Justin Trudeau Canada Marine Projected Areas

Is Canada Fudging the Numbers on its Marine Protection Progress?

Canada has made significant progress in the last year toward meeting its international commitment to protect 10 per cent of its oceans by 2020 — at least on paper. 

The government now claims to have set aside 7.75 per cent of Canada’s oceans for protection, up from under one per cent in 2016.

But a closer look at the numbers that make up the total shows that, far from establishing sprawling new protected areas, new accounting is responsible for much of the growth — and whether all of the areas will ultimately be eligible to count toward Canada’s international target is still up in the air.

“How well those will stand the test of time … against the agreed-upon guidelines remains to be seen,” says Stephen Woodley, vice-chair for science biodiversity for the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s commission on protected areas.

The catch with Canada’s “protected” areas is that, well, they aren’t necessarily completely protected.

Full Marine Protected Areas — such as those in Hecate Strait on the central coast of B.C., which protect extremely rare and delicate glass sponge reefs, or Basin Head in PEI, which protects an estuary and dune system — guard against “any activity that disturbs, damages, destroys or removes any living marine organism or any part of its habitat.” There are exceptions allowed in most of the MPAs, including commercial fishing in many instances, but by default they set a high bar for protection.

However, right now, the government might simply close one fishery, such as lobster or scallops, and count an area as “protected.”

But a fisheries closure isn’t necessarily permanent and often doesn’t provide protection for all the biodiversity of an area.

Canada counting fisheries closures as ‘protected’ areas

Fisheries closures currently make up more than half of the area Canada is touting as “protected.”

This could bring the Canadian government into conflict with the international standard.

The international standard for a marine protected area varies, spanning from a strictly-enforced no-take zone to an area with much more lax regulations. The final guidelines are still being decided.

“It’s not that those areas are unprotected, by any means,” says Karen Wristen, executive director of the Living Oceans Society. “You’ve got to go back to whether your closures are protecting biodiversity and bioregions that need to be represented in the whole network. The fisheries closures may mimic that, but they weren’t, certainly, designed for that purpose.”

The Living Oceans Society published a report in the journal Coastal Management in 2015, which found that even the formal Marine Protected Areas on the Pacific coast were often very small, and many did not include no-take zones (areas that exclude all fishing).

“Canada has in our view misrepresented a lot of the protected areas as being a lot more rigorous than they actually are,” Wristen said.

Fisheries and Oceans says it carefully selected just a handful of its 1,000 “existing measures” to be considered as meeting the international standard. Those decisions were based on criteria such as being long-term, protecting clearly-defined species or habitats, and being geographically defined.

[S]cience-based marine criteria were used as the framework to determine which ones count towards Canada’s marine conservation targets,” DFO’s oceans and fisheries policy department wrote in an email in response to questions from DeSmog Canada.

The final guidelines that decide what will be internationally recognized as a marine protected area (and therefore what will count towards the 10 per cent target) are due to be confirmed at a Convention on Biological Diversity conference in Egypt later this year.

Accounting may be adjusted to meet international standards

The government told DeSmog Canada it will adjust the number of marine refuges it counts towards its international total if they don’t meet the final standard, though Sabine Jessen, national director of the oceans program for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, says she also urges the government to push for a high bar in Egypt.

“We hope that Canada and DFO will take a lead role internationally in supporting and advocating for strong conservation measures,” Jessen wrote in an e-mail following an interview with DeSmog Canada.

“This is a great opportunity for Canada to demonstrate its commitment to ocean conservation.”

Jessen, who has been working in ocean conservation for 25 years, says the progress that has been made by the government in the last year is unprecedented.

“I haven’t seen the level of activity and interest and commitment to this, ever,” she says. She remains cautious, however, about Canada’s reluctance to establish no-take zones, even in Marine Protected Areas.

“We aren’t doing enough in terms of having enough no-takes,” she says. “We do need to make sure we’re fully protecting areas of the marine environment.”

The goal of protecting 10 per cent of Canada’s oceans is just one of the 20 so-called Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Woodley of the International Union for Conservation of Nature says the “ten per cent” marine protection goal — Target 11 — has taken up a lot of the attention while the other 19 remain relatively obscure.

“There’s lots of things that are important in those 20 Aichi targets,” he says. “Unfortunately there’s been way too much focus on Target 11.”

In August, DeSmog Canada reported that Canada is seriously behind the eight ball (and behind every other G7 country, for that matter) regarding another one of those targets, Number 1.

Woodley points out Target 3 — which recommends that harmful “incentives, including subsidies” be “eliminated, phased out or reformed” by 2020 — has been overlooked.

Progress on Target 3 would have huge consequences if it were pursued with as much enthusiasm as Target 11.

“Nobody has done a good job on that one,” Woodley says.

Jimmy Thomson is a Yellowknife-based freelance journalist. He has worked as a CBC videojournalist and has bylines in the Globe…

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