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Uncertainty over federal efforts to protect marine areas has “stranded” offshore oil investment as Newfoundland and Labrador faces an unprecedented cash crunch, Premier Dwight Ball said Tuesday.

Ball told a federal panel his province wants to enhance ocean health but future decisions should be collaborative, timely and based on good science — not pressure from what he called special interest groups.

Conservationists are pushing for oil and gas restrictions along with other limits in those areas.

Ball says it’s a matter of balance.

“We have a lot riding on our ocean industries,” he told the National Advisory Panel on Marine Protected Area Standards during its stop in St. John’s.

“It’s so important to get this right.”

Ball said confusion between existing marine refuge zones and potential marine protected areas has “stranded investment” for offshore oil activity.

“We don’t need to shut down the economy to be good stewards of our oceans.”

Newfoundland and Labrador has 29,000 kilometres of coastline, by far the most in Canada.

Decisions involving the ocean have a disproportionate impact in a province that relies on fishing and offshore oil production, Ball stressed.

Newfoundland and Labrador is the only Atlantic province not getting equalization payments from Ottawa as it faces an “unprecedented” fiscal mess since oil prices crashed in 2014, he added.

Charlene Johnson, CEO of the Newfoundland and Labrador Oil & Gas Industries Association, earlier told the panel that unpredictability threatens offshore momentum.

She cited a particular need for clarity between marine refuge areas — where certain types of fishing are restricted but oil exploration licences have been issued — and marine protected areas, which will have regulations still to be determined.

There are now two marine protected areas off Newfoundland and Labrador, with a third proposed for the Laurentian Channel off its southwest coast.

The panel is collecting input for a report due in September to federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc and the coast guard.

It’s to advise on developing standards for marine protected areas using guidelines from the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The federal government has committed to protecting 10 per cent of Canada’s marine areas by 2020. So far it has reached almost 80 per cent of that goal.

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil also made his case before the panel this month that environmental protections should be balanced with economic factors.

“We want to make sure that we work with the national government to achieve their objective of looking for marine protected areas,” he told reporters. “But it has to be done with a thought that Nova Scotians deserve to maximize the value of the resources off their coast.”

McNeil said projects such as the Sable offshore development underscore that oil and gas exploration can be safe.

There are now four producing oil sites off Newfoundland’s east coast. Ball said the sector contributed an estimated $13 billion to the federal government by the end of 2016.

Those calling for purely off-limits marine protected areas say those benefits have come with a cost.

Seabird specialist Bill Montevecchi of Memorial University of Newfoundland also presented to the panel Tuesday.

Outside, he said small nocturnal birds known as Leach’s storm petrels are a telling symbol of ocean health. They’ve vanished in the millions since offshore oil production started 20 years ago in the North Atlantic east of St. John’s yet there’s no reliable science to explain why, Montevecchi said.

He blames a failure by regulators to require independent analysis and environmental monitoring.

“The regulations from the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board have failed,” he said in an interview.

Montevecchi said marine protected areas should be “no touch” zones free of any disturbances to offer a baseline against which other regions are compared.

“There’s lots of places to get oil,” he said. “We should be talking about the environment. We should be talking about animals, and there’s no reason that’s incompatible with economics.”

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