As biodiversity around the world is in decline due to human impact, nations have taken steps toward marine conservation.
According to The World Wildlife Fund, the rapid loss of species we are seeing today is estimated between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than before humans came along. Biodiversity underpins how the entire ecosystem functions. It’s something that future generations depend upon.
Yet Canada, which has the world’s longest coastline, has fallen behind in the international community in terms of its commitments to marine and coastal protection.
Source: The World Bank
Currently, the country’s existing marine-protected areas cover 56,000 square kilometres—about one per cent of Canada’s oceans and Great Lakes.
The Trudeau government has pledged to increase the nation’s marine-protected areas to at least five per cent of Canada’s coast line by 2017 and at least another five by 2020 to meet Canada’s commitments to the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity.
“You do need to consider a variety of social and economic issues, but the overriding concern needs to be what do you need to protect biodiversity.”— Sabine Jessen, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society
In an effort to slow biodiversity loss, Canada and 200 other countries agreed in 2010 to at least halve the loss of natural habitats and expand protected areas to 17 per cent of the world’s terrestrial and inland water, and 10 per cent of the world’s coastal and marine areas by 2020.
The Harper government didn’t make much progress—the current number lies at about one per cent and there hasn’t been a new protected area designated in more than five years.
Source: Government of Canada
What are marine-protected areas?
Marine-protected areas are clearly defined geological areas that are regulated and protected to achieve the long-term conservation of its associated ecosystems. This includes limiting coastal activities like commercial fishing and oil and gas exploration and extraction in certain areas.
Maxine Westhead, who heads the Maritimes region of the Marine Protected Areas Program at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, works on the regulatory process for proposed protected areas.
She says her office works with industries and other organizations in a “highly consultative process” to identify key economic areas.
“Our goal is to come up with a plan that’s reasonable and can be accepted by industry. We’re finding that balance,” she says.
The federal government relies on the advice, ideas and recommendation from a variety of sectors that have an interest in marine areas, ranging from industries to scientists and Inuit communities. Oceans and fisheries minister Hunter Tootoo has been meeting with different groups across Canada to consult them on this issue.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, an organization that has been pushing for more protected areas across Canada, is one of these groups.
Sabine Jessen is the national director of the oceans program at CPAWS and has been a big part of the consultative process.
“I think we realize on land that we can’t just do anything anywhere, and I think that realization is coming a lot slower when it comes to the ocean,” Jessen says.
“You do need to consider a variety of social and economic issues, but the overriding concern needs to be what do you need to protect biodiversity so we need to make sure we’re protecting those things from harmful activities,” she says.
Effects on Canadians
Fishermen’s groups and other commercial industries have expressed concerns about how these conservation efforts could limit their commercial fishing and resource extraction.
Inuit communities worry about how this could affect their lifestyles. Many Nunavut residents, for example, still live on the coast and hunt marine animals.
Stephan Schott, a resource and environmental economist at Carleton University, studies solutions for sustainable fisheries in the Arctic. He hopes to see a balance between the nation’s environmental concerns and the needs of Inuit communities in whatever decisions are made.
“Is it based on Western science or local knowledge? That’s a big question I think, because when I talk to fishermen, they have very different opinions to scientists and biologists. I’m not saying that either side is right, but there will be controversies as to where to exactly put them,” he says.
The federal government has promised to collaborate and consult Inuit communities. And as Minister Tootoo is Inuit himself, Schott says he sees this as a good sign.
As the Trudeau government attempts to play catch-up on the issue of marine-protected areas, Jessen says the 10 per cent target is very doable, but is only a starting point for maintaining biodiversity around the world.
“I think we realize on land that we can’t just do anything anywhere, and I think that realization is coming a lot slower when it comes to the ocean. We’re kind of used to not having as many controls over what we do where, and part of the issue is that we can’t always see the impact we’re having,” Jessen says.
“You can hike into an area and see directly on land—it’s much more difficult to see the kinds of impacts we’re having on the marine environment, and they are really big.”
Main photo courtesy of Maxine Westhead/Bedford Institute of Oceanography.