BAN OIL, GAS, BOTTOM TRAWLING IN MARINE PROTECTED AREAS, CANADIAN NATIONAL ADVISORY PANEL URGES
A panel that has spent the year studying marine protected areas (MPAs) in Canada says no oil and gas development, seabed mining, or bottom-trawling fishing should be allowed within their boundaries.
In its final report released Tuesday, the National Advisory Panel on Marine Protected Area Standards, which was created earlier this year by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, recommended that the federal government adopt International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) standards and guidelines for all MPAs. That would also make dumping off-limits.
Furthermore, the panel said when industrial activities are allowed to occur in areas counted as other effective area-based conservation measures, the fisheries minister must be satisfied, through effective legislation or regulation, that risks to “intended biodiversity outcomes” are avoided or mitigated. It also called for transparent and easily accessible information on the conservation success of MPAs.
Cameron Jefferies, assistant law professor at the University of Alberta and author of Marine Mammal Conservation and the Law of the Sea, said it’s refreshing that the advisory panel is recommending that the standards and guidelines of the IUCN be followed. As the global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it, it leads the way in innovative and comprehensive MPA work.
“It is high time that Canada caught up and afforded MPAs the sort of teeth that are needed to actually achieve the desired outcomes,” he said.
Earlier this year, Jefferies told iPolitics that when it comes to protecting the ocean and the creatures that call it home, MPAs are “the star of the conservation puzzle.” But if major disturbances such as boat traffic and fishing are allowed in designated critical habitat, there’s not much point.
At West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL), Stephanie Hewson said they welcome the panel’s recommendations. For those standards to be truly effective, however, the federal government must now establish them in law.
“Oceans are under stress from pollution, overfishing, climate change and more. Marine protected areas can provide a safe haven where sea life can regenerate and restore, but to be effective, they need strong and consistent legal safeguards that prohibit damaging activities,” she said.
Scientists, conservation groups and lawyers have called for a “floor of basic protections” to be build into any national system of marine protected areas, which are considered to be the gold standard for marine protection. The panel heard from experts who said it’s critical that they be “no-take” zones.
“There is strong scientific evidence that full protection works much, much better than partial protection in achieving conservation goals,” Anna Metaxas, an oceanographer from Dalhousie University, said during a consultation in Ottawa in July. “Which means that our MPAs have to have a chunk of space where nobody goes in there and takes anything.”
The advisory panel was also told the inconsistencies among Canada’s three main MPA laws are currently “quite significant.”
Right now, each MPA in this country has its own regulations for what’s permitted within its boundaries. There are no standard prohibitions on extraction activities, including seabed mining and seismic testing.
On the East Coast, for instance, oil and gas exploration is not prohibited within the proposed MPA in the Laurentian Channel.
Of all the legislation in Canada that MPAs fall under, the flagship Oceans Act does not outright prohibit extractive activities, the Canada Wildlife Act doesn’t address it head-on, and the Canada National Parks Act only says permitted activities must not threaten the ecological activity of the protected area.
Even when prohibitions are in place, the panel heard there are lists of exemptions to them.
While all have a role in managing MPAs, only the Canada National Marine Conservation Areas Act has an expressed prohibition of oil and mineral exploration and exploitation, Linda Nowlan, who heads the marine program at WCEL, told the panel.
“That’s a basic floor of protection that should be in all of Canada’s marine protected area laws,” she said.
“Most people take it for granted that you wouldn’t have oil and gas in an MPA. (But) I’ve heard our prime minister express surprise that it would take place.”
Extraction bans are the norm in other jurisdictions. Mexico has banned oil and gas exploration in all MPAs, while Belize banned all oil and gas activity from its waters in 2017. In the United States, many national marine sanctuaries also ban oil and gas extraction. In Hawaii, the U.S.’s largest protected area prohibits commercial fishing outright, although subsistence fishing is allowed. Palau and the Cook Islands also have complete no-take zones in their protected areas.
The panel’s recommendation to follow suit were welcomed by the World Wildlife Fund Canada.
“We hope this recommendation quickly becomes the law to ensure such harmful activities as oil and gas development, bottom trawling and seabed mining are kept out of areas set aside for conservation,” said Sigrid Kuehnemund, vice-president of ocean conservation.
The panel also recommended creating legislation to implement Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs), and to ensure that Indigenous knowledge is meaningfully integrated in all aspects of planning, design, management, and decision-making related to marine protected areas, Indigenous Protected Areas, and other effective area-based conservation measures — something Kuehnemund said WWF Canada “wholeheartedly” supports.
“Coastal Indigenous nations have been governing and caring for the ocean since time immemorial. IPAs are an opportunity to recognize these unique relationships, uphold the inherent authority of Indigenous nations, and better care for the ocean for the benefit of all Canadians,” WECL lawyer Georgia Lloyd-Smith said in a statement.
Canada has committed to protecting 10 per cent of its ocean by 2020 as part of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Last year, the federal government met the goal of protecting five per cent by 2017.
MPAs aren’t the only type of protection option for ocean waters, however. Known as “other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs),” some have qualified to contribute to Canada’s marine conservation targets.
Among them are marine refuges under the Fisheries Act. They provide refuge to fish, mammals and habitat, but are not subject to the ban recommended by the panel. WCEL is calling on the government to go further by also applying the panel’s recommendation to OECMs, which make up more than half the marine space currently designated for conservation in Canada.
“The harmful effects of industrial activities like oil and gas are well-documented. Allowing these activities to continue in any type of protected area undermines the ability of marine-protection initiatives to help restore health in our oceans,” said Hewson.
WWF Canada said it also remains concerned about whether marine refuges will be protected from oil and gas exploration and development.
“We will continue to work to ensure strong protections for all areas counting towards Canada’s international marine-protection targets,” Kuehnemund noted.