On March 28, 2018, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans announced two new Areas of Interest (AOI), under the Oceans Act, and a proposed conservation area protected under the Fisheries Act, off the coast of Nova Scotia. This is an exciting announcement for many as it marks another step towards meeting Canada’s goal of reaching 10% of marine and coastal areas protected by 2020, in line with Aichi Target 11.
As of October 2017, the Government of Canada has proudly announced that they have exceeded their interim target of 5% by reaching 7.75% of Canada’s marine and coastal areas protected.
Included in that 7.75%:
- Other AOIs, which is the first step to becoming a marine protected area (MPA) but are not formally protected until they become an official MPA
- The Laurentian Channel, which allows for seismic surveys along with oil and gas drilling in approximately 80% of the MPA
Which begs the question, are we really protecting what we say we are protecting?
To answer that question, we need to learn a little bit more about Marine Protected Areas.
What is an MPA?
Canada has adopted the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) definition of protected areas:
“A clearly defined geographical space recognized, dedicated, and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values”
But MPAs are not the only measure to conserve the marine environment. Critical habitat protected under the Species at Risk Act, National Historic Sites of Canada as part of Parks Canada, or Conservation Areas under the fisheries act are all examples of other types of conservation methods available to the Canadian Government. In fact, you can check out all the federal and provincial legislation related to marine conservation methods here.
What Can You Do in an MPA?
Not all MPAs are created equally.
The IUCN has 6 different categories of protected areas, each of them allowing different activities within the boundaries of the MPA.
Not all of these categories may meet the criteria to be counted for Target 11, but it highlights the variability within the classification of MPA. It also draws into question what Canada is trying to count as “protected”. Criticisms levelled at the government cite the inclusion of temporary or seasonal fisheries closures as part of the 7.75% value which does not adequately conserve the biodiversity of the area.
The newly announced AOIs off the coast of Nova Scotia are in the first phase of becoming MPAs. The next step is to create a multi-sector advisory committee to assess what activities should be allowed in the area based off of current social and economic realities while also meeting the conservation requirements of the MPA.
For example, the Eastern Shore Islands AOI is a coastal region with hundreds of islands in the area. It is an important habitat and spawning ground for many species, including habitat for the endangered Atlantic Salmon. However, there is a vibrant fishing and lobster industry in the area as well as increasing rates of ecotourism. Multi-stakeholder engagement is underway to reconcile economic, social, and conservation objectives for this area.
Meeting the Needs of Target 11
Proper consultation with stakeholders, the province, Indigenous groups, and citizens is crucial to the political success of an MPA. Dehens and Fanning (2018) found that successful MPAs have approval from the involved people, seeing it as the just and right action to take. The level of legitimacy is determined by the degree to which stakeholders are satisfied with the MPA which will impact their adherence to the regulations outlined by the MPA. The successful social acceptance of an MPA needs community leadership and meaningful involvement with impacted parties.
The problem becomes how multiple interests are being incorporated into the permissible activities allowed in an MPA. The Laurentian Channel will allow for oil and gas drilling activities in a significant portion of the MPA despite the public backlash and in conflict with the goal of the MPA to protect threatened species from human activities that could harm or kill them.
Is drilling conducive to the survival of corals and the only pupping area of black dogfish?
Is the MPA really protecting this area by allowing these kinds of human activities?
Is the MPA actually conserving the marine environment if it is only protected to meet a certain species’ needs?
If all MPAs are not created equally, which ones should be counted towards reaching our goal of 10% by 2020?
Impacts of Climate Change on MPAs
Even if we determine that oil and gas extraction is conducive to conservation and that all MPAs, regardless of if their levels of protection are equal, will MPAs continue to protect what they intend to conserve in the future?
