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Rehabilitated harbour seal pups equipped with satellite tags on their heads are released into the waters of Howe Sound at Porteau Cove, B.C. Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013.


Canada has been "dragging its heels" on commitments to create marine protected areas and ranks last on the list of countries with the longest coastlines in terms of the amount of ocean where human activity has been restricted to preserve biodiversity.

That is the finding of a report to be released Monday by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society which points out that Canada has protected just 1.3 per cent of its "ocean estate" – the internal waters and the sea stretching from the coasts to the outer edge of the 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

That means, in terms of the percentage of its oceans that have been protected, Canada lags behind China, Indonesia and Russia and six other countries with large ocean regions. Canada's performance has been dwarfed by the United States, which has set aside 30.4 per cent of its ocean estate for marine protected areas , and by Australia, which has set aside 33.2 per cent.

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Repeated federal governments have set targets and deadlines going back to 1992 for the establishment of the areas that shelter and nurture marine life. All of them have failed.

Now Canada has again promised that marine protected areas will cover 10 per cent of our oceans by 2020. The CPAWS report, which was obtained by The Globe and Mail, says that is doable. But it will require a clear plan and firm milestones.

"We have to get on with it," says Sabine Jessen, the national manager of oceans and great freshwater lakes. "If that's our target – 2020 – we have to work back from there and we have to have a very detailed plan to get there or we're not going to make it."

The federal Conservative government has committed $37-million over five years to strengthen marine and coastal conservation. That falls short of environmentalists' recommendations of $35-million a year plus another $15.7-million for managing ocean development.

And, while the international trend has been to create very large marine protected areas of more than 100,000 square kilometres, the largest MPA in Canada – the one in Lancaster Sound in Nunavut – covers 48,000 square kilometres.

The CPAWS report says the government is "off to a good start" by developing broad guidelines for the design of a network of marine protected areas, but Canada needs to begin the work of planning the network in each bio-region with the help of marine scientists.

The creation of marine protected areas can cause economic anxiety. But "there are many studies out there that show that the fishing sector, in particular, will be a big beneficiary of marine protected areas," said Ms. Jessen, "because they will actually be a source for the fish."

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The number of species that have been declared to be at risk in and around Canada's oceans is sobering, she said. They include 11 types of whales, 16 types of birds and 46 types of fish.

But protecting marine ecosystems is also imperative for the long-term survival of humanity, said Ms. Jessen. Half of the world's oxygen is produced in the ocean. The ocean regulates the temperature of the planet and provides an important part of the food supply.

Fisheries Minister Gail Shea pointed out in an e-mail that, since the Conservatives were first elected in 2006, they have designated three new marine protected areas and created other national wildlife areas including a sanctuary for bowhead whales.

"We remain committed to meet our target of protecting 10 per cent of our oceans by 2020 under the International Convention on Biological Diversity," said Ms. Shea. "As mentioned in the report, this goal is within reach."

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