If you aren’t quite feeling the right sense of urgency about the politics of marine protected areas in Canada, it might mean you’ve never lived in one of the Newfoundland towns that were devastated by the collapse of the cod fishery in 1992.
Living through it on the ground, then learning about the underlying dynamics of the crisis as a marine biologist, taught me some lessons I’ll never forget about the unbreakable connections between the environment, the economy, and the political process.
I feel that past lack of political leadership in my bones.
Now, as the federal government pushes toward a less-than-adequate marine protection target, while allowing seismic testing and oil development in a protected area it has already established, it’s crystal clear that today’s elected leaders are scrambling now to deal with the legacy of craven political decisions a quarter-century ago.
The Road Not Taken
Looking back, it’s painfully easy to see how much better off we would be now if Canada’s political leaders then had based their decisions on the best available science.
It’s hard to convey how badly damaged and diminished our oceans are today, how slow our country has been to take action, and how badly we lag on marine protection as a result.
It’s laudable that our current government has set a target of protecting 5% of the country’s marine areas by the end of this year. They’ve been consulting fairly widely and building momentum for action. That’s something to celebrate.
But if the country had recognized 1992 for the bellwether moment that it was, had listened to Indigenous knowledge about the fundamental significance of water and oceans to life itself, we wouldn’t be starting out today from the back of the bleachers.
We might at least be half-way onto the field. As it stands, we’ve been so far back for so many years and decades that it will be much more difficult to catch up.
How Not to Protect An Ocean
And while the government and a variety of stakeholders work the regulatory process, ocean species and habitats continue to decline, thanks in part to processes that treat protection itself as just one priority among many, rather than giving it the primacy you would expect for something called a marine protected area (MPA).
The Laurentian Channel, the gateway to the St. Lawrence River, is a chilling example. And not just because of the water temperature.
East coast groups and individuals, including a great many volunteers, went through years of government process and spent thousands of hours on volunteer advocacy, all to win a regulatory reform that still effectively allows seismic testing in 100% of a critical marine protected area, and oil and gas development in 20%.
Federal officials actually decided that would be okay, because threatened marine mammals—including endangered whales that are essentially blinded by underwater noise—could just get out of the way.
“Unlike coral, these species are mobile and can move away from noises and other disturbances,” the draft regulation says.
That's laughable, given that the point of MPAs is to create geographically-defined havens for ocean life in critically important locations. Researchers have known for years that seismic noise can travel tens to hundreds of kilometres, and recent studies have shown that seismic airguns kill zooplankton and larvae up to 1.2 kilometres away.
More recently, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc introduced Bill C-55, legislation that would give Ottawa the power to designate a marine protected area for up to five years. It’s a government initiative, not a private member’s bill, it’s moving through the legislative process, and it would bring some relief in emergency situations, like this summer’s tragic and heartbreaking deaths of at least 15 right whales in Atlantic waters.
C-55 specifically addresses risks to marine environments from uncontrolled oil and gas activity. But it doesn’t recognize conservation and recovery as the singular priority in marine protection, or address a fundamental structural problem in the current regime: authority over sensitive Atlantic waters is vested in the federal Canada Petroleum Resources Act, not with the federal minister of fisheries or the environment. And in Atlantic Canada, offshore petroleum boards, often stacked with oil and gas insiders, are charged with carrying out environmental assessments, even though their mandate is to promote offshore development, and they lack expertise in environmental protection and public consultation.
So here we are again: A step in the right direction, but ultimately a missed opportunity to put the science ahead of the day-to-day management of the MPA, resulting in clear guidelines to prevent overfishing, stop oil and gas development in critical offshore areas, properly designated endangered marine species and meet targets for protecting them, and enable coastal communities and inshore fisheries to develop local sustainable economies.
The World Is Watching, Actually
What most Canadians haven’t realized is that the world is watching our behaviour on marine protected areas and fisheries protection. We’re known across the globe for having squandered one of the most abundant fish stocks anywhere by harvesting it to the verge of extinction.
The cod collapse is certainly a cautionary tale for many Canadians, but we know the story mainly from a social and economic point of view. We’ve lost the memory of the federal scientists who quit or lost their jobs because they wanted to speak publicly about the environmental and human tragedy they saw unfolding. We don’t appreciate our own international reputation for management practices that put business interests over scientific evidence, with the result that everyone—including my hometown, and so many other communities that depended on the resource—lost out.
The story then and now underscores the urgent need for determined, tireless environmental leadership at every level of government.
We need visionary, science-based change in management, policies, and legislation. But we can’t spend a decade debating the finer points of the Fisheries Act while right whales go extinct in the east, and endangered orcas in the west are slammed by up to a seven-fold increase in oil tankers.
We can’t allow offshore oil boards to give permits for oil and gas in critical ecological areas like the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
We badly need the kind of limited, short-term solutions Minister LeBlanc envisions in Bill C-55. But we can’t keep slapping band-aids on a system that has to be rebuilt from the ground up.
We need it all. We need it now. We need faster action across the board. And none of this is an exaggeration. The cod collapse was cataclysmic a quarter-century ago. And the next cataclysm is ahead, unless we can mobilize the political leadership to get this right.
Marine biologist and GreenPAC supporter Gretchen Fitzgerald is National Program Director of the Sierra Club Canada Foundation and former director of the Atlantic Canada Chapter.