7 Nov 2017 - Having met its target of protecting five per cent of its marine and coastal areas by the end of 2017, Canada is well on its way to meeting its target of 10 per cent by 2020.
How, and through what channels the government will do this, are still very much undetermined.
With the number of marine protected areas and other conservation areas growing around Nova Scotia, opposition is also growing from sectors such as the fishery and oil and gas industries.
Due to commercial tensions and environmental pressure — coupled with the fact that in Nova Scotia, the province with the largest area of protected oceans, the provincial government has urged Ottawa to back off on designating more conservation areas until other provinces catch up — marine protection is a recurring topic in the news.
Why is Canada protecting its oceans?
In 2010, Canada committed to setting aside five per cent of the country’s ocean for protection by 2017 and 10 per cent by 2020 as part of its obligations under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans says conservation contributes to a healthy marine environment by protecting species and biodiversity, and by supporting economic goals through encouraging healthy fish stocks in areas surrounding those that are protected. Conservation also provides industry with a clear idea of what the limitations are and protects cultural heritage, which can also contribute to tourism.
How does the government designate areas to be protected?
The government has a number of tools it can use to protect marine areas. Each comes with a different process and different regulations once the protections are in place.
Broadly, those areas are: marine protected areas established under the Oceans Act by DFO; national marine conservation areas established by Parks Canada; national wildlife areas established by Environment and Climate Change Canada; and what’s known as “other effective conservation measures” such as marine refuges and Fisheries Act closures.
To reach its conservation targets, Canada has defined its own criteria on what types of closures and refuges can count toward these targets. New international criteria will be agreed upon by the Convention on Biological Diversity at the Conference of Parties in December 2018, so some changes to already designated areas could come after that.
For example, since some Fisheries Act closures can be undone, measures might need to be put in place to make closures counting toward Canada’s targets permanent.
Establishing a Fisheries Act marine protected area is a lengthy process that requires significant planning, consultation and scientific assessment. It can take up to seven years for an area of interest to become an MPA, but legislation aimed at speeding up the designation process by cutting red tape, known as Bill C-55, recently passed second reading in the House of Commons and is now before the standing committee on fisheries and oceans.
The same committee is also currently completing a study on marine protection.
In what ways are these areas protected?
Depending on the mechanism of protection being used and what is being protected, different activities are restricted in protected areas. Commercial and recreational fisheries closures, for example, can only prohibit fishing activities. MPAs can have “no-take zones,” which prohibit all extraction of resources, from fishing to oil and gas activities. Sometimes areas allow for certain types of fishing but not others, or the harvesting of certain species but not others.
Enforcement and monitoring policies are in place for areas that require it.
Currently, there is no restriction on food, social and ceremonial fisheries for Indigenous communities in MPAs.
Unlike some other countries, in Canada there are no minimum standards outlining what is allowed and not allowed in protected areas. As advised by scientists and environmental groups like the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax, Fisheries Minister Dominic
LeBlanc announced at the Our Oceans Conference in Malta last month that Canada will establish a national advisory panel that will provide the department with suggestions on minimum standards within future MPAs in Canada’s waters.
The Ecology Action Centre has said it would like to see prohibitions on all bottom trawling, oil and gas development, open-net pen aquaculture and seabed mining as minimum standards in all regions that count toward Canada’s protection targets.
What areas have been protected already?
Last month, Canada met its 2017 target. With new marine refuges off the coast of British Columbia and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Quebec announced in late October, 5.22 per cent of Canada’s marine and coastal areas now have some sort of protection.
In total, there are 11 MPAs in Canada at the moment, and a number of other areas that count toward conservation targets.
There are two MPAs in areas surrounding Nova Scotia: St. Anns Bank, a 4,400-square-kilometre swath of ocean on the Scotian Shelf east of Cape Breton that received official MPA status in June; and a 2,400-square-kilometre submarine valley known as The Gully, located on the edge of the Scotian Shelf east of Sable Island, which was designated in 2004.
Both areas are regions of vast biodiversity and are home to a number of at-risk and endangered species.
There are seven additional areas in Nova Scotia’s waters that contribute to Canada’s targets, including:
• Western and Emerald Bank Conservation Area, protected under Fisheries Act closures and other policies (10,234 km2);
• Corsair and Georges Canyon, protected under Fisheries Act closures (8,797 km2);
• Jordan Basin, protected under Fisheries Act Sensitive Benthic (sea floor) Area policies (49 km2);
• Northeast Channel Coral Conservation Area, protected under Fisheries Act Sensitive Benthic Area policies (391 km2);
• Emerald Basin and Sambro Bank Sponge Conservation Area, protected under Fisheries Act Sensitive Benthic Area policies (260 km2);
• Lopehlia Coral Conservation Area, protected under Fisheries Act Sensitive Benthic Area policies (15 km2); and
• Scallop Buffer Zones (SFA 21, 22, 24), protected under Fisheries Act closures (5,835 km2).
In total, these areas add up to 32,307 square kilometres of protected ocean surrounding Nova Scotia. Note that there are hundreds of different fisheries closures that do not count toward Canada’s conservation targets.
What additional areas are under consideration?
There are six official areas of interest (AOIs) being considered across Canada as possible MPAs, and five DFO regions are in the process of developing MPA network plans that will be released in 2018. There are no current AOIs in Nova Scotia’s waters, but that doesn’t mean there will be no more areas protected in the region. In February, Fisheries and Oceans confirmed that studies have identified the Cape Breton Trough, which encompasses the Area 19 snow crab zone, as a potential area of interest, but said the department is in the very preliminary stages of this process.
In a media response to The Chronicle Herald, a spokesperson from Fisheries and Oceans said that, as part of the early stages of MPA network development, the department has been engaging with stakeholders and has identified a number of areas that may be of interest for future protection.
Through science, consultation and Indigenous traditional and local knowledge, the government still must determine what, if any, marine protection may be required in the areas that have been identified.