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After years of delay, Ottawa is charging ahead with plans to set aside 10 per cent of Canada's ocean territory, an area nearly as large as Saskatchewan, for special protection. As Ivan Semeniuk reports, which coastal sites will ultimately be protected and to what extent are questions that have yet to be answered

Marine Protected Areas

  • Existing Marine Protected Areas
  • Proposed Marine Protected Areas
mpa1,46.507,-131.008,Endeavour Hydrothermal Vents,Designated,"Designated in 2003, this is Canada’s first protected ocean wilderness. Here, chimney-like “smokers” spew water that has been superheated by geological activity, creating a rich ecosystem for deep sea life.",,
mpa2,55.033925,-136.603516,Bowie Seamount,Designated,A towering underwater mountain that rises almost three kilometres from the seafloor to form a shallow water habitat that hosts a unique array of fish and supports a wide range of ocean going birds.,,,, 
mpa3,70.285411,-135.175783,Tarium Niryutait,Designated,"Covering approximately 1,800 square kilometres of the Mackenzie River delta, this area supports a wide range of species year round and is especially important for beluga whales who raise calves there.",,
mpa4,52.609193,-55.908756,Gilbert Bay,Designated,"Measuring 20 kilometres long but only 100 metres deep, with narrow outlets to the sea, this feature of the Labrador coastline is home to many shellfish and waterfowl, as well as a distinct type of Atlantic cod.",,
mpa5,48.731667,-53.688333,Eastport,Designated,The waters surrounding this picturesque peninsula jutting into Bonavista Bay are famous for lobster and other commercially important species that local groups are trying to better protect and revive.,,
mpa6,46.368223,-61.880493,Basin Head,Designated,"Located off the eastern tip of Prince Edward Island, this shallow lagoon hosts a wide range of animal and plant life, including a type of Irish moss that is unique to this part of the world.",,
mpa7,43.583333,-59.133333,The Gully,Designated,"A submarine canyon that formed thousands of years ago at the edge of Nova Scotia’s continental shelf, this area supports an abundance of shallow- and deep-water fish species, as well as whales and dolphins.",,
mpa8,44.858763,-66.469115,Musquash Estuary,Designated,An expanse of saltwater marshes fed by rivers off the coast of New Brunswick. It is one of the richest and least disturbed ecosystems of this type along the Bay of Fundy.,,
pmpa9,48.454709,-123.178711,Southern Strait of Georgia,Proposed,"These well-trafficked waters that lie between Vancouver and Vancouver Island include crucial habitat for killer whales, sea lions, rockfish and about 3,000 other marine species.",9--Southern-Strait-of-Georgia-Pacific.jpg,Christopher Prentiss Michel
pmpa10,48.458352,-125.321045,Big Eddy,Proposed,"A diverse and extensive ecosystem thrives between Vancouver Island and Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, where deep, nutrient-rich water is brought to the surface by swirling ocean currents.",10-Big-Eddy-BC-Pacific.jpg,Jeff Foott
pmpa11,50.80297,-128.603867,Scott Islands,Proposed,"These craggy islands off the northwest tip of Vancouver Island and their surrounding waters support a huge and globally important population of seabirds including puffins, auklets and murres.",11-Scott-Islands-BC-Tufted-Puffin.jpg,
pmpa12,53.17986,-130.828618,Hecate Strait,Proposed,Glass sponge reefs built up over thousands of years have been called living fossils and are unique in the world. The fragile reefs filter the ocean water and host a remarkable array of marine life.,12-hecate-straight-reefs.jpg,
pmpa13,69.960439,-122.299805,Anguniaqvia Niqiqyuam  (Darnley Bay),Proposed,This broad bay near the western entrance to the Northwest Passage has long been a source for subsistence hunting and fishing in the region and is an important feeding ground for Arctic char.,13--Darnley-bay-arctic-char.jpg,Dan Bach Kristensen
pmpa14,74.216667,-84,Lancaster Sound,Proposed,"Located off the north coast of Baffin Island, the waters here are among the most biologically productive in the Canadian Arctic. In the winter it forms a large area of open water entirely surrounded by sea ice.",14-lancaster-sound-arctic-narwhal.jpg,HO
pmpa15,53.278353,-79.562988,Tawich,Proposed,The southeast section of James Bay is home to the world’s most southerly population of polar bears. The area proposed for protection would include some of the last undammed rivers in the region.,15-tawich-QC-JamesBay-Arctic-polarbear.jpg,Andrew S. Wright
pmpa16,47.353711,-58.721924,South Coast Fjords,Proposed,"Flowing through a stunning series of bays, estuaries and islands on Newfoundland’s south coast, these ice-free waters are home to numerous whale species and endangered leatherback turtles.",16-south-coast-fjords-nl.jpg,Peter Stacey/Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society
pmpa17,46.460566,-55.761108,Laurentian Channel,Proposed,"This deep-water channel that flows between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia includes key habitat for a host of important fish species, including the Northern Wolffish.",17--Laurentian-channel-wolffish.jpg,
pmpa18,47.472663,-61.954651,Îles-de-la-Madeleine,Proposed,An archipelago of dune-filled islands and sandbars situated in the heart of the biologically rich Gulf of St. Lawrence. The shallow waters around the islands constitute Canada’s warmest marine region.,18-madeleine-atlantic-piping-plover.jpg,Steven Senne
pmpa19,48.980217,-63.874512,Gaspésie,Proposed,"Located off Forillon National Park on the southeastern tip of Quebec, this highly productive marine region is an important summer feeding ground for blue whales.",19--Gaspsie--blue-whale.jpg,NOAA
pmpa20,48.022769,-69.532471,St. Lawrence Estuary,Proposed,"An area of exceptional biodiversity that centres around the meeting point of the St. Lawrence and Saguenay Rivers, this transitional waterway is well known for its beluga whales, among other species.",20-st-lawrence-beluga.jpg,
pmpa21,46.103709,-59.523926,St Anns Bank,Proposed,"A stretch of continental shelf off the coast of Cape Breton Island, this location hosts deep-water corals and is an important summer feeding ground for leatherback turtles.",21-St-Anns-Banks-leatherback-turtle.jpg,Tim Wimborne
pmpa22,45.182037,-65.280762,Bay of Fundy,Proposed,"With the world’s highest tides and diverse coastal ecosystems that host two million migratory shorebirds, the Bay of Fundy is a signature Canadian waterway that has yet to be federally protected.",22-fundy-tides.jpg,,,

