5% Ocean Protection in 2017: What does it mean?
The Federal government recently announced that it has met its goal to protect 5% of Canada's oceans by 2017. Unlike the previous one, this Federal government has declared it a priority to live up to its international commitments on ocean biodiversity conservation, so these first steps really are something to celebrate.
Canada's next target is for at least 10% ocean conservation by 2020, but this percentage doesn't necessarily reflect the area under strong protection. The difference between strong and weak protection can mean permission for oil and gas exploration and drilling, bottom-trawl fisheries that damage ocean floor habitat, large-scale shipping and other industrial activities that threaten marine ecosystems and fisheries alike.
How does 5% compare to what the science says?
Science on Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) around the world shows us that at least 30% of an ecosystem must be off-limits to all resource exploitation and industrial activity to effectively conserve and protect marine biodiversity and fisheries for the long-term. These “no-take areas” act as reservoirs for fish, replenishing stocks outside their boundaries, and should be the core zone of an MPA. They also need to be enforced for the long-term (minimum 10 years) to be effective. And most importantly, basing conservation decisions on science isn't enough: indigenous traditional knowledge and governance are integral to marine protection in Canada.
In context: recent progress on marine protection
- Large new proposed MPA off the west coast of Vancouver Island
DFO recently announced upcoming closures to bottom contact fishing as a measure of interim protection towards an MPA designation for seamount and hydrothermal vent ecosystems, areas of high biodiversity and sensitive species, in a large Offshore Pacific Area of Interest (an area that contains ecologically-sensitive land or species that need extra protection) off the west coast of Vancouver Island. This 140,000 km2 area represents 1.44% of Canada’s oceans. The interim closure covers 60% of the total Area of Interest, and it does not affect other fisheries, shipping, or any other activities. It is an important first step because bottom contact fishing can destroy or damage corals, sponges, and other fragile bottom-dwellers that support the web of life around and above them, but more closures will be necessariy to protect fish and marine mammals that also depend on these ecosystems.
- New MPAs in Eastern and Arctic Canada
Other newly proposed MPAs also have varying forms and levels of protection. For example, regulations for the Laurentian Channel MPA (established to protect marine mammals, sea turtles, and many other species) allow oil and gas extraction in 80% of the area, and directional drilling will be permitted in the rest. However, the Tallurutiup Imanga - Lancaster Sound National Marine Conservation Area, a 109,000 km2 area critical for polar bears, belugas, narwhals, seabirds and many other species, will be closed to oil and gas development, mining, and ocean waste disposal. Under the agreement between Canada, the Nunavut Government and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, indigenous subsistence use will still be permitted – an example of how Canada is making progress in marine co-governance with indigenous peoples in some areas.
- Establishing minimum standards for all new MPAs
Internationally recognized minimum standards of protection for all MPAs established in Canada are essential to ensuring that these areas actually work to protect marine resources. The Federal government recently announced plans to develop minimum standards for inclusion in Canada’s Oceans Act - a great step forward. Without minimum standards, each new MPA proposal is subject to negotations over every possible use, which is how we end up with MPAs like the Laurention Channel MPA mentioned above. Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) recommends that minimum standards should include: no bottom trawling, no oil and gas activities, no deep-sea mining, and mandatory core no-take areas.
- The Scott Islands: A Proposed marine National Wildlife Area in the Great Bear Sea
Earlier this year the Federal government invited feedback on a proposal for the Scott Islands marine National Wildlife Area (mNWA). The Scott Islands extend westward to the continental shelf from the northwestern tip of Vancouver Island. Five to ten million migratory seabirds travel the Pacific to forage on the abundance of plankton and small fish here, and over 1 million seabirds breed on the Scott Islands. This designation differs somewhat from an MPA, but the objective is to protect marine foraging habitat for BC’s most important seabird colonies. The proposal brought forward did not affect any current commercial fishing or shipping activities within the 11,546 km2 boundary. We are now awaiting a revised proposal.
Where are we at now in the Great Bear Sea?
Proposals for various levels of protection now cover 30% of the Great Bear Sea, including 16% as part of the First Nations and Province of B.C. Marine Partnership for the North Pacific Coast (MaPP), and 14% in existing and proposed protected areas, including Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound Glass Sponge Reef MPAs, Scott Islands marine National Wildlife Area, rockfish conservation areas and others. First Nations, the province, and the federal government are currently designing the Northern Shelf Bioregion MPA network, which will give federal protection at various levels to many of these areas, with the goal of protecting biodiversity throughout the whole Great Bear Sea.
We believe that it's important for our supporters to grasp what all of these percentages and designations mean in context, and what they could mean for the Great Bear Sea. You too can contribute to achieving the best possible future for the Great Bear, its First Nations cultures, and its ocean denizens.