Reporter’s Notebook: Proposed Fathom Five Zoning Process Makes Some Councillors Nervous

By John Francis, Bruce Peninsula Press

Municipality of Northern Bruce Peninsula’s April 24 Council Meeting began with a Deputation from Parks Canada, in the person of Acting Superintendent Ethan Meleg. The purpose of the delegation was to bring Council up to date on initiatives and processes going on in the national parks.

Meleg explained that the planning process was still on hiatus from the pandemic but was expected to re-launch soon; MNBP would be a partner in that process.

On the subject of land acquisition, Meleg explained that Parks Canada had purchased two small properties. The completion number remains at 90% of study area.

Parks has embarked on a five-year  collaboration with Saugeen Ojibway Nation (SON) and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Fisheries (MNRF) to study the recent decline of lake whitefish in Lake Huron and Georgian Bay.  This will involve larval fish surveys, studies of the breeding shoals, index netting and radio telemetric tracking of  274 adult fish. Meleg stressed that whitefish is connected to the local identity of communities; public participation in the study is encouraged. 

On the subject of sustainable tourism; he stated that all the things we have been doing together over the years are finally paying off — visitation is levelling off. Last year there was a 25% decrease in turnaways compared to 2021. “The message is getting out.”

Meleg acknowledged the partnership with Carol Hopkins of MNBP Bylaw enforcement in reducing crowding and parking problems at Little Cove Road. He noted that park staff are working with municipal Public Works Manager Troy Cameron to solve traffic and parking issues at Singing Sands (Dorcas Bay Road).

On the subject of Big Tub Harbour in Tobermory, Meleg said Parks Canada is working with Transport Canada to expand the restricted area around the wreck of the Sweepstakes at the head of the harbour. In addition, Parks are hoping to put a 10km speed limit on the whole harbour. They are also intending to begin a kayak safety campaign. Meleg promised that parks will protect the moorage and access privileges of Big Tub Harbour property owners.

He explained that parks had been running a pilot project increasing their winter offer at Bruce Peninsula National Park. Under this pilot, the Cyprus Lake office remained open all winter, with the yurts and some campsites also reservable all winter. Having the office open allowed parks to deliver a safety message to would-be hikers. It was hoped that this would reduce the number of ill-equipped hikers getting in trouble and/or needing to be rescued.

Parks will be trying a new Visitor Safety model this year. Instead of a dozen or so people sharing responsibility for visitor safety, there will be one person fully dedicated to visitor safety with four other deputy leaders.

On the subject of Greening the parks, Meleg had much to report. Switching the vehicle fleet to electric has begun, with the park taking delivery of its first F150 Lightning electric truck. More EVs are on the way. Parks are also looking to replace heating systems in their buildings. Also of concern: is the hydro corridor via Cameron Lake Road adequate to supply the park infrastructure or will off-grid solutions be required?

Deputy Mayor Rod Anderson commented that the visitor safety team sounds intriguing; he asked Meleg for more detail. Meleg explained that there will be one full-time safety coordinator, with four other staff members fully trained as well. One of these fully trained people will be on duty at all of “the most important times” and they will be able to draw on other staff as needed to respond to situations. Councillor Aman Sohrab asked if this would be 24/7. Meleg replied that it would not, but that a fully trained team member would always be on call, 24/7.

Councillor Smokey Golden began her comments by referencing Parks Canada’s intention to turn Fathom Five into Canada’s first National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA). She reminded Meleg of previous MNBP submissions to the park planning process — submissions which questioned which zones would go where. (Parks uses zoning much as a municipality does — to identify what uses are permitted in each area.)

She noted that sport fishing is not allowed in Zones 1 and 2, so that this zoning matters. She stated that all users must be consulted at every stage, because once the NMCA is gazetted, “we are heading into another whole level of regulations”, which has the potential to interfere with municipal jurisdiction on shorelines as well as interfering with traditional uses of the water for fishing and other pursuits. She pointed out that her reading of policy documents “suggests that parks likes the majority of an NMCA to be zones 1 and 2”. These are very restrictive zones, she continued and the proposed fines are astronomical. Sport fishing would not be permitted in either zone, while even boating and SCUBA diving would be banned in Zone 1, She stressed that all users must be consulted at every stage of the planning process. This is especially true of Council because Councillors are elected to represent their constituents at every stage of the process.

Councillor Golden complained that the current situation puts Council in an impossible situation. They have been asked to comment on a plan by June 8 but they haven’t seen any of the mapping the plan would be based on. She is afraid it will “turn into a runaway train” that can’t be stopped.

Acting Superintendent Meleg assured her that Fathom Five is not scheduled yet and therefore the regulations don’t apply yet. He promised “significant consultation” before anything is implemented. This will not be a quick process, he continued, noting that it cannot even begin until the SON land claim is settled. 

Mayor Milt McIver asked Meleg for as much information as possible. Meleg promised cooperation. Councillor Golden pointed out that while gazetting Fathom Five might not be imminent, Parks Canada’s website suggests that turning Fathom Five into an NMCA is its highest priority. The NMCA site’s home page is a picture of Fathom Five. “We have very little information on this, so how can we represent the public?” She stressed that Meleg is not to blame for this situation. 

Meleg offered to facilitate a meeting with the national team handling the special consultation on Fathom Five. Mayor McIver and Councillor Golden were very pleased with this offer.

In a recent interview, I asked Councillor Golden why she is so concerned. At the end of a multi-year negotiation process, she told me, Bruce Peninsula National Park was created in 1987. At the very last moment — and with no consultation whatsoever — Fathom Five National Marine Park was created the same day. “You realize that things can happen that totally surprise you.” The consequences of that unplanned decision are still resounding today.

Peninsula residents have been getting our living on and from the waters of Georgian Bay and Lake Huron since the first settlers arrived, she continued. It’s not like parks are preserving some trackless wilderness, miles from nowhere — this is a place with traditional uses and a traditional economy based on the waters of what they now call Fathom Five. 

She points out that we already have perfectly good regulations under Transport Canada. She is concerned that a committee of policy makers in Ottawa could make a snap decision based on old information and poorly reasoned reports, then “boom” — suddenly impose a “solution” on us, in the form of another whole layer of complicated regulations and enforcement. She hopes to prevent that by demanding ongoing consultation.

At the same time, she wants to make sure that her suspicions about “head office” don’t make it harder for people working at Bruce/Fathom Five. “The local staff are great. Don’t take it out on them.”

It’s Ottawa she’s concerned about.