to provide multiple benefits, such as flood management) and hybrid infrastructure (i.e. combining natural features with soft, ecological engineering), to support watershed management that will ensure long term resilience for fish and communities. A 2018 study commissioned by the Canadian Council of Environment Ministers noted the benefits of natural infrastructure, but found a number of barriers at the government level, including:

  • Limited awareness of opportunities among decision-makers at federal, provincial, territorial, and local levels; and
  • Policy and regulatory barriers that tend to favour grey infrastructure (e.g. pipes and drains instead of wetlands and rain gardens).

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that DFO is involved in designing infrastructure funding programs and initiatives, whether to make existing infrastructure more friendly to fish, or to support wider use of natural infrastructure. Further, regulations to implement the updated Fisheries Act appeared in August 2019 but do not specifically address infrastructure. As described above, DFO used to be involved in the development of guidelines and policy for infrastructure like dikes and roads, even if the policies were not legally enforceable, but no longer seems to have even this level of engagement.

The Practitioners Guide to Fish Passage for DFO Habitat Management Staff, first published in 2007, and the Environmental Guidelines for Vegetation Management on Flood Protection Works from 1999, recommend practices and techniques that could protect habitat. But the recommendations were never legally adopted, and there is no indication that DFO actively supported implementation of the recommendations. What’s more, approaches to flood protection are evolving to take into account natural processes rather than simply thinking about barriers.

Without any federal leadership or guidance, whether through regulations or as part of funding agreements, we are relying on infrastructure project proponents to voluntarily protect fish habitat. This requires proponents, often local governments, to voluntarily do some additional work (and likely allocate additional funding) to ensure that projects safeguard habitat.

It already takes a lot of work and resources to even assemble an application for infrastructure funding, which may or may not be successful. There is also a well-acknowledged “infrastructure deficit,” and local governments are more cash-strapped than ever in these pandemic times. It seems that local governments, at least, are not the most likely actors to move the dial.

The first round of the 2018 Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund from Infrastructure (DMAF) Canada did at least encourage “innovative” projects involving nature-based infrastructure, although it was left entirely up to proponents to develop their own ideas. The DMAF also had a $20 million minimum threshold, which limited its accessibility.

Yet, there is certainly expertise within DFO that could be mustered to set some parameters for funding applications and potentially add incentives for infrastructure projects that have fish habitat benefits. DFO has decades of experience reviewing impacts to fish habitat from existing community infrastructure. This could be a further cost-effective way for DFO to protect and restore fish habitat.

Instead, it seems we will be proceeding with infrastructure development as it has occurred in the past: funding it, designing it, and only then seeing if there is any way to mitigate its impacts on fish habitat. Where that is found to be too expensive or inconvenient, DFO will provide the necessary authorizations and direct some form of compensation, such as the rehabilitation of other fish habitat.

As reported in a recent Narwhal article, this is exactly what is happening now. As for compensation, in the Fraser we have evidence that those ad hoc habitat compensation projects have had a very low success rate, less than one-third, according to research from a 2016 report led by Megan Lievesley.

Meanwhile, through the Coastal Restoration Fund and the BC Salmon Restoration and Innovation Fund, DFO is funding projects in the Lower Fraser that:

  • restore fish passages previously obstructed by jetties in the Fraser Estuary;
  • further assess existing barriers – Watershed Watch has estimated that access to 1500 km of stream habitat in the Lower Fraser is cut off by existing flood infrastructure – and;
  • involve active restoration of streams and other habitat.

The disconnect seems palpable.

Wouldn’t it make sense for DFO to also use its own powers, influence and expertise to ensure that new infrastructure funding takes fish and fish habitat into account?

A case study of a funding program for flood management without DFO involvement

From 2014 to 2019, Public Safety Canada provided funding for local governments across Canada, including in BC, to support flood risk management. There is no evidence that DFO was involved in developing or administering this program. We took a look at the program guidelines and outputs to try to understand if this mattered, from the point of view of salmon in the Lower Fraser.

The National Disaster Mitigation Program (NDMP)…[was intended to address]… rising flood risks and costs, and build the foundation for future informed mitigation investments that could reduce, or even negate, the effects of flood events.

There were four streams of funding addressing risk assessment, flood mapping, mitigation planning, and non-structural/small-scale structural mitigation. In the Lower Fraser, the Fraser Basin Council received $725,000 to assess flood risk, including a federal contribution of $340,000. The study that was produced, Regional Assessment of Flood Vulnerability, assessed the vulnerability of:

i) residential, commercial and industrial properties;
ii) agricultural lands;
iii) transportation networks (railways, highways, airports, ports); and
iv) other development such as BC Hydro substations; municipal services; emergency response facilities/hospitals and schools.

Notably, this assessment, which is several hundred pages long, does not mention salmon once. Perhaps salmon are not seen to be particularly at risk from flooding. On the other hand, the Fraser River is often described as “one of the greatest salmon rivers” in the world, and it would seem that this important context should be part of assessing a major flooding event on this river. Would precious remaining habitat be lost or contaminated, for example? NDMP Program Guidelines did suggest that risks to the “natural environment” could be included, but it seemed optional.

There was also no evidence that Stream 2, flood mapping, would offer any insight into how fish habitat would be impacted. BC Coastal Floodplain Mapping Guidelines and Specifications, for example, do not mention fish or salmon habitat. In the case of the Lower Fraser, although this was not funded through NDMP, a range of flood scenarios has been produced. Again, there was no particular information about fish and fish habitat, although presumably the linkages could be made separately.

The next stage, Stream 3, addressed mitigation planning. According to the NDMP Program Guidelines:

Mitigation planning is the process by which a community reflects on its identified risks, and uses this information to make more informed planning decisions. First, it must identify its broad mitigation goals. Second, it should identify the objectives/strategies required to meet those goals.

Lower Fraser mitigation planning has not been completed. However, it isn’t clear where planning for ecosystem recovery and salmon health for the Fraser would have entered into mitigation planning in the NDMP process, given that identification of risks to the natural environment, and in particular salmon-bearing rivers and streams, was not required in Stream 1. Mitigation planning that took into account fish habitat, including reducing barriers or using natural infrastructure, would not necessarily be incompatible, but it would not be an obvious product of this process.

The final stream of NDMP funding was for flood mitigation projects. Again, there was no mention of anything related to fish and fish habitat. For the NDMP, and Public Safety Canada, the river was only a source of risk to humans, not a source of life.

Break down the siloes and build back for resilience

The federal government can draw on this experience to approach infrastructure funding differently. Breaking down the siloes between federal departments is possible, as the Ministers of Infrastructure, Environment and Climate Change, and Canadian Heritage have already shown in cooperating on “green” funding for infrastructure. With the mandate and responsibility to protect fish and fish habitat, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans needs to get involved.

Moreover, the federal government must meet its obligations in respect of Indigenous fishing rights and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and use all avenues to ensure that federal actions (and inaction) do not further harm fish and fish habitat.

We can have beautiful, sustainable and resilient communities by building back better after COVID-19 and investing in green infrastructure. The living dike project in Boundary Bay, supported by West Coast Environmental Law and the Emergency Planning Secretariat (the new Indigenous organization looking at flood management in the Lower Fraser) is a good example of how we can work together, and with nature, to be more resilient.

However, we need to get beyond just a few good examples, and give keystone species like salmon the respect they deserve in federal policy and funding decisions that affect them. Salmon need a proactive DFO at the table.

Photo Credit: BC Government Flickr

Deborah Carlson - Staff Lawyer
Julia Roe - Summer Law Student