Coastal states have devoted long-term efforts to govern marine spaces in an integrated way. This year, ocean governance can be characterized by the word “Revitalization,” which is the key word for World Oceans Day 2022. Revitalization highlights that oceans have always been and will continue to play a vital role in mitigating the impacts of climate change. For example, through a blue carbon ecosystem (e.g., saltmarshes, seagrass, and mangroves), oceans and marine ecosystems absorb about 30% of carbon dioxide produced by humans, buffering the impacts of global warming.
Revitalization also calls for coastal states to take collective actions and measures to protect the marine ecosystem and let oceans restore their capacity. An important way to achieve ocean revitalization is implementing the Sustainable Development Goal 14 Target 14.5, which encourages coastal states to conserve coastal and marine areas.
In 1997, Canada became one of the first countries in the world to have a comprehensive national legal framework, the Oceans Act, to protect coastal and marine areas. Canada is also a pioneer in creating integrated ocean policies, strategies and a national marine conservation framework. Nowadays, Canada is a leader in fulfilling the commitment to protect 25% of its oceans by 2025 and 30% by 2030.
But this ambitious goal is challenged by the fact that ocean governance has become more complex. Climatic changes are key drivers of this change. The interface with indigenous rights in probably all aspects of ocean governance is another consideration. One study indicated that most of Canada’s Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are weakly protected. Canada’s national marine conservation framework is facing many challenges.
The lack of effective implementation is a major challenge, which can make MPAs and other area-based measures much less functional. Therefore, in 2019, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada adopted minimum standards for all new MPAs, including prohibiting for several industrial activities. These standards will ensure baseline protection for MPAs and promote policy enforcement.
Canada should also learn lessons from past practices of Large Ocean Management Areas, which had never been fully implemented, and consider how to allocate resources to effectively protect coastal and marine areas. Particularly, implementation issues are crucial for some large MPAs in the Canadian Arctic, where resources are relatively scarce, and infrastructure is relatively poor.
On the other hand, Arctic Indigenous Peoples have a wealth of knowledge and a great willingness to get involved in the protection of the marine environment. They have been playing a role as first responders to emergencies (e.g., oil spills). However, another challenge is that the federal government has not allocated enough resources and authority to support indigenous involvement in marine conservation.
Canada is on a journey to reconciliation. This constitutionally affirmed obligation requires Canada to consult Indigenous Peoples in good faith for issues regarding indigenous affairs, including the management of marine use and activities that can affect indigenous rights. But challenges remain as there is still a lack of a mechanism or a co-governance arrangement that can meaningfully engage Indigenous Peoples, who are generally consulted through a top-down process. Thus, Canada should fulfill its commitment to respect the rights and interests of Indigenous Peoples, involve Indigenous Peoples in the decision-making process when formulating ocean policies, and protect indigenous practices from adverse impacts from commercial activities.
Another challenge evolves because Canada’s legal systems are sector-based. Human activities in marine spaces, such as fishing, shipping and resource exploitation, are managed by different departments and authorities, which have their mandates and jurisdictions. The lack of an overarching framework to coordinate different departments in marine conservation results in less effective resource allocation, limited interdepartmental collaboration at the federal level and insufficient cooperation among federal and provincial governments and local authorities.
Canada has a long history of using an integrated ocean governance framework to govern marine spaces. Nowadays, Canada’s Oceans Protection Plan and Blue Economy Strategy are two federal policies that have great potential for achieving cross-sectoral collaboration and enhancing indigenous involvement in ocean governance. Looking forward, with the implementation of these two policies, Canada can pave the way to solve the challenges identified above, accomplish marine conservation goals, and ultimately, achieve ocean revitalization.
Image source: Weishan Wang