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A spokeswoman for Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc, shown in this file photo, said Friday “We look forward to listening to what Canadians have to say about the proposed Laurentian Channel Marine Protected Area, which aims to protect and conserve important species and habitat so that they can be enjoyed by generations to come."The Canadian Press

The Liberal government is proposing to allow oil and gas exploration in a new marine protected area that it plans to establish where the Gulf of St. Lawrence meets the Atlantic Ocean.

Ottawa released an impact statement Friday on its Laurentian Channel protected area, a 11,619-square-kilometre stretch of ocean in which commercial activity would be limited in order to protect vulnerable marine life. The establishment of the marine protected area (MPA) is part of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's promise to set aside 10 per cent of Canada's coastal waters by 2020.

But some environmental groups and ocean scientists argue Ottawa is undermining the effort by allowing future oil and gas exploration in the zone. A study in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, released last week, concluded that intense acoustic signals used in oil and gas exploration cause significant damage to zooplankton populations that are critical elements of the marine food chain.

"Protected area should mean exactly that – protected," Sabine Jessen, oceans director for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said in an interview. "These are the places [where] we're trying to protect intact ecosystems for the long term. It's ridiculous to continue to allow oil and gas activity in this area."

In an impact statement published Friday, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said the draft regulations "would prohibit any activity that disturbs, damages, destroys or removes from the Laurentian Channel MPA a living marine organism or any part of its habitat." A government spokeswoman suggested the plan is not finalized.

"We look forward to listening to what Canadians have to say about the proposed Laurentian Channel Marine Protected Area, which aims to protect and conserve important species and habitat so that they can be enjoyed by generations to come," Laura Gareau, a spokeswoman for Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc, said in an e-mailed statement Friday.

"Only activities that are determined to be compatible with the conservation objectives of this MPA would be allowed," she added.

The government plans to ban recreational and commercial fishing in the area, but the department said such a prohibition would have little economic impact because there is little commercial fishing currently being done within the borders of the proposed protected area.

The proposed regulations would prohibit oil and gas activities within smaller, particularly sensitive sectors but allow it with some restrictions in most of the protected area. Seismic activity, which uses acoustic waves to detect oil and gas formations, would be prohibited from Aug. 1 to Nov. 30 to protect certain species "during sensitive life-cycle periods."

Halifax-based Corridor Resources Inc., has an exploration licence for the "Old Harry" site in the Gulf of Lawrence about 150 km northwest of the protected area. However, Natural Resources Canada says there is little prospect of oil and gas drilling in the protected area of Laurentian Channel due to low resource potential and high costs.

If that's the case, the government should have no problem banning drilling in the area, said David Miller, president of World Wildlife Fund Canada.

"Our view is marine protected areas should not have extractive industries in them, particularly oil and gas because of the ecological impacts," Mr. Miller said. "If you allow industry in, it's not really protected; it's just a line on a map."

Along with environmental groups, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) was involved in consultations prior to the government's decision on how much activity to allow in the channel.

CAPP vice-president Paul Barnes noted that the Oceans Act, which governs the creation of marine protected areas, allows for oil and gas activity within those zones as long as the impact can be mitigated so as not to harm threatened species. The restrictions on seismic activity will protect marine mammals and other migratory species during critical periods, he said.

However, the CAPP vice-president said there is industry interest in exploring in the region. Calgary-based Husky Oil Ltd. – a big producer in the offshore industry off Newfoundland's southeast coast – had an exploration licence in the area that expired in 2014.

"We think that whole area still holds some promise," Mr. Barnes said. "It's a gas-prone area … but there are companies that think there's the presence of oil there as well.''

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