Over the last decade Canada has fallen from its position as a leader in ocean protection and become a laggard that has failed to keep up with international commitments, say some of Canada’s top marine scientists.
Lack of support for conservation has changed Canada from a country with innovative conservation policies to one where marine species on the brink of extinction are not afforded protection until too late because of delays and inappropriate legislation, said scholars and scientists who gathered in Victoria recently for the Royal Society of Canada annual general meeting.
But, with a new government, there is refreshed hope in the scientific community and a chance to reverse direction.
Some of the country’s top academic minds looked at challenges facing Canada’s three oceans and possible ways to mitigate warming oceans, acidification, disappearing species, microplastics and watered down environmental protection legislation.
“What can we do?” asked Isabelle Cote, marine ecology professor at Simon Fraser University.
Part of the answer came on October 19 — election day — she said.
“We know that red tides are usually very bad in the marine environment, but this one was very good.”
It was a theme echoed by several speakers who are encouraged by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mandate letter to Hunter Tootoo, his new Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard.
The mandate includes increasing marine and coastal protected areas to five per cent by 2017 and 10 per cent by 2020, acting on recommendations of the Cohen Commission on restoring sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser River, reviewing the previous government’s changes to the Fisheries and Navigable Waters Protection Acts and using scientific evidence, the precautionary principle and taking into account climate change when making decisions affecting fish stocks and ecosystem management.
“Our new government has set out a refreshing new ocean agenda, including areas many of us have been fighting for over the last decade,” said Julia Baum, assistant professor in the University of Victoria’s biology department.
One of the disturbing trends over the Harper years has been what is seen as political tampering in appointments to boards that make vital decisions on endangered species, such as Committee of the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), a group of experts that assesses which species are in need of protection, Baum said.
Marine species are almost always denied protection, often because of conflicts with commercial fishing, said several speakers.
“We sit and let the species wait and do nothing. We know this is a really dangerous strategy,” Baum said.
“Almost 60 per cent of marine fish that have been assessed by COSEWIC as being at risk are sitting with no decision for many years. Those that are at greatest risk wait longest and are typically denied listing,” she said.
Recovery strategies, under the Species At Risk Act, are often three years late and action plans are almost never completed, she added.
Jeffrey Hutchings of Dalhousie University, who chaired the Royal Society’s pivotal expert panel 2012 report “Sustaining Canadian Marine Biodiversity,” believes the change in government will mean a greater willingness to discuss the report’s recommendations.
Those include making ocean stewardship and biodiversity conservation a top government priority, resolving conflicts of interest in legislation, more research into sustaining marine biodiversity and reducing the discretionary power of the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans in fisheries management decisions.
As Trudeau decides on his priorities, Hutchings would like him to consider splitting the ministry into two parts — the department of fisheries and the department of oceans — to resolve the conflict where the ministry is seen as acting as an agent for fisheries, not for conservation.
If it was split, the fisheries department, under the Fisheries Act, could take care of the economic development side, such as fishing and aquaculture — preferably with much-needed national aquaculture legislation — and the department of oceans, under the Oceans Act, could look after conservation, protection and habitat protection, Hutchings suggested in an interview.
Government should also look at the huge discretionary powers of the Fisheries and Oceans Minister, which add to conservation uncertainties, Hutchings said.
In Canada when it is scientifically determined that a fish population is being overfished, there is no requirement for the minister to take action.
“What has inevitably happened is the minister continues (to allow) fishing on the stock and it declines further and further,” Hutchings said.
In contrast, in the U.S. when it is scientifically determined a stock is in trouble, the department must take specific actions to rebuild the stock, usually by dramatically cutting catches, he said.
David VanderZwaag, Ocean Law and Governance Canada Research Chair at Dalhousie University, believes modernizing the Fisheries Act should be high on the agenda.
“It’s a no brainer,” he said.
“I call it a ghost ship. You see the mast in the fog, but everything is underneath. It’s all at the minister’s discretion.”
The department has attempted to paper over the legislative vacuum with multiple policies, but clarity is needed, he said.
In a similar vein, the Environmental Assessment Act is a roulette system, VanderZwaag said.
“You throw the dice to see what may be covered.”
National aquaculture legislation must be developed and the new government should look at laws and policies around future ocean renewable energy projects, such as wave power, VanderZwaag said.
“The federal government is not really prepared to deal with offshore renewable energy,” he said.
Photo: Dan Cox via Flickr