The waters of Hecate Strait are restless and notoriously unpredictable. But down at the bottom of the 100-kilometre-wide channel that separates Haida Gwaii from mainland British Columbia lies a series of formations so astonishing that even now, nearly 30 years after discovery, scientists can hardly believe what they are seeing.

"It's amazing," says Sally Leys, a University of Alberta biologist who led a research expedition to Hecate Strait in October. "It's like walking through a forest of white bushes."

Science Tour the haunting glass sponge reefs of Hecate Strait, off the B.C. coast


The "bushes" are made of glass sponges, an exotic and ancient form of animal life that feature mineral skeletons made of silica. These glassy structures grow as the sponges do and can be added to by succeeding generations, forming living towers over 10 metres high and providing habitat for multitudes of fish and other species.

Once thought to have vanished with the dinosaurs, the glass sponge reefs of Hecate Strait number among the rarest and most incredible marine ecosystems on the planet. They top a long list of sites that conservationists say the federal government must prioritize as it launches a new effort to preserve Canada's threatened ocean wilderness.

"The sponge reefs are a really obvious example. We need to show the world we can give these important places strong protection," said Sabine Jessen, director of the oceans program of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, an organization that has long been pushing Ottawa to accelerate the pace of marine conservation.

Now Ottawa is finally getting on board.

Big Eddy: A diverse and extensive ecosystem thrives between Vancouver Island and Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, where deep, nutrient-rich water is brought to the surface by swirling ocean currents.

Following up on campaign promises, the Liberal government has confirmed that it will set aside five per cent of this country's ocean waters for protection by 2017 and a further five per cent by 2020 in order to meet Canada's commitments under the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity.

The pledge means that Canada's marine conservation effort, which had been treading water for most of the Harper era, is suddenly shifting into high gear. It's been more than five years since the federal government last designated any part of Canada's ocean waters for environmental protection. Now, in the next five years, the current government aims to designate a total area nearly as vast as Saskatchewan.

"It's a very ambitious goal but I believe it's something we can accomplish," said federal Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo.

