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MPAs are legally protected ocean sites intended to protect marine life such as fish, whales and seabirds as well as ocean features like underwater mountains and hydrothermal vents.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

Proposed new protection standards for federal marine protected areas won’t do enough to shield those sites from ship waste, including sewage and waste water from fuel scrubbers, an environmental group maintains.

The proposed restrictions, now under discussion by Transport Canada, would be mandatory only in Canada’s territorial sea – up to 12 nautical miles from shore. That would leave large swaths of MPAs exposed to ship waste if operators didn’t voluntarily comply, says WWF Canada.

“About 75 per cent of the total protected area in Canada’s maritime territory sits outside of that 12-nautical-mile zone,” Sam Davin, a marine conservation and shipping specialist at WWF Canada, said in an interview.

“What we are encouraging Canada to do is explore some of the options for introducing mandatory restrictions outside of 12 nautical miles. And there are a few levers that we think Canada can pull.”

Ottawa, however, says its options are limited, because of international law that gives coastal states limited authority to regulate activities of foreign vessels beyond the 12-mile zone.

Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray and Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault announced the 2023 Marine Protected Area Protection Standard in February during an international marine conference.

One of several federal measures unveiled during that event, the MPA standard – along with new MPAs – is part of Ottawa’s plan to conserve 30 per cent of the country’s oceans by 2030.

MPAs are legally protected ocean sites intended to protect marine life such as fish, whales and seabirds as well as ocean features like underwater mountains and hydrothermal vents. Canada and other countries are using MPAs to pursue the “30-by-30″ target, which calls for protecting 30 per cent of the planet by 2030. The target was included in a major agreement reached at the COP15 United Nations biodiversity conference in December.

Canada’s 2023 MPA protection standard builds on a 2019 policy that restricted four industrial actions – oil and gas activities, mining, dumping and bottom trawling – in MPAs set up since that year.

In announcing the updated standard in February, Ottawa reiterated those restrictions and said Transport Canada would be consulting with stakeholders to restrict certain vessel discharges within MPAs.

WWF Canada sees that development as a positive step, but is pushing for such controls to extend beyond the 12-mile boundary. A 2022 WWF Canada report estimated that ships are dumping billions of litres of waste each year into protected areas, including the Scott Islands marine National Wildlife Area off the north coast of Vancouver Island.

WWF Canada would like to see the federal government look at ways to extend its reach past the 12-nautical-mile zone further into its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which extends from the territorial sea limit to a maximum of 200 nautical miles.

Ottawa says that’s unlikely to happen.

“Although the EEZ falls under the exclusive legislative authority of the country to which it belongs for purposes of trade and security, when it comes to regulations for the prevention, reduction and control of pollution from vessels, Canada must give effect to the generally accepted international rules and standards established through the competent international organization, which is the International Maritime Organization (IMO),” Sau Sau Liu, a spokesperson with Transport Canada, said in an e-mail.

“As such, Canada could not unilaterally place blanket restrictions on a substance within the EEZ, even within marine protected areas,” she added.

Transport Canada may at some point propose a mandatory regime for MPAs in its exclusive economic zone, but that would require engaging with the IMO, with no guarantee of reaching consensus among member states, Ms. Liu said.

Ottawa is also looking at extending proposed mandatory measures to MPAs created before 2019.

“Voluntary measures for MPAs in the EEZ are the best means to achieve protection outcomes in the short term, while we focus on mandatory measures for MPAs in our territorial waters longer term,” she said.

Voluntary compliance on marine issues related to MPAs “usually doesn’t work,” said Rashid Sumaila, a fisheries economist at the University of British Columbia who has studied conservation in international waters.

“You don’t need everybody to refuse the voluntary restrictions for it to collapse – you just need a small fraction,” Dr. Sumaila said. “When it’s voluntary, there’s always the chance that it is going to be abused.”

Globally, ocean conservation got a boost with a recent United Nations treaty that allows for the creation of MPAs on the high seas – those parts of the ocean beyond any country’s territorial jurisdiction.

The high seas treaty has yet to be ratified, but experts hailed it as a breakthrough that could help fill regulatory gaps related to fishing, vessel discharges and industrial activities such as oil and gas development.

In the meantime, WWF Canada remains concerned about discharges in MPAs that fall between Canada’s territorial sea – 12 nautical miles – and the high seas, Mr. Davin said.

“It’s not just the amount of areas that we set aside for conservation … it’s what those protections really entail.”

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