Did you know?

About 97 per cent of the living space on the planet is in the oceans. Yet less than 0.1 per cent of Canada’s vast marine realm has legal protection status.

Photo: Canada, ocean management and the law

(Credit: gabindu via Flickr.)

Canada's Legislative Mandate for Marine Conservation

Canada is not without laws to protect its marine environments. In 1997, Canada passed the Oceans Act. In 2002, under the direction of the Oceans Act, the federal government developed the Oceans Strategy, which outlines a strategic path for realizing international commitments and domestic mandates for marine conservation through an ecosystem-based management approach. Under section 35(2), the Act directs the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans to "lead and coordinate the establishment of a national system of marine protected areas on behalf of the government of Canada".

Sadly, Canada is failing to meet its commitments. Other nations, including the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, which made commitments to ocean strategies about the same time Canada did in 1997, have moved far ahead of us in planning, protecting, and managing marine biological resources within their economic zones.

Although the federal government did contribute to the Oceans Strategy in 2005 when it allocated $28 million to the first phase of the Oceans Action Plan, it has not established any new marine protected areas nor has it ratified any comprehensive marine-use plans. For the 2007 federal budget, environmental organizations and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans were looking for several hundred million dollars to proceed with Phase II of the Oceans Action Plan. This would have enabled a comprehensive planning process, essential scientific research, and the designation of many new marine protected areas, as well as management reforms necessary for a conservation-based approach. Unfortunately, the government has directed less than $19 million toward ocean-conservation efforts under the Oceans Action Plan. This seriously hampers Canada's ability to realize its Oceans Act mandate. Sensitive and important marine areas will remain unprotected and poorly managed until the government allocates more resources to this important issue.

Canada also has commitments under the Migratory Birds Convention Act and the National Marine Conservation Areas Act.

National marine conservation areas are marine areas managed for sustainable use and containing smaller zones of high protection. They include the seabed, the water above it, and any species that occur there. They may also take in wetlands, estuaries, islands, and other coastal lands.

To date, Canada has two marine conservation areas, with three more proposed:

1. Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park in Quebec; surface area 1,138 square kilometres
2. Fathom Five National Marine Park, in the Georgian Bay, Ontario
The proposed areas are at Lake Superior in Ontario and Gwaii Haanas and the Southern Strait of Georgia in B.C.

Canada's International Obligations

Canada agreed to apply the "Precautionary Principle" and to protect biodiversity when it signed the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Article 8 of this convention states that the mandate for parties (countries) to the convention is to:

(a) Establish a system of protected areas or areas where special measures need to be taken to conserve biological diversity;

(b) Regulate or manage biological resources important for the conservation of biological diversity whether within or outside protected areas, with a view to ensuring their conservation and sustainable use;

© Promote the protection of ecosystems, natural habitats and the maintenance of viable populations of species in natural surroundings.

Canada's performance on this issue is poor. We have not stopped the decline in abundance and diversity of species and we have not taken the necessary action to protect marine environments so that marine life has the opportunity to survive in abundance.

About 97 per cent of the living space on the planet is in the oceans. Yet less than 0.1 per cent of Canada's vast marine realm has legal protection status.

Increasing population and escalating demand for natural resources challenge Canada's ability to protect the marine environment. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA), a UN-coordinated global scientific review of the state of the planet, more than 60 per cent of the world's resources are seriously degraded and are being used at unsustainable exploitation rates. Global freshwater supplies and fisheries are in serious states of decline. In Canada, many fisheries and marine-bird populations are in decline or are being managed at dangerously unsustainable levels, while others, such as our East Coast cod and wild Atlantic salmon, have collapsed.

If Canada hopes to maintain its international reputation and realize its obligations under the UN Convention on Biodiversity, then the federal government must take a much more serious approach and improve how we manage commercial activity in our oceans. More effort and commitment to marine conservation in all of Canada's marine areas must be pursued.