• Three long-finned pilot whales swim in a cerulean blue sea

    A trio of long-finned pilot whales is seen swimming off the coast of Nova Scotia in this drone photo taken by a researcher studying decision-making in whales. (Photo: Elizabeth Zwamborn/Can Geo Photo Club)

Canada announced today that it will ban all oil and gas activities, mining, dumping and a type of fishing called bottom trawling in marine protected areas (MPAs), which are coastal and offshore zones set aside for conservation.

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Jonathan Wilkinson made the announcement April 25 in Montreal, where Canada is hosting a two-day international summit to discuss conservation efforts.

“If you really want to protect biodiversity,” said Wilkinson, “then you need to actually be able to put rules around how you're going to protect it.”

Meeting international targets

In 2010, Canada committed to protecting 10 per cent of its marine and coastal areas by 2020 as part of an international conservation agreement known as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

In conjunction with the new regulations, Fisheries and Oceans Canada also announced the creation of a new 11,580-square-kilometre MPA in the Laurentian Channel, off the coast of Newfoundland, to which the new regulations will apply. Just over eight per cent of marine and coastal areas in Canada are now protected, up from only one per cent in 2015.

The federal government began consultations on the Laurentian Channel MPA in 2017 but initially proposed allowing oil and gas exploration and extraction to occur in a significant portion of the area. Since then, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been calling for more strict protections and an outright ban on those activities. The waterway is part of a migratory route for several species of whales, including endangered North Atlantic right whales. 

“I think our campaign was a really pivotal point early on in government decision-making about standards that led to the success that we're seeing with today's announcement,” said Sigrid Kuehnemund, Vice-President of Oceans for WWF. “Oil and gas is not compatible with MPAs.”

Two-tiered system

The new regulations do not affect marine refuges, which are part of a two-tiered designation system that Wilkinson said is important to allow for economic activity that does not affect conservation efforts.

“The highest level of protection is a marine protected area, which is akin in many respects to a national park,” said Wilkinson. “We are making very clear rules that say there are certain kinds of activities that cannot take place within these marine protected areas.”

Certain important economic activities, such as lobster fishing, will still be allowed in MPAs on a case-by-case basis. “We've already said that lobster fishing can continue because it's not impacting in a negative way,” said Wilkinson. 

Unlike MPAs, marine refuges offer protections that vary based on the needs of particular marine and coastal areas. “Some are set up to provide sanctuary for whales, some are to protect corals and sponges,” said Wilkinson. Beyond activities that directly threaten that objective, there are few restrictions.

Canada currently has 34 designated marine refuges. Several will now also be designated as marine protected areas, meaning they will fall under the new, more strict regulations. The government did not say when the new regulations would come into effect.

Some experts have dismissed marine refuges as ineffective, saying they lack rules that make the designation meaningful, but Wilkinson said the two-tiered system is consistent with the recommendations his department received from a federal task force on ocean preservation.

Marine refuges with ongoing oil and gas activities will not count toward the government’s 10 per cent conservation target.

“I think there’s a pretty broad consensus amongst Canadians that oil and gas activities are important from an economic perspective,” said Wilkinson, “but that they are not compatible with marine protection, and so we shouldn't be counting those in the context of saying we've met our international targets.”

A separate report released in January by a coalition of six conservation organizations – including the WWF – said that more than a quarter of Canada’s marine refuges do not meet international standards for protection.

Hope for the future

Kuehnemund said that while the WWF is happy with Wilkinson’s announcement, there’s more work to be done to bring in stronger legislation to protect ocean ecosystems. The Senate is currently reviewing an amendment to the Oceans Act introduced by Wilkinson that would allow MPAs to be implemented more quickly. Right now, the process takes an average of seven to 10 years, a pace Kuehnemund describes as “glacial.”

Alexandra Cousteau – granddaughter of explorer Jacques Cousteau – is an advocate for ocean conservation. She applauds the announcement, and said the changes offer hope for a healthy future for the world’s oceans.

“Will the fourth generation of the Cousteaus be writing the obituary for the ocean, or will they be experiencing a return the abundance of my grandfather knew? That is the choice that we have today.”

Related:

“Treasure of the Gulf of St. Lawrence” designated a marine protected area

Q&A: Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson on the future of Canada’s oceans