Oh Canada – what about your ocean?

This is a big post.  It’s about big things.  Important things too.  It deals with Canada - a big country.  Actually by area, it is the second largest country in the world.  It also has a lot of ocean under its jurisdiction.  Take a look at the website of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, a Federal government body, and you will see statements like this: “The Government of Canada is working to ensure the future health of Canada's oceans and ocean resources by increasing understanding and protection of our oceans; supporting sustainable economic opportunities; and demonstrating international leadership in oceans management”

Sounds good doesn’t it.  The Canadian Federal Government (which has just changed as of yesterday – see bottom of the post) have a several Acts in place to govern the bit of the ocean they have claimed as theirs.  Great stuff!  Except maybe, as demonstrated in a recently published paper, authored by 19 Canadian scientists including lead-author Megan Bailey (Dalhousie University), "over the past decade decision-making at the federal level appears to have undermined the government's own mandates for the sustainable management of Canada's oceans"

The scientists focus on three key Federal Acts – the Oceans Act, brought into force in 1997, the Fisheries Act which started in 1868 but has undergone a number of revisions since, and the Species at Risk Act (SARA) which was introduced in 2002.

The Oceans Act – A global leader in ocean management When Canada’s Oceans Act came in, it was heralded as a model.  It sought to bring in an integrated management framework in which ecosystem based management and marine protected areas were high on the list of priorities.  A healthy ocean supports a healthy ocean economy – and a healthy human population.  In the author’s own words “The Oceans Act and subsequent strategy thus incorporated some of the best available practices, supported by science (both natural science and social science)” .  So what went wrong?

In a word… implementation.

The paper highlights several points.  For example, in 2005 the Auditor General of Canada issued a report stating that “Fisheries and Oceans Canada has fallen far short of meeting commitments and targets for implementing key aspects of the Oceans Act” .  In 2012, a follow-up evaluation of the Integrated Ocean Management Program indicated that the situation had not improved, with science, engagement of stakeholders, designation of marine protected areas, protected of marine ecosystems, and integrated ocean management planning needing much more work from Federal government. “Canada’s marine biodiversity remains at risk” the Auditor General’s report read… “By extension, the prosperity of many coastal communities in Canada with marine-based economies also remain threatened”

The Fisheries Act As the name suggests, the Fisheries Act is the primary piece of legislation through with fisheries in Canadian waters are managed by the Federal government.  I am sure that many of you are aware of the collapse of the cod fisheries in the northwest Atlantic, but the paper highlights something much more recent.  Habitat protection – or more accurately the lack of it.  In particular the paper picks up on one change brought into force in 2013.  The Act used to read “No person shall carry on any work or undertaking that results in the harmful alteration, disruption, or of destruction of fish habitat”.   Now the Act reads “No person shall carry on any work, undertaking or activity that results in serious harm to fish that are part of a commercial, recreational or Aboriginal fishery, or to fish that support such a fishery .  Spot the difference?  Why is this a problem?  The paper highlights a number of reasons – here is a quick overview:

- Only fish with a current value to a fishery is offered protection.  Other fish are excluded (even though they may have a fishery value in the future). - Protection for fish in remote locations where there are no fisheries is now non-existent. - Harm has to be proven not disproven.  This is a move away from the precautionary approach.  It is more difficult to prove harm than prove you aren’t doing harm, especially as government research focuses on a small number of fished species in the Atlantic and Pacific.  Arctic regions are largely ignored. - Species must be shown to have current value to a fishery.  For species taken directly by fishers, this is possible but what about ‘fish that supports such a fishery’?  Now we are talking about having knowledge of the ecosystem, and food-web ecology.  We have some, but not much…and remember research only focuses on a few species – and we are losing historical information.

Species At Risk Act (SARA) If you are an individual of a species at risk in Canada and you are lucky enough to be listed under SARA you will get two protections, straight off the bat.  You and the rest of your species cannot be killed or collected.  Your “residence” also receives protection – damage or destruction of it is forbidden.  The department looking after you (in the case of marine species that’s Fisheries and Oceans Canada) are charged with developing legal measures to ensure your protection, and develop an action plan and a recovery strategy.  That is if you get listed.  If you are a commercially important marine species, then you might find that the Federal government is not so willing to have you under SARA, despite scientific evidence being collected and your application recommended by an independent body (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada - COSEWIC).  Some 39 marine species have put forward for listing by COSEWIC.  Just 5 have been accepted.  According to Federal government, the Fisheries Act takes care of marine species well enough so they don’t need to be under SARA.  Unfortunately as the paper highlights, this isn’t the case.  Reassessments of marine species by COSEWIC show that may are not recovering as they should.

This is not mentioned in the paper but I think it is somewhat… amusing (insert sarcastic face here).  The Grey Whale (Eschrichtius robustus) population in the Atlantic has SARA protection.  Lucky whale! Except that humans sort of (by which I mean actually) killed the Atlantic population off a few hundred years ago.  Don’t worry though – a recovery strategy was looked at by Fisheries and Oceans, but alas they concluded that recovery was not feasible.

No science here please, we’re the Canadian Government The trouble for Canada's ocean waters doesn't just end there.  The scientists also note what is popularly known as the muzzling of government scientists – where scientists cannot speak freely to the public, is just part of the problem.  Funding cuts, closing of libraries, and destruction of archived material, they argue, are limiting the capacity of government scientists to conduct science.  How bad is the situation?  Here are some stats on what the (until very recently) previous government have been up to: - 7 out of 11 Fisheries and Oceans Canada libraries have  been closed in the past 10 years - A third of the library collections (including unique documents) have been ‘culled’ - 35% of funding for biodiversity programs has been cut - 42% of funding for pollution management/mitigation programs (terrestrial and marine) has been cut - C$100 million is due to be cut from Fisheries and Oceans Canada over the next 3 years - Press releases issued by Federal science departments have declined by 58%

These concerns have been echoed by others.  Some now ex-government scientists have been quite vocal about the muzzling of scientists in particular – like Steve Campana, who was until recently a biologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Others have taken more general views of data loss in Canada.  In September, writer Anne Kingston wrote about “Vanishing Canada: Why we’re all losers in Ottawa’s war on data”.

Open Access Paper The paper was published in the open access journal Marine Policy.  The authors have paid for the paper to be open access, so why not have a read of it yourself http://t.co/rz4kkHT2ly

* UPDATE:  I wrote this post last week but didn’t get a chance to put it online.  On Monday Canada went through their elections and the Conservative Government, who implemented all these changes went out and the Liberals came in.  The Liberals have already made some pledges to do better for the ocean, but of course we will have to wait and see what happens.  Public support for the oceans will be crucial if the new government is to act.

Image: A gray whale and her calf migrate north along the California coast on their way to summer feeding grounds in the Arctic.  Unlike their SARA protected relatives that used to live in the Atlantic, grey whales can still be found in the Pacific.  Credit NOAA/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)