Canada to ban industrial activities inside marine-protected areas

Canada is banning industrial activities inside marine-protected areas (MPAs), including offshore oil and gas development and bottom-trawl fishing, but the prohibition won’t automatically apply to activities in fisheries conservation areas designated as marine refuges.

The decision, effective Thursday, also bans ocean mining and ocean dumping in MPAs, which are being created to help meet an international commitment to protect 10 per cent of Canada’s ocean and coastal areas by 2020.

Canada has reached 7.9 per cent of the conservation target.

Half of the conservation areas set aside so far — 4.5 per cent — are being preserved through marine refuges.

The refuges are a fisheries management measure to protect important species and habitats.

Industrial activities banned inside MPAs may be allowed in marine refuges provided they go through an environmental assessment process.

That would permit, for example, oil exploration in the Northeast Newfoundland Slope marine refuge off Newfoundland and Labrador.

Bottom trawling is prohibited there to protect corals and sponges, but it’s open for exploration.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) said marine refuges where oil and gas exploration occur will not be counted against Canada’s international marine conservation target.

The standards for human activities allowed and not allowed inside marine-protected areas are scheduled to be formally announced Thursday in Montreal by Fisheries and Oceans Minister Jonathan Wilkinson.

In a news release, he said the standards balance the economy and environment.

“Canadians expect us to take action to protect unique ocean ecosystems while ensuring coastal communities thrive,” Wilkinson said.

“The new standards for marine conservation we are announcing today will provide for high levels of environmental protection in a manner that is sensitive to important economic actors such as fish harvesters.”

Rules on fishing in MPAs

Within an MPA, the bottom-trawling prohibition applies to mobile gear used for commercial and recreational fishing, including otter trials, beam trawls, shrimp trawls, hydraulic clam dredges and scallop dredges.

Bottom trawling for Indigenous food, social and ceremonial purposes, and scientific research purposes will be allowed provided it does not pose a significant risk to conservation objectives.

All other activities, including fishing gear that does not use bottom trawling, will continue to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

In the first large coastal MPA proposed in Canada — Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore Islands — DFO has already announced lobster fishing will be allowed.

Consistent protection across federal MPAs

In the Howe Sound glass sponge reefs in British Columbia, recreational salmon fishing is still allowed, except for downriggers.

The new protection standard will be applied consistently across all federal marine-protected areas.

This includes:

  • Oceans Act marine-protected areas established by DFO.
  • National marine conservation areas established by Parks Canada.
  • Marine national wildlife areas.
  • Marine portions of national wildlife areas.
  • Migratory bird sanctuaries established by Environment and Climate Change Canada.

How we got here

The standards have been in the works for over a year.

They follow complaints from business and environmentalists that Canada has been inconsistent in what is allowed inside conservation areas.

DFO says that in 2017, it received 70,000 public comments objecting to oil and gas exploration being allowed inside the proposed Laurentian Channel marine-protected area between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.

“This announcement on the Laurentian Channel and standards are a significant step in protection for Canada’s Oceans,” said environmentalist Susanna Fuller of Oceans North in Halifax.

The premiers of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador publicly warned marine protected areas could hinder economic activity.

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