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sunrise over the Atltantic Ocean in the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick
The new rules controlling what kinds of activities can take place in marine protected areas will not be retroactively applied to existing areas. Photo by Makasana Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

Canada Has New Rules Governing Its Marine Protected Areas. Do They Go Far Enough?

Fisheries and Oceans Canada cites public backlash as one of the motivating factors for changing the rules governing marine protected areas.

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by Erica Gies

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In an announcement last week, Jonathan Wilkinson, Canada’s minister of fisheries, oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard, laid out new rules banning oil and gas development, trawl fishing, mining, and dumping in Canada’s marine protected areas (MPAs).

The move is a response to the Canadian public’s surprise—and disapproval—when it learned in 2017 that the planned Laurentian Channel MPA off Newfoundland and Labrador would allow oil and gas drilling in 98 percent of its area.

“We got a lot of feedback from the public saying, ‘We don’t think you should … have oil and gas activities in marine protected areas’,” says Jeff MacDonald, director general of oceans and fisheries policy for Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Such a strong negative reaction led to the formation of a national advisory panel, its report, and ultimately the new rules.

In line with the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) Aichi targets, Canada has committed to protect 10 percent of its territorial waters by 2020. The changes bring Canada closer to the standards set by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which guide nations’ compliance with the Aichi targets.

In addition to MPAs, the new rules also apply to two other ways of protecting the oceans around Canada: marine national wildlife areas, and national marine conservation areas.

Longstanding critics of Canada’s MPA policies are happy to see the government strengthening ocean protections, but say there’s still room for improvement.

“It’s a major step forward,” says Rodolphe Devillers, a geographer at Newfoundland and Labrador’s Memorial University who drew attention to industrial activity initially permitted in the proposed Laurentian Channel MPA. “The government has acknowledged that there are some activities incompatible with conservation.”

Sigrid Kuehnemund, a marine biologist and lead specialist for oceans with World Wildlife Fund Canada, says her organization is “extremely pleased. We’ve been calling for those restrictions for over 20 years.”

“I think it’s the first time the government has said no to the oil and gas industry,” she adds.

Because the Laurentian Channel MPA was formally designated last week, it is the first to be governed by these new rules. Existing MPAs will continue to operate under the old rules, allowing industrial activity on a case-by-case basis. Those standards may be upgraded during five-year reviews, but any changes will require consultation with industry.

Experts still take some issue with the way Canada is approaching protected areas.

Of great concern to conservationists is that the new rules don’t also apply to marine refuges—areas in which fishing for a particular species or using a certain technology is restricted, yet where activities such as oil and gas drilling or mining are sometimes still permitted. Canada began counting marine refuges toward its 2020 Aichi target last year and was met with criticisms that it was cutting corners to try to meet its goal.

Marine refuges now make up 4.78 percent of the 10 percent target, whereas the stricter MPAs currently comprise just 3.49 percent.

Canada justifies counting the less protected marine refuges toward the target because the CBD’s* standards call for MPAs or “other effective area-based conservation measures” (OECMs), which is how Canada labels marine refuges. But OECMs are meant to be equivalent to proper marine protected areas, says Natalie Ban, a professor of environmental studies and conservation planning at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia.

“Indigenous peoples, for instance, may not want an official designation” for a protected area “but they’re still practically in all other ways protecting those places,” says Ban. Unfortunately, Canada’s interpretation of what makes for an effective area-based conservation measure creates a dual standard, she says, “which I don’t think is going to serve the ocean that well.”

Under the new rules, however, if oil and gas drilling begins in a marine refuge, that industrialized area will be stripped from the 10 percent target count. The government had to make this stipulation, says Devillers, because under the OECM criteria, “oil and gas is not acceptable. Period.”

However, if a marine refuge has permits for oil and gas exploration but drilling hasn’t started yet, the area will still be counted, even during the exploration phase, which can include seismic testing, says MacDonald.

Not counting areas with oil and gas drilling toward conservation targets is a move in the right direction, says Kuehnemund. But she warns that protected zones are originally designed using a scientific process to identify areas of critical conservation concern. Slicing off part of them could undermine their effectiveness.

When the government removes an area for oil and gas development, there’s “no loop back to the science,” Kuehnemund says, adding that there’s no mechanism to evaluate if this new boundary achieves its original conservation objective.

In 2020, the world will meet in Beijing to set new conservation targets for 2030, which many scientists say should raise the amount of ocean area countries are protecting to 30 percent. Larger percentages are well-intended, says Ban, but they need to be accompanied by good management and a method to measure success, such as increases in biomass or biodiversity, or reduced numbers of endangered species.

“Without the support for ensuring compliance, lines on the map can be meaningless,” says Ban.

This story caps off, to some extent, four years of coverage on Canada’s controversial marine protected area policies and the 2020 Aichi Biodiversity Targets. For previous stories chronicling Canada’s evolving approach to the issue, check out: “A Fishy Plan, Canada’s New Marine (Less) Protected (Than It Could Have Been) Area”, “Proposed Amendment Could Actually Protect Marine Protected Areas”, “Is Canada Taking Shortcuts to Hit Its Marine Protection Targets?

*Correction: An earlier version of this story read, “Canada justifies counting the less protected marine refuges toward the target because the IUCN’s standards call for MPAs or “other effective area-based conservation measures” (OECMs), which is how Canada labels marine refuges.”

The standards are those of the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity, not the International Union for Conservation of Nature.