As a starting point, Mr. Tootoo has already met with CPAWS, which has listed 14 sites, including Hecate Strait, that it says should be designated as soon as possible to add to the eight existing marine protected areas Canada created, mostly between 2003 and 2006.

But clearly, that can only be a start. To meet its target and to protect marine biodiversity in a more comprehensive way, the federal government will need to consider designating much larger swaths of the sea that Canada controls.

Working with Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, Mr. Tootoo expects to table an action plan for cabinet in a matter of weeks that details how the government will proceed with designating new marine areas for protection. In the process, he'll be wading directly into a range of competing interests that surround many of the areas, while trying to ensure that decisions on the extent of protection are supported by science. It's a challenge that Canada has so far been conspicuously poor at meeting.

With borders on three oceans and a vast Arctic archipelago, Canada has the world's longest coastline and sovereignty over the eighth-largest marine territory in the world, defined as the area within 200 nautical miles of its shores. That amounts to about 5.6 million square kilometres of ocean, an area that would cover more than half of Canada's land mass. Yet only about 1.3 per cent of that marine territory has so far been designated for any form of protection, and less than a tenth of that – a mere 0.11 per cent – qualifies as a "no take" zone, meaning that it is closed to commercial fishing and other forms of extraction, including drilling for oil and gas.

Southern Strait of Georgia: These well-trafficked waters that lie between Vancouver and Vancouver Island include crucial habitat for killer whales, sea lions, rockfish and about 3,000 other marine species.

Southern Strait of Georgia: These well-trafficked waters that lie between Vancouver and Vancouver Island include crucial habitat for killer whales, sea lions, rockfish and about 3,000 other marine species.

Christopher Prentiss Michel

This is in stark contrast to many other countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, which each have designated about 10 per cent of their ocean territories as no-take regions and have also extended lesser degrees of protection over much larger areas. Earlier this year, for example, the UK announced it was creating the world's largest continuous marine reserve in the waters around the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific.

Canada's situation is somewhat different. Its vast Arctic coast offers a huge opportunity to make a difference on a global scale. It's where the country has the largest portion of its ocean footprint and where protected areas are currently few and far between. It's also where Canada has a chance to act ahead of economic development and prevent ecological degradation as climate change increasingly makes the entire Arctic region more accessible to industry.

"The Arctic is really at a critical point. It will be a lot easier to protect it now, before we open it up to lots of exploitation and try to un-entrench users later on," said Lance Morgan, president of the Marine Conservation Institute, a Seattle-based research organization that tracks marine protected areas globally and provides scientific support.

Mr. Tootoo agrees there should be emphasis on looking at large areas where there has been little or no human activity. He also reiterates the government's position that science should lead the way in determining which areas are marked off for protection.

This is of crucial importance, scientists say, because research shows that not all marine protected areas in the world are equally effective as havens for marine biodiversity. Size matters, as does enforcement and the way in which areas are selected so that vulnerable species can easily move within in and between them.

Then there's the question of what kind of protection the newly designated areas will receive. How much of the 10 per cent of ocean that Canada designates will be truly off-limits to fishing and other industrial activity?

Mr. Tootoo says it's simply too early to say but promises that the process will involve "meaningful consultation" with all those who have a stake in the ocean's bounty. Researchers emphasize that it's human communities and not just wildlife that depend on the effective stewardship of Canada's marine resources.

"Ocean health is important to economic and social health. We risk economic systems when we don't support ecological systems," said Megan Bailey, a fisheries economist at Dalhousie University.

Experts also stress that because Canada has jurisdiction over so much marine territory, particularly in the Arctic, the decisions it makes could have profound consequences for the future of a global ocean that is already under unprecedented strain from overfishing and climate change. The point of the UN's 10-per-cent target is to establish and manage sufficiently large areas of marine biodiversity that the oceans can recover in years to come.

"We know that these kinds of areas are among the most effective things we can to do to help prevent further declines," said Natalie Ban, who specializes in ocean resource management at the University of Victoria.

What has been missing until now is political will, says Ms. Jessen, who says the society is ready to help support Ottawa's goal. She notes that with so much ocean to protect, Canada has plenty of catching up to do, and bureaucratic barriers combined with years of depleted resources for science within the federal fisheries department and related ministries haven't helped.

On ocean matters, the previous government often spoke about the need to reduce red tape for industry, Ms. Jessen said. "Now I think it's time to reduce red tape for conservation."