Located at a depth of 100 to 200 metres below the ocean’s surface off the British Columbia (B.C.) coast is a world teeming with fish and marine life. Juvenile rockfish, for example, cautiously co-exist with predators like sharks and octopuses, sure to find shelter in cave-like openings of what look like steep-sided, eight-storey glass castles if necessary.
“These reefs are an oasis of life,” says Alexandra Barron, national director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s Ocean Program. “Glass sponge reefs were thought to be extinct, but in the 1980s, scientists mapping the sea floor in B.C. discovered extensive areas of them.”
Unlike the prehistoric fossilized examples that had previously been studied across the globe, B.C.’s sponges – some of which are 9,000 years old and 1,000 square kilometres in surface area – are very much alive. However, investigation revealed that parts had been “plowed by bottom trawlers,” says Ms. Barron. “Sponge reefs have the texture of a meringue. They’re very, very fragile.”
Initial conservation measures included voluntary avoidance of bottom trawling. In 2010, the largest sites were earmarked as a potential marine protected area (MPA), and this designation was achieved in 2017.
Marine conservation efforts – like the ones protecting B.C.’s glass sponge reefs – have gained momentum in Canada, and the transformation is so significant that Ms. Barron describes it as turning “from an international laggard into a global leader.”
In 2015, about 1 per cent of Canada’s oceans was protected as MPAs. Progress was slow, with the designation process sometimes taking multiple decades while industrial activity and climate impacts continued – or even accelerated, Ms. Barron recalls. “The government’s strong commitment then led to a dramatic increase over the next five to six years – to where 13.8 per cent of Canada’s oceans are now protected.”
Milestones from this half-decade included the designation of numerous new sites, the commitment to minimum protection standards, conservation-boosting changes to Canada’s Oceans Act and the government’s largest historic investment in ocean protection, she explains. “After all this work, it is encouraging to see the government continue to ramp up protection and strive for 25 per cent by 2025 and a minimum of 30 per cent by 2030.”
Advancing science-backed climate models
As the biggest carbon sink globally, the ocean has a key role in climate science, says Anya Waite, CEO and scientific director of Canada’s Ocean Frontier Institute (OFI). “Oceans absorb more carbon than all our rainforests combined – and there are indications that this capacity may be declining.”
Should oceans stop absorbing historic amounts of carbon – or even release carbon – the baseline upon which climate targets are set would “shift completely,” says Dr. Waite. “Since the North Atlantic has the most intense carbon absorption in the world – and is one of the main places where carbon is taken deep into the sea – measuring and monitoring that capacity can provide real-time information for policy-makers.”
With its considerable “scientific and convening power,” the OFI is working with international partners to establish the North Atlantic Carbon Observatory, and Dr. Waite expects to gain valuable insights that can inform climate models.
“Canada is held in high regard for its ocean policy internationally,” she says. “We’d like to see this leadership continue with policies that are informed by the latest science.”
Community buy-in key to success
While Dr. Waite’s research focuses on the big picture, every achievement – no matter how small – is welcome. “We have to operate on all scales and support wins that create both local and global impact,” she says. “For MPAs, buy-in from the community is absolutely essential, and we need a strong social science perspective alongside natural science data.”
More and more coastal and Indigenous communities are taking ownership of MPAs in the Arctic, Atlantic Canada and B.C., and Susanna Fuller, vice-president, Operations and Projects, Oceans North, has observed that outcomes are stronger when local stakeholders are involved.
“Communities are thinking about the future of the marine environment and their role in it,” she says. “We like to support areas that are brought forward by partners because we know that community support is essential for achieving conservation benefits.”
The protection of deep-sea corals and sponges on the east coast, for example, originated with fishermen who were concerned “about the trees on the bottom of the sea floor,” says Dr. Fuller. “Over the past two decades, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has led scientific investigations into corals. This has informed policy and led to the closure of areas to bottom trawling. When you reduce or remove threats to an ecosystem, it can bounce back.”
Boosting ocean health and climate resilience
Evidence of the ocean’s ability to recover comes from a habitat in Atlantic Canada, where Lophelia, a deep-water reef-building coral, is found. “At the time of discovery, about 95 per cent of the coral had been destroyed by fishing vessels. After the area was closed for more than a decade, the same patch now shows new growth,” says Dr. Fuller. “It’s so rewarding to see that these ancient species can recover.”
While marine areas can take decades or even centuries to recover, success stories help to inspire confidence that ambitious goals, such as the “30 by 30” target, are worth the effort, says Dr. Fuller. “The good news is that conservation works. So now we need to look at species that are vulnerable to climate change and how to improve their resilience.”
The coming years are “going to be difficult and exciting at the same time,” she notes. “Climate change and species loss are very daunting, but there is no other option but to keep trying. And when there is a victory that works for both the people and the ocean, that feels really good.”
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