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Comment: Marine protected areas preserve biodiversity

Canada’s territory includes the world’s longest coastline, bordering three oceans and the Great Lakes, and covers more than 5.8 million square kilometres of marine area inhabited by an astonishing diversity of fish species, mammals and plant life.

Canada’s territory includes the world’s longest coastline, bordering three oceans and the Great Lakes, and covers more than 5.8 million square kilometres of marine area inhabited by an astonishing diversity of fish species, mammals and plant life. These marine ecosystems are a significant part of our nation’s natural heritage, and their ecological and socio-economic value is undeniable.

But the health of our oceans is not as secure as it needs to be.

Industries such as tourism and commercial and recreational fisheries, and the benefits they generate for Canadians, rely on healthy marine habitats and the web of life they support. More than 1.5 billion people worldwide depend on fish for their daily protein, and the demand is expected to double by 2050. Managed sustainably, Canada’s vast marine territory could hold enormous potential to meet those needs and further contribute to Canada’s prosperity.

A 2012 report by the Royal Society of Canada — Sustaining Canada’s Marine Biodiversity — concluded that we are “failing our oceans.” According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, in 2009, Canada’s fishery catches had dropped 41 per cent from the peak harvest volumes of the 1980s. Threats along our coastline range from land-based and ship-sourced pollution to overfishing and heavy boat traffic.

Establishing marine protected areas is one way to improve the sustainability of ocean ecosystems and enhance the benefits they provide. Just as parks on land serve different purposes, from providing recreational spaces to protecting nature, research has shown that MPAs that limit fishing or other potentially harmful activities can yield highly positive impacts for wildlife.

For some marine animals, no-take MPAs, where fishing is prohibited, can increase the number and diversity of the species within these areas. This can lead to an increase in the catches available to fishers in neighbouring areas, which would more than offset the limitations caused by the creation of the MPA.

When the federal government enacted the Oceans Act (1997), many countries applauded Canada’s leadership. The Oceans Act recognizes that individual species like whales, salmon and cod cannot be effectively protected without protecting their habitats, including important feeding and breeding grounds. The legislation called for creating a national network of MPAs to meet the needs of marine species throughout their lifecycles.

There are a number of MPAs off the coast of B.C., including Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site in the southernmost part of Haida Gwaii. Gwaii Haanas is a key coastal ecosystem on the planet and home to some of the world’s largest marine mammals, including killer whales, humpback whales and sea lions. Parks Canada and the Haida Nation worked together over the past decade to establish this important MPA, which covers 3,500 square kilometres, three per cent of which is off-limits to fishing.

The federal commissioner of the environment and sustainable development’s recent report, tabled Feb. 5, updated Parliament on the government’s commitment to create a national network of MPAs. Parks Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada have established 10 MPAs and plan to create more, using science to select the best areas for protection and working with provinces, First Nations, mariners and other stakeholders on management arrangements.

Unfortunately, 20 years after signing the Convention on Biological Diversity, and 16 years after enacting the Oceans Act, MPAs cover only about one per cent of Canada’s marine environment. To adequately protect Canada’s marine biodiversity and the prosperity that depends on a healthy marine environment, more MPAs are needed, and quickly.

Experience elsewhere offers hope for the future in Canada. Australia has made substantial progress, with MPAs covering one-third of the marine environment, bringing to 14 per cent the portion of the marine environment classified as fully protected. Late last year, California completed its state-wide network of MPAs, concluding years of concerted effort. Sixteen per cent of state waters are now permanently protected, including nine per cent that are off-limits to fishing, harvesting or any other form of resource extraction.

More recently, U.S. President Barack Obama announced the largest expansion of U.S. national MPAs in two decades.

The Government of Canada’s stated vision is to establish “an ecologically comprehensive, resilient and representative national network of marine protected areas that protects the biological diversity and health of the marine environment for present and future generations.” The challenge ahead is to bring that vision to life. Now is the time to turn aspirations into action, to move beyond planning to establishing a national network of MPAs so that future generations can enjoy the many benefits of healthy marine environments.


John Nightingale is president of the Vancouver Aquarium. Scott Vaughan is federal commissioner of environment and sustainable development.