That time the MNRF tried to treat cruising boaters like cormorants

“Cormorant Tree, Monument Channel.” Conté on paper. 2021. Douglas Hunter

The unwashed boating masses have spoken and Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (apparently) has listened. The minister telephoned one objector to its no-good cockamamie plan to impose a 300-meter no-anchoring zone around shoreline development (read: cottages) and said the ministry in effect was standing down, that cruising boats were not on its regulatory radar and that it would not be mucking with anchoring rights that are federally protected under the Canada Shipping Act. If the minister is true to his word, cruising boaters can rest assured that they will not go the way of cormorants, which were the subject of another no-good cockamamie MNRF policy that actually made it onto the books.

For anyone who looks to government—both the political wing and the bureaucrats—to produce soundly considered policy, the MNRF has been a bit of a crazytown department of Queen’s Park lately. In the case of cormorants and cruising boats, you are left with the indelible impression that the current government listens keenly to certain special interest groups and isn’t particularly attuned to voices from outside its electoral echo chamber. In the case of anchoring rights at least, it showed itself capable of listening, but I suspect that’s because in developing a policy that nakedly pandered to waterfront property owners it somehow failed to proactively consult with the province’s marine industry, and that’s a constituency at the heart of a lot of small-town prosperity it could not afford to alienate. It also didn’t hurt that a lot of cruising boaters in Ontario fit the profile of a small-c conservative: independent and not enamoured with any sort of government meddling in their freedoms. People go cruising to get away from it all, not to steam into a mess of red tape about where they are and are not allowed to be and for how long.

Cormorants in Black Bay, Georgian Bay, 2020. Photo Douglas Hunter.

Those are qualities that cormorants couldn’t muster in their defense when this government bowed to the angler lobby and introduced an appalling province-wide hunt designed to completely extirpate a migratory bird, despite objections from the government’s own scientists. I’ve written about the cormorant controversy before. A lot of people hate the heck out of these birds and are convinced they’re eating all the sport fish. I’m not gonna lie. I fish, but I’m not very good at it, and I like cormorants because so many people irrationally hate them. The science on cormorant predation has never been particularly persuasive, but that didn’t stop the angler lobby from demanding that they all be destroyed—adults, eggs, nestlings—like some kind of vile bedbug infestation. With the Ford government, the lobby got what it wanted, one of the worst regulations in wildlife management I may see in my lifetime, unless the province also makes it legal to hunt down all the coyotes in the province from helicopters. (I’m also an ideologically unanchored critic of politicians. I was harsh on the Wynne Liberals when they cut my son’s disability pension as a budget measure and then cynically announced its reinstatement as an increase.)

You may not like or care about cormorants. But you should care about how the province, and specifically the MNRF, formulates policy. What we’ve learned is that a ministry that will produce a regulation allowing a mass-slaughter of an animal species on flimsy evidence to make a special-interest group happy will also propose a regulation that would have devastated the marine industry and the pastime of cruising on flimsy evidence to make another special-interest group happy. What was supposed to be a measure to prevent the proliferation of floating cottages—accommodations on barges—somehow ended up being a declaration of open season on the right of cruising boats to be in the vast majority of anchorages in Georgian Bay and the North Channel and many other parts of the province.

It’s not clear yet how MNRF got to that point. I can’t imagine the bureaucracy crafting such a poorly articulated, evidence-deficient, one-sided policy without some heat from their political masters, but who knows, really. Although there have been floating residences around that have given regulators pause, and I endorse the effort to prevent such squatting in the province’s waters, this whole issue started with one floating cottage that emerged from the Trent-Severn like some feared alien spawn to roost in the waters of Georgian Bay township, where it threatened to start multiplying. The township’s councillors went into do-something mode, but in at least one council meeting, it was clear that the stink-eye was also being focused on cruising boats. Its mayor noted to Cottage Life that the township lobbied hard for the proposed regulations, which turned out to be crafted to take a large broom to the cruising community at the same time that the principle perceived evil of floating cottages was eradicated. Other municipalities got on board, although exactly how many and what they wanted is unclear. The ministry plainly thought a new set of regs that also came down hard on cruising boats was a grand idea, and proposed a cure for floating cottages that was infinitely worse than the disease.