The oceans are warming as an effect of climate change and as a result, many species are migrating into new areas to find more hospitable temperatures. Most notably, this past summer at least 18 North Atlantic right whales were found dead in the waters off the east coast of Canada and the United States. The right whales have traditionally fed in the Roseway Basin and the Grand Manan Basin near Nova Scotia. Those areas are protected as critical habitat under the Species at Risk Act. The majority of the dead whales were found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence which is at the upper range for the whales and where they historically have not travelled to in large numbers. Researchers like Gutbrod and Greene (2018) have linked the right whales’ movement to warming ocean temperature, pushing the whales’ food into new areas like the Gulf of St. Lawrence which was not equipped to properly protect the whales from human activities.
Range shifts like those seen in the North Atlantic right whale will become far more frequent in the coming years as global temperatures continue to rise.
A good MPA design should consider the entire water column in its design but the result is still limited by geography. Oceans are constantly changing and shifting with currents, and with the added pressure of climate change, an MPA set out to protect the current location of a species may no longer be relevant as the species move into new territories.
MPA legislation, creation, and adaptation may move too slowly to keep up with the changing environment.
The Future of MPAs
Though there are significant concerns about the future of MPAs and the overall effectiveness of their protection, they are still a critical piece of conservation.
There are 3 considerations that must be addressed to make the most of MPAs:
- Network connectivity
MPA networks have been shown to better aid the conservation of species than independent areas. Connected protected areas allow species to travel from safe spot to safe spot, from feeding to calving areas, for example, helping with their overall conservation. This is especially critical given the migratory nature of many marine animals. MPA networks can also help increase their overall resiliency to climate change as it provides safe passage to cooler waters.
The good news is the Government of Canada is actively working to create MPA Networks in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic Oceans, as well as the Great Lakes. The draft MPA network plan for the Scotian Shelf Bioregion which surrounds Nova Scotia is supposed to be announced this year.
A network of connected areas means the possibility for a variety of protections to be in place, some stricter than others, which helps to balance social and economic concerns with the conservation of marine species and environments.
MPAs take a long time to be formally established, 7 years to be exact. Seven years may be too long for endangered species threatened by human activity.
The Government of Canada has recognized this as a problem and is in the process of making changes to the Oceans Act to allow for the implementation of interim protections. This would mean that once an area is identified as an AOI no new activities can take place in that region, protecting it from potential further harm.
The Canadian Government needs to consider the future of Canada’s waters as the impacts of climate change are continued to be felt. There is nothing in the Oceans act about changing MPA boundaries as species ranges’ shift; should they follow the species of interest or remain in place to conserve enduring features? This is a significant concern that needs to be addressed if Canada wants to protect the marine environment well into the future.
Other effective area-based conservation measures (OEABCM), though not expressly designed for this purpose, could help MPAs adapt to changing conditions as they have the potential to be enacted more quickly than our current MPA process and designed with adaptation in mind.
OEABCMs are areas protected and governed by governments, private actors, Indigenous Peoples, and local communities. These measures should meet the same definition of protected areas as more formally recognized measures like MPAs to be counted towards Target 11. The Government of Canada is currently working to include more OEABCMs in their protection strategies and figuring out how to include them in their MPA networks. This is an ongoing area of study and it will be fascinating to see how they will be implemented. OEABCMS do not fall under the Oceans Act the same way that MPAs are legislated and therefore could be used in innovative ways and potentially implemented faster than the establishment of MPAs, though they should not replace Canada’s commitment to creating new MPAs.
The Future is Blue- in a good way!
With the announcement of the new AOIs near Nova Scotia, it is clear that the government takes its commitment to Target 11 seriously. Canada is in a unique position surrounded by 3 oceans which hopefully means Canada will continue to be invested in the conservation of our vast marine resources and environments.
But before we get carried away by out-pacing our interim targets, we must ensure that the conservation work is happening not only on paper but in the ocean as well. MPAs require monitoring for compliance, adaptation to changing environmental conditions, and making sure the MPA is conserving what it is intended to protect.
We must continue to think critically about the actions our government is taking to protect the ocean and become a leader in ocean conservation.
Written by Laura Bartlett, MREM Candidate ’18, ESS ’14