A leading advocate for the preservation of Canada's wilderness is urging the federal government to create 12 new marine protected areas by the end of next year to ensure the survival of species like leatherback turtles, right whales and narwhal.
In advance of Oceans Day on Wednesday, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) has developed a list of a dozen ocean sites that it says should be off limits to fishing and other commercial interests.
Some of the group's proposed marine protected areas (MPAs) are already on the radar of the federal government. But Canada has no plan for completing its network of marine protected areas, said Sabine Jessen, CPAWS oceans protection manager.
"We don't have timelines, we don't have milestones," she said. "So we are trying to put the challenge out to the government to say, 'Here are some sites - some that you are already working on, others that we know have very significant values and deserve consideration.' "
What is a marine protected area?
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans defines a marine protected area as a specific geographical space managed to achieve the long-term conservation of nature. Some MPAs are fully marine, others have terrestrial components.
Using that definition, the department says there are more than 700 existing MPAs in Canada. Some of them are managed by the federal government, some by the provinces, and others by private interests.
But the CPAWS says the definition is too loose. Few of the sites are being protected to the standard of guidelines released a week ago by 14 Canadian scientists. The society says any MPA should be off limits to fishing, shipping and any other commercial and industrial activities such as oil drilling and seismic testing.
How does Canada compare to other countries?
According to a report released by the federal government last September, Canada ranked "only 70th out of 228 countries around the world in establishment of marine protected areas. Despite recent progress in establishing new areas, there is still a significant challenge ahead."
DFO says the more than 700 existing MPA's cover about 56,000 square kilometres of Canada's oceans and Great Lakes.
Ms. Jessen said that means about 1 per cent of Canada's oceans are protected. "The scientists are saying we need to see at least 30 per cent that are fully protected with no fishing in them," she said. "So that means we have a long way to go."
What are the 12 new MPAs that CPAWS want to establish by 2012?
They are a diverse collection of sites.
They range from the Laurentian Channel off the coast of Newfoundland that has the largest concentration of black dogfish in Canada, to Lancaster Sound in the High Arctic where seabirds like thick-billed murres and black-legged Kittiwakes number in the millions, to the Scott Islands on the northwestern tip of Vancouver Island that is home to one of the largest Steller sea lion rookeries in the world
"Some of these sites are actually under way in government processes and some are still to be announced," Ms. Jessen said. "And some are ones that we have been proposing for many years."
What is the benefit of creating more Marine Protected Areas?
The overall goal is protection of endangered species.
Studies from around the world have shown that, whether waters are temperate or tropical waters, setting aside sites for marine protected areas has a positive effect on the flora and fauna, Ms. Jessen said.
"But, one of the nice things is you also get some spillover. You get the fish moving outside the area and actually replenishing the areas outside them," she noted. "While you might have an initial impact in the fishing industry, in the long term we are actually ensuring much healthier ocean ecosystems, not just in the marine protected areas."
What are the potential ramifications for sea-based industries like fishing and shipping?
The moratorium on cod fishing off the coast of Newfoundland created the single largest mass layoff in Canadian history and put about 30,000 people out of work. Taking any area out of the reach of commercial fishing fleets will have some economic effect.
As for shipping, Bruce Bowie, the president of the Canadian Shipowners Association, said his group recognizes that there are fragile areas off Canadian coasts and that the industry has implemented voluntary procedures to minimize the impact of shipping in those regions.
But any outright ban of freighters in Canada's shipping lanes "is clearly going to have a profound impact on the economy of North America and the ability of business to export and move products around the country," Mr. Bowie said.