Canada’s marine protected areas protect…. not very much

Current levels of protection inside Canada’s MPAs [marine protected areas] are inadequate to provide the long-term conservation of marine biodiversity. For the most part, there is little difference between what is allowed inside our MPAs and what occurs outside their boundaries”. Little difference… that’s a pretty damning statement from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), an NGO established in 1963. After all, what is the point of a MPA that offers little to no protection? There are 740 MPAs covering just 1% of Canada's ocean, far below internationally agreed Aichi targets of 10% (which in itself is far below the minimum recommended by scientists).

This is not the first time Canada’s MPAs have been slammed. Just one example is a report from the Auditor General of Canada, who in 2013 noted that Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and Parks Canada (federal MPAs as opposed to ones designated by provincial governments) had only managed to protect around 1% of Canada’s marine environment. The way things are going, the Auditor General’s report says, it will take decades – and more – for Canada to put in place a MPA network that is so badly needed*. What CPAWS have done is to take a much finer-scale look at each MPA to figure out what each MPA offers marine biodiversity, and in the long-run ourselves.

Gathering information The first challenge CPAWS faced was figuring out exactly what activities are and aren't allowed inside Canada’s MPAs. You would think that this would be pretty straight forward. After all, the MPAs must prevent damaging activities, whilst allowing others to continue that don’t cause harm. Ocean users should be able to see this information right? Apparently not. CPAWS reviewed legislation, regulations, and management plans for each MPA and found that much of the information is not publically available (I suspect in some cases management plans don't even exist). Where they did find regulations, they were at times contradictory. Activities that were prohibited were often followed with a long list of exemptions. It turns out that the federally designated MPAs had the best publicly available information, so CPAWS chose to focus their analysis on those MPAs. Thats just 23 MPAs out of the 740 that are designated in Canadian waters.

A few key findings The oceans aren't just a place that provide us with seafood, oil/gas, or just fun to play on. They have a vital role in a number of natural systems that we rely on – like oxygen production and climate patterns. As such, the CPAWS report that Canada isn’t doing much to look after the bit of the ocean designated as Canadian territory isn’t just troubling for Canadians, but for all people. Here are some of the findings of the report:

><> Only 0.11% of Canada’s federally managed MPAs prohibit extraction (e.g. fishing, oil, gas) ><> 20% of federal MPAs explicitly allow dredging and dumping ><> 35% of federal MPAs do not explicitly prohibit oil and gas exploration ><> Eastport MPA in Newfoundland is the only MPA in Canada that is entirely closed to all fishing. But at a tiny 2.1 square kilometres in size, it plays no significant contribution to no-fishing areas. It is also worth noting that the MPA was designated to look after the commercially important lobster and not a species/habitat at risk.

Provincially-designated MPAs have their problems too Although excluded from the main analysis because of lack of information, CPAWS did take a look at provincial MPAs. The issues seemed to go beyond just lack of publically available information. For example, the provincial government of Québec’s MPAs are largely without management plans, and not subjected to any particular federal regulations, and rarely prohibit extraction/industrial development. With two exceptions, CPAWS does not recognise Québec’s provincially designated areas as true MPAs. Out on the west coast, the provincial government of British Columbia has requested fishery closures within its provincially-designated MPAs, but the federal government (who has the power to set such closures) has chosen not to grant these.

There is nothing new under the sun Unfortunately the situation in Canada is not unusual. MPAs that supposedly restrict fishing in Egypt, are subject to illegal fishing, as are ones in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The Australian network of MPAs are inadequate for protecting one of the world’s most threatened marine fishes – the sawfish. Focusing on a global scale, it seems that quality has largely been forgotten. MPAs have a tendency to be set up in the places that offer the path of least resistance and not necessarily where they could be most effective at halting degradation/conserving at risk populations. The UK and America have approximately 10% of their waters closed to extraction, but it is worth noting that these countries have placed the bulk of these closed areas in overseas territorial waters where there is less conflict over use, and not in the waters directly adjacent to their home soil. Canada does not have such an option.

Moving forward CPAWS make a number of recommendations to improve Canada’s situation. This includes updating legislation to establish minimum protection standards, add prohibitions on oil and gas exploration and development, mining, dredging and dumping, and add restrictions on commercial/recreation fishing and commercial shipping. Management plans should be in place, available, and address all existing and potential activities. They also bring up ‘future-proofing’ MPAs against developing industries like renewable energy and deep sea mining in the regulations.

They also note a number of MPAs which are currently being proposed lack protection, but this could be altered prior to their formal designation. Of particular concern to CPAWS is one in the Laurentian Channel. Like others, this MPA has already had is scientifically recommended boundaries significantly altered, reducing protection for at risk habitat and species, to ensure the fishing industry isn’t excluded too much. In the area that is left, decisions around oil and gas exploration and development will be deferred to the Canada Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board.

Find out more I highly recommend you take a look at the report itself, which can be downloaded from the CPAWS website.

Image: A wolffish (exact species unknown) is having a go at a lobster. Canadian wolffish are considered to be threatened in Canada, primarily because they are caught as bycatch when fisheries target other bottom-dwelling species. This incredible shot was taken by Ocean Quest Adventures in Newfoundland.  Credit: Rick Stanley, Ocean Quest Inc

*For a short (3 minute) summary of the report from the Office of the Auditor General of Canada, look here, or alternatively you can read the full written report.