Why are International Actions and Agreements Important for Canadian Ocean Health?

by Susanna Fuller

Last week the United Nations hosted its first ever meeting dedicated solely to global oceans. The Ecology Action Centre was in attendance as advisors to the Canadian delegation. It was an opportunity to learn from others and work to ensure that Canada upholds international commitments. Follow #Oceans20 #SaveOurOcean #OceanConference on Twitter to see what you missed. We’ll have more for you on that in a future smallscales.ca post!

Making change, whether it is a policy, a behavior or a pattern, and whether it is related to environmental change or not, often requires working at multiple scales and in diverse ways to achieve the systemic change we want to see.  When it comes to fisheries and oceans management, some fish tend to stay around Canada’s water in preferred habitats, while others migrate through Canadian and international waters. This means it is important to work at the wharf but also on international policy so that good principles can then be applied at the level of the fishery.

Screenshot_20170420-194201Over the past decade, the Ecology Action Centre’s marine team has engaged in oceans issues at the international level as part of our efforts for improved sustainability at home. We have been observers to high seas fisheries organizations, like the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), and participated in many fisheries and oceans meetings at the United Nations. However, the Ecology Action Centre, as a whole, is often viewed as primarily Nova Scotian organization, which begs the question: how does this international work help our fish and our marine environment here in Nova Scotia?

Canadian fisheries and oceans management would be much worse off without international processes, even if it’s easy to brush them off as too slow or a waste of time. As fisheries are under national jurisdiction in Canada, it’s extremely necessary to work at the national level, primarily with the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), in order to influence the conservation and sustainability of our fisheries at home. National level laws and policies are influenced by and linked to the international commitments made by the Canadian government, which makes work at the international level an important leverage point, and then trickle down to affect fisheries locally.


Deep sea corals are some of the Canadian species that can benefit from international agreements | Photo credit: ROPOS/DFO/Dalhousie University

While complex, international processes might seem far removed from what matters on a day-to-day basis, it’s international agreements that have gotten important concepts like the “precautionary approach” and “ecosystem approach” into international fisheries law. International commitment to these concepts means a pledge to being careful before we make decisions and to not use lack of information as an excuse. It means a commitment to considering the impact of one activity on the entire ecosystem, not just a single species, as no species exists in a vacuum. Perhaps these principles seem aspirational, and in many cases, they are. However, nowhere in Canada’s Fisheries Act can you find the precautionary approach or the ecosystem approach, which are the basics of good fisheries management. This absence exemplifies why engaging internationally is so important; where our national legislation falls short, these international agreements and processes can fill the gaps, sometimes in new and ambitious ways.


The high seas account for 50% of our planet and without international agreements, there would be much less will to protect them. Healthy global oceans mean healthy local oceans too | Photo credit: Nick Maroulis

This is why the Ecology Action Centre attends regional fisheries management organization meetings, why we are members of international coalitions of non-government organizations, (Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, the High Seas Alliance, the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions, to name a few), why we have actively supported the negotiation of a new international agreement to protect high seas biodiversity and why we supported Canada agreeing to the global biodiversity protection targets (known as the Aichi Targets) back in 2010, under the Convention on Biological Diversity.

While getting solid international agreements in place is no easy feat, the hardest work is often making sure these agreements turn into action. Luckily, these agreements often have legal or political implications; they can be used to hold Canada accountable and make change, here in our waters, bays and coves.

Here are a few concrete examples where international agreements have led to real change, here in Nova Scotia:

  • 585px-blueshark_300

    Highly migratory species like the blue shark (Prionace glauca) require international cooperation and management, so that they are afforded the same protections regardless of where they swim

    Without an agreement at the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization to require all shark fins to be attached to their bodies when landed and pressure from many International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna parties to adopt this practice, an important measure for enforcing bans on the wasteful practice of shark finning, Canada would not be implementing this policy at home.

  • Without a commitment at the United Nations General Assembly in 2006, Canada would likely not have a policy to protect vulnerable corals and sponges from bottom fishing.
  • Without a commitment in 2010 as part of the Convention on Biological Diversity, it is doubtful the present Canadian government would be working to protect at least 10% of its coastal and marine environment by 2020.
  • Without global agreement that oceans are important for our planet, Canada would have attended the UN Ocean Conference in New York where the Ecology Action Centre was part of the official Canadian delegation for the first time ever.

These commitments are often just words on a page. The ingredients for their success include political will, public pressure, individual action and, at least in our experience, the work of civil society organizations like the Ecology Action Centre, to keep watch and hold governments accountable for fulfilling these commitments. Like the climate, the ocean needs international cooperation to help mitigate the impacts of human activity. Whether it is overfishing, plastic pollution, impacts of climate change or ocean noise, reducing impact requires global discussions on how best to tackle the problems and then commitment to real and actionable solutions.

Susanna D. Fuller is a Senior Marine Conservation Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre, and after being at the UN for a week found it very difficult to write this blog without only using acronyms! She has been to the high seas and it is one of her happy places.


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