Where Do Maritimers Stand, or Swim, on Marine Protected Areas?

by Travis Aten

In 1885, Banff National Park was established as Canada’s first national park, to protect its unique and pristine area for future generations. Since that time, hundreds of other federal and provincial terrestrial parks and ecological areas have been designated to protect a variety of and biologically and culturally important environments. As of 2017, 10% of Canada’s terrestrial environment is protected. Yet, despite its three oceans, less than 1% has been protected when it comes to Canada’s marine and coastal environment.

Barney Moss (CC BY 2.0)

Kejimkujik Seaside National Park | Photo: Barney Moss (CC BY 2.0)

In 2010, as part of Canada’s commitment to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Canada signed on to the Aichi Target to protect 10% of its marine and coastal environment by 2020. Despite having several tools to formally protect marine areas, few have been implemented in our oceans. The 2015 mandate letter to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans publicly states that Canada will meet its international commitments – and according to polling completed in 2016 by WWF-Canada, Canadians from coast to coast to coast overwhelmingly support this action. Polling showed that a whopping 97% of Canadians from every region in the country (even landlocked provinces) support the pursuit of stronger ocean protection. While there is strong public support, given our vast ocean territory and the longest coastline in the world, one might wonder why we need strong ocean conservation or marine protected areas (MPAs) in the first place. Surely, with all this ocean real estate, there must be areas that are still ocean wilderness, right?

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Deep sea corals and sponges can benefit from protection through marine protected areas | Photo: Anna Metaxas, Department of Oceanography, Dalhousie University; Martha Nizinski, NOAA/NMFS, USA; CSSF/ROPOS

Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case, though the rationale for increased oceans protection is many-fold. The most piece may be that despite decades of fisheries management, many marine fish populations are severely depleted and considered endangered, overfished and/or currently experiencing overfishing.  Secondly, our oceans are increasingly impacted by human activities, from land based pollution to climate change and ocean noise all of which impact ocean health. Deteriorating ocean health not only impacts marine ecosystems but has far-reaching impacts on our terrestrial environments, weather and climate. Providing protection through MPAs and other effective measures will allow ecosystems, species and human culture to resist, rebuild and be resilient to the various impacts created by a growing human population and changing climate.

In many ways, we are ahead of the game in the Maritimes, with several areas protected since 2004 and more on the way. The Gully Marine Protected area was established in 2004 and is important habitat to several whale species, particularly the bottlenose whale  and deep sea corals and sponges. Through the Fisheries Act, over 21,000 square kilometers of cold water sponges and corals have been protected since 2004. Musquash coastal MPA is teeming with marine life, including birds and fish in the Bay of Fundy.  In the coming months, we expect the St. Ann’s Bank MPA off Cape Breton to be established and further protections added to the “Haddock Box” on the Scotian Shelf.

Isaac Kohane (CC BY 2.0)

Marine Protected Areas preserve important habitat to species like whales | Photo: Isaac Kohane  (CC BY 2.0)

Despite strong support for MPAs, further protection is often challenged by ocean users and provincial governments. Nova Scotia, for one, has sent a message to the federal government that no more protection is required even though less than 3% of our oceans are protected while almost 13% of our land is. However, for provinces that rely so heavily on biodiversity in our economy, it is increasingly important that we provide it with some reprieve of human impacts.

WWF’s survey highlights that the majority of Canadians do not know how much of Canada’s marine environments are protected, but also feels that more protection is needed, whatever the current amount may be. This is particularly true in the Maritimes region; the vast majority of Maritimers feel strongly that we need to protect parts of our oceans so they can continue to sustain the economy and jobs in coastal communities. Only a small fraction of the people surveyed felt strongly that we should prioritize the economy instead of pursuing ocean conservation. The vast majority of Maritimers believe that the current level of 1% of marine areas protected is not enough.  Therefore, the survey asked participants how they feel about MPAs as a tool for conserving Canada’s oceans in a sustainable manner.  The results indicated that almost all Maritimers support MPAs as a tool to ensure that marine ecosystems remain healthy, to some degree. These percentages are the highest of any region in Canada, illustrating that strong marine protection is possible and well supported within Atlantic Canada.

Jennifer Boyer (CC BY-ND 2.0)

A healthy ocean mean healthy puffins! | Photo: Jennifer Boyer (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Not only do Maritimers understand that MPAs are essential for marine conservation, they understand what kind of activities should and should not occur within them. Over 45% of the Maritimers surveyed strongly supported minimum standards for MPAs, meaning that there are certain activities that should not take place within their boundaries. Minimum standards identified in a report from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society on the progress of Canada’s MPAs include: no oil and gas, restricted/limited fishing (e.g. restricting destructive gear types or practices), and other activities depending on the area. Furthermore, of the supporters for minimum standards from the Maritimes, ~74% were in favor of minimum protection standards even if it meant tax increases to replace lost government revenue from certain activities and developments. This evidence suggests the Maritimers are willing to go the extra mile to pay a little more to preserve our marine environments for generations to come

As Canada attempts to reach 10% marine protection by 2020, we need to ensure that our governments hold true to their promises by implementing effective marine protected areas, and that they recognize and understand that ocean ecosystems are just as important and deserving as Banff National Park and other terrestrial ecosystems. On this World Oceans Day (June 8th) be sure to let your government representative know that there is strong agreement amongst Maritimers that MPAs are an effective tool to conserve our ocean environments in a sustainable manner, with an eye to the future.

For more information on WWF’s survey on MPAs, click here.

Travis Aten is a Marine Conservation Officer at the Ecology Action Centre. He loves watching marine animals in their natural habitat (from afar, of course) and swimming in the ocean’s waves.

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