Canada has promised to "protect" 10 per cent of marine waters by 2020, but what that means in terms of restrictions on fishing and other commercial activity has not been established.
"We're not there yet," said Rémi Bujold, who co-chairs a seven-member advisory panel named Friday by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
The panel has until mid-September to recommend the standards that will apply inside marine protected areas.
"We cannot make any commitment at the moment. We are just entering our tour of the country with open minds. We are there to listen to these groups," said Bujold.
No one from fishing industry on panel
Bujold, a former federal Liberal MP and cabinet minister from Quebec, is one of three senior Liberal figures named to the panel.
The other Liberals are former federal fisheries minister David Anderson from British Columbia and Halifax businessman Tom Hayes, an adviser to two Liberal premiers.
The other panel members are:
- Inuit leader Mary Simon (co-chair).
- Environmentalist Darcy Dobell.
- Chief Maureen Thomas of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation in British Columbia.
- Former New Brunswick civil servant Marc Léger.
Federal Conservative fisheries critic Todd Doherty said the Liberals have failed to balance environmental protection and the economy.
"We have a panel without any representatives from the industries or the communities most affected by MPAs," Doherty said in a statement.
Panel must follow certain standards
The marine protected areas panel has been instructed to use categories and protection standards developed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
It categorizes marine protected areas based on conservation goals such as maintaining biodiversity and protecting ecosystems and natural monuments.
The guideline recommends that MPAs categorized with those objectives are at least 75 per cent "no-take" zones, where removal of resources is banned.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans' April 6 announcement also said the panel must consider recommendations from the Indigenous Circle of Experts.
Panel not coming to N.S. or N.L.
The panel had its first meeting this weekend in Vancouver, where the first day was devoted to First Nations consultations, according a draft agenda released by DFO.
Environmentalists, academics and (to a lesser degree) industry representatives were also on hand.
The panel has only one public appearance in Atlantic Canada, a two-day stop in Moncton on May 5 and 6.
It is not scheduled to come to the provinces of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.
Bujold said that may change.
DFO keeping master map secret
The panel is spared one of the more difficult and controversial elements in the MPA process: nominating the candidate areas.
More of them are coming. A lot more.
As of last fall, Canada had set aside 3.63 per cent of marine and coastal areas.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans will not release the master map it has drawn up of candidate marine protected areas, although it has been shared with industry and some non-government organizations.
"We do not have a publicly available map," DFO spokesperson Carole Saindon said in an email.
Environmentalists cheer, industry frets
While applauded by environmental groups, there are misgivings in the fishing industry over the creation of "no-take" zones inside marine protected areas.
In February, the Canadian Association of Prawn Producers and Groundfish Enterprise Allocation Council, representing big companies, challenged the efficacy of MPAs in a letter to the parliamentary committee of Fisheries and Oceans.
"The conservation value of marine protected areas as a fish protection measure in an open-shelf system (such as those found in Canada) is largely absent,' the organization said in a submitted brief.
Some inshore fishermen are also wary.
In Sheet Harbour, N.S., last week, where the first large inshore marine protected area has been proposed, lobster fisherman Peter Connors said, "The waters here are in a natural, pristine state after generations of doing what we do.
"We don't think there should be any impact at all on the fishery."
MPAs 'proven to be effective'
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society supports the conservation effort.
"Marine protected areas are a proven conservation strategy that provide numerous benefits to ecosystem services and functions by safeguarding large and diverse ecosystems, creating safe havens for vulnerable species, and allowing low-resiliency communities to recover and rebuild.
"MPAs have also been proven to be effective in the protection of migratory and highly mobile animals, such as whales and seabirds, by protecting critical migration routes, feeding grounds and other aggregation sites, from harmful human activities," the society said in its brief to Parliament.