Bear in mind that there isn’t even a demonstrable business plan that would make significant numbers of floating cottages possible. Where are they going to go in the winter? What marina would accept them in the off-season, and how would they even be accommodated? Why could the ministry not address them by tweaking the maximum-stay provisions of its “camping on water” regs? (The ministry has proposed cutting the maximum stay in one place for boats with accommodations from 21 to 7 non-consecutive days in a calendar year, and to require a move of one kilometer, not 100 meters. Cruising boaters have a big problem with that proposal as well. FWIW in my feedback to the initial call for comments on ERO last spring, I floated—pardon the pun—the idea of a 14-consecutive-day rule.) The nadir of the online information meeting the MNRF hosted on March 8 was the point at which ministry staff, who had already indicated its plan to banish barge-like floating accommodations altogether, backtracked to the point of conceding that cruising boats can pretty well anchor wherever they like, for whatever reason. I felt like the staff was being educated on anchoring rights in real time by attending boaters, when they already should have had this stuff nailed. So if the ban on floating accommodations was already in the cards, what was the point of also going after cruising boats, other than the fact that certain parties really wanted the MNRF to do so?

Evidence as to why there was a need for a 300-meter zone for cruising boats was never articulated adequately in the online information meeting. The regulatory proposal on ERO made unqualified noises about grey water, even though there has never been any significant evidence produced to show that grey (sink and shower) water is a problem in anchoring bays, let alone that it can be attributed exclusively to boats. The ministry may as well have said, “cruising boats are eating all the fish.” If grey water was an actual problem, the province could insist that boats have grey water holding tanks. Short of that, if certain anchoring bays did prove to have pollution problems that could be linked to cruising boats, the Ministry of the Environment could get involved with targeted moratoriums on anchoring while water quality recovered. In much the same way, if cormorants were having a demonstrable impact on fish stocks in some locations, targeted culls could have been pursued (which have been instituted before, albeit controversially). Instead, the MNRF green-lit a province-wide mass slaughter of birds, because that’s what a constituency with the ministry’s ear wanted. With cruising boats, it looks like one municipality beholden to shoreline property owners led the charge to drive a regulatory process that was short on evidence and long on “just get the boats out of here.” The only reason staff at the info session could give for the 300-meter rule was “sociocultural.” They may as well have just said, “waterfront property owners don’t like cruising boats.” But as attendees of the session learned, the Georgian Bay Association, which represents thousands of cottagers, never asked for the proposed 300-meter rule, and its representative called on the ministry to get rid of it. (Georgian Bay township is free to disavow that it ever wanted cruising boats driven out of most anchorages.)

The process of formulating a policy on floating accommodations isn’t over with. We may still see some measures that stick in the craw of cruising boaters and the marine industry. We also may see measures that won’t withstand a legal challenge because the anchoring rights guaranteed by the Canada Shipping Act are so broad that they apply to pretty much anything that floats and moves around, including barges. But what is worrisome is that we have a ministry that with cormorants and now with cruising boaters, chose to shoot first in its policy making and ask questions later. Boaters, unlike cormorants, got to respond to those questions with pointed questions of their own. Going forward, they might be treated seriously as stakeholders when regulations are being incubated, not after they’ve been drafted.

2 Replies to “That time the MNRF tried to treat cruising boaters like cormorants”

  1. Doug, I really appreciate your insights and how you shine a spotlight on areas of concern to those of us who go boating on Ontario’s waterways. However, you may want to rethink that grey water holding tank notion. Back in the early nineties, Bob Rae’s NDP Provincial Government actually did pass legislation making that a requirement. They were forced to back down and rescind the legislation after a few cogent points were brought to their attention:
    1. They were not going to be able to require it of American visitors, and there are 10 American boats on the Great Lakes for every Canadian boat.
    2. Tankage has to be designed into a boat from the beginning. Attempting to add it afterwards affects the stability, and therefore safety, of the vessel.
    3. Capturing grey water into holding tanks will require far more frequent pumpouts, which will in turn require building a multitude of manned pumpout stations which the government, especially back in the era of Rae Days, has no money for. Failing to provide pumpout stations will simply result in people emptying their holding tanks overboard under cover of darkness, probably including black water and therefore making matters much worse.
    4. Major international boat builders (pretty much the only kind left) are not going to alter their designs to suit the ecological whims of a single Canadian province, so no new boats will be available with designed-in grey water tankage.

    So, let’s not be reckless in offering suggestions to our political overlords. We have already seen how poor a job they do of thinking through the long-term implications of their attempts to appease their more vocal supporters.

  2. Hi Marcus: thanks for the feedback. I should have been clearer. I’m not advocating for grey water holding tanks. There just isn’t evidence that grey water is an environmental problem that would demand such a sweeping remedy. My point should have been that if the government really wanted to do something about grey water, it could call for holding tanks instead of kicking every boat out of every shoreline area within 300 meters of a cottage. The grey water excuse for the 300 meter zone was specious.

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