Hon. David Anderson (Minister of the Environment, Lib.)
Mr. Speaker, I move:
That Bill C-34, an act to amend the Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994 and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, be referred forthwith to the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development.
I rise today to discuss one of the ways in which human activity is affecting the future of nature, a problem that the bill before us is designed to address.
There are probably none among us here who do not remember the Exxon Valdez disaster in the northeast Pacific and the horrifying pictures of dead fish, birds, seals and other marine life that had no chance against this thick oil on top of the water.
What many here may not know is that more marine birds are killed every year by the oil discharged from ships on our east and west coasts than were killed by the entire Exxon Valdez disaster. These seabirds are killed by the chronic oil pollution in the ocean that comes from the discharge of oily waste from the bilges or ballast tanks of ships. And no, these ships are not supposed to dump this waste into the oceans. It is already against the law. But they do it and the impact is huge.
Some may think that in an ocean environment with millions of gallons of water perhaps a bit of oily waste would quickly disperse and be of little concern, but the opposite is true. It takes only a spot of oil or only a drop perhaps the size of a dime on the feathers of a seabird to kill that bird in the cold waters of the north Atlantic.
Like a pinhole leak in a diver's suit, the oil allows ocean waters to penetrate the natural protection of the seabirds. In the north Atlantic, where waters are frequently just above zero degrees, this means that the bird is soaked with cold water and, over a few hours or at the most a few days, all the reserves of its body fat and muscle are depleted and the bird simply dies.
The birds do not survive, and while we see a few struggling here and there on the beaches, we know for certain that the problem at sea is much, much larger.
It is not a matter of a few birds dying every year, nor even a few dozen or a few hundred. There are at least 300,000 bird deaths every year. Anyone who has seen birds washed up on the shore and struggling for survival can tell you what a sad sight this is. These birds are the ones for which Atlantic Canada is renowned. Some of them are specific to the waters of the North Atlantic: guillemots, puffins, dovekies, and gulls. Anyone who has seen just one of these birds gasping for life on a beach knows what a terrible sight this is, but what we have to realize is that we are not just talking of one specimen, but a bird population the equivalent of the human population of a suburb of a city the size of Toronto.
One reason we have this problem is that the level of penalties does not act as a sufficient deterrent for this kind of activity by shipowners and ship captains. Rather than pay the cost of legally disposing of wastes at port facilities, they simply dump at sea. If caught, some pay the penalty and just consider the cost as a cost of doing business. Fines have been quite inadequate in Canada in past years, even when the shipowner or ship captain is brought to justice.
I draw members' attention to the United States, where there have been some recent high profile prosecutions. Let me tell members about just one. In March, a Norwegian shipping company was fined $3.5 million after one of its ships discharged oil off the United States west coast. It is the largest fine ever levelled for this type of environmental violation. Not only will the company pay the fine, it will also launch a comprehensive anti-pollution program on board all its ships.
We need to be consistent with the United States. We share these coastlines and we share these oceans, and we certainly do not want to be viewed as an area where it is somehow easier to dump oil.
We have an opportunity now with this bill to make amendments to two key environmental laws that will address the tragedy that is birds oiled at sea, and I speak today in favour of these two amendments.
To complement provisions already found in the Canada Shipping Act, the government is proposing amendments to the Migratory Birds Convention Act and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. These amendments will strengthen their enforcement powers and our ability to deal with this serious offence. With these changes, we can make early and decisive government moves that will provide immediate results and ensure that enforcement and judicial powers have what they need for proper deterrence.
What we are proposing here is not a new strategy nor anything that will be hard to do. It is a fairly simple solution and one that will help us beef up certain existing laws and take prompt action.
During the winter of 2005, it would be good to be able to report lower seabird mortality rates from oil spills, and to know that we made the right choice by putting together the right legislative tools. It would be good to know that, with a simple approach, we have been able to make a difference for the preservation of biodiversity today and in the future.
These amendments place no burden on those who already take their environmental responsibilities seriously, and I will add that most shipowners and ship captains do. There will be no additional responsibilities or obligations for the good citizens in the shipping industry, but what these amendments will do is ensure that those who feel free to pollute Canadian waters now, without thought or care to those 300,000 birds or more that die annually on the east coast, will no longer be able to do so with impunity. These amendments will help establish their environmental conscience.
None of this comes without cost, and the Government of Canada will increase its investment by some $2 million to $3 million a year to meet the additional requirements of this bill. The money will give us the surveillance and enforcement tools and people that we need, it will allow us to communicate more with the shipping industry, and it will help us pay for the science we need.
This is not a controversial proposal for the provinces. Indeed, we have moved forward with this initiative with the support of provincial governments on the east coast. I would in particular like to congratulate my colleague, the minister of the environment in Newfoundland and Labrador, for his support. We also expect that those in the shipping industry who understand the importance of environmental protection support the approach outlined here today.
With the support of this bill, we will have more of the tools needed to do the right thing and to urge those shipping interests who feel free to dump their waste in our waters to do the right thing. I urge support for this bill, and I know that all members look forward with me to the day when we can count more birds bobbing in the waves and not those struggling for life because of a thoughtless act.
If I may, I would like to add my appreciation for the members of the opposition on the environment committee who indicated the importance of this bill to them and indicated that they would be favourable to speedy passage of this legislation through the House. I think this type of cooperation will be very helpful in making sure this legislation comes into effect just as soon as it possibly can.
Subtopic: Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994