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Let’s talk parks – and let’s talk marine protection

24 January, 2017

If you value parks as a way to protect biodiversity, here are two chances to speak up:

  • Parks Canada is currently seeking public feedback on parks through its website, Let’s Talk Parks, and
  • Regulations for a proposed new marine protected area (MPA) for the Scott Islands are also open for comment. These remote islands are home to millions of seabirds, who flock each year to the biologically-rich and productive cold waters to feed on small fish and zooplankton. The Scott Islands sustain 90% of Canada’s tufted puffins, 95% of Pacific Canada’s common murre, 50% of the world’s Cassin’s auklets and 7% of the global population of rhinoceros auklet, according to the Canadian Wildlife Service. Other birds like the at-risk black-footed albatross and pink-footed shearwater also rely on the Islands, as do myriad fish, whales, sea otters, and BC’s largest steller sea lion breeding rookery.

 

Let the government know how much you value parks – on land and in the water – and the critical role they play in biodiversity protection. In the Anthropocene era of rapid climate change and declining biodiversity, parks are a critical way to protect the natural ecosystems and services we depend on.

At West Coast Environmental Law, we focus on MPAs like the one proposed for Scott Islands as a tool for managing and conserving ecosystems and species in the ocean. We are working to make our marine protection laws stronger and more effective, including through establishing minimum protection standards.

No minimum standards for MPAs?

In June 2016, the federal government reaffirmed its commitment to reaching Aichi Target 11 goals by protecting 5% of Canada’s marine and coastal areas by 2017, and 10% by 2020. Achieving these targets will require a significant increase in the rate of designations of MPAs, as currently a scant 0.9% of Canada’s marine waters are under protection.

We need strong regulatory standards in place to ensure that the level of protection and management effort afforded to these areas achieves conservation objectives as well as spatial targets. In other words, we need quantity AND quality.

You might be surprised to learn that our current set of protected area laws don’t establish minimum levels of protection. CPAWS’ report Are Canada’s Marine Protected Areas Really Protected? showed just how inconsistent protection levels are.

One of the three federal laws governing MPAs – the Canada National Marine Conservation Areas Act – does contain some outright prohibitions (e.g. exploring or exploiting hydrocarbons, minerals, aggregates or any other inorganic matter within a marine conservation area is prohibited). But neither the skeletal Oceans Act nor the Canada Wildlife Act prohibits these potentially harmful activities, or others such as fishing practices that harm sea floors or shipping, which can harm species through excessive underwater noise, ship strikes, and spills. The issue is vividly illustrated by weak proposed regulations for Canada’s first marine National Wildlife Area, BC’s Scott Islands, which don’t adequately address commercial fisheries and shipping – key threats to the region’s astounding population of seabirds.

In our brief to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development for its study on federal protected areas,we highlighted the legislative changes needed to expand and strengthen marine protection in Canada. Progress on MPAs in Canada has been remarkably slow. However, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Other countries, like Australia, Scotland, Palau, South Africa and many others, have made astonishing progress in a short time frame. Australia, for example, has protected 35% of its ocean estate. Canada can do much better and is poised to at least meet the agreed upon international protection targets. We need both an expanded quantity of MPAs and high quality MPAs.

Scott Islands – A case in point

On December 31, 2016 Environment Canada posted its notice of intent to establish the Scott Islands marine National Wildlife Area (mNWA). The islands and surrounding marine ecosystem are both globally and nationally significant, and support the most important breeding colonies for seabirds in British Columbia, such as tufted puffins, high concentrations of humpback and North Pacific gray whales, and Canada’s largest stellar sea lion breeding rookery. The marine area is also one of only two places within the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area (PNCIMA) where sea otters have established, and is important feeding, spawning, and rearing habitat for several fish species[1].

Unfortunately, the activities permitted by the proposed regulations for the Scott Islands highlight the lack of minimum protection standards in our MPA laws.  

Here’s what we think needs to change with Scott Islands in order for the protection in this new park to make a lasting difference for the seabirds, sea otters, whales and other species it’s meant to protect:  (Our submission to the Canadian Wildlife Service contains our proposed amendments to strengthen these regulations.)

  • Standard minimum protection for marine ecosystems should include regulations addressing (1) the human activities permitted, (2) how to assess the impact from activities, and (3) what to do when we don’t know what the impact is.
  • Consistent minimum standards of protection within Marine Protected Areas should include areas where no fishing or other resource uses can occur (no-take zones), and should prohibit all large-scale habitat disturbances by industrial activity. But the proposed regulations for the Scott Islands mNWA will allow almost all commercial and recreational fisheries, and commercial shipping currently occurring within the protected area to continue (despite known impacts to seabirds from bycatch in fishing gears and shipping disturbance). Oil and gas licences currently held within the proposed protected area will remain unaffected.
  • Multiple human activities affect most areas and many parts of the ecosystem. Instead of managing activities individually, we need to assess the cumulativeimpact from all human activities together. The government has committed to consider cumulative impacts within the Scott Island mNWA, but these impacts haven’t been assessed in recent studies of  how commercial fisheries affect seabirds within the Scott Islands area.
  • Potential users of a protected area must demonstrate that their activities are not harmful to species and ecosystems before they are permitted. When we don’t have the information to tell us the impact, the default action should always be protection from the activity. The proposed regulations for the Scott Islands are permitting commercial fishing and shipping to continue within the protected area, and say that impacts will be assessedonce the mNWA is established – despite concerns raised that these activities threaten seabirds in the area[2], and studies highlighting that there is insufficient data to assess the extent of the threat to seabird populations[3].

 

Protection matters

Scientists confirm that protected areas have significant biodiversity benefits. Dr. Bernard Coetzee, lead author of a meta-analysis on the effectiveness of parks using studies from the past 30 years found that “In general, plant and animal populations are larger and more species are found inside rather than outside protected areas. In other words, protected areas are doing their job.”

Minimum standards of protection for all designated protected areas in Canada are needed to ensure that permitted activities are compatible with the purposes of the protected areas and with Canada’s conservation objectives.

The Scott Islands will be Canada’s first marine National Wildlife Area (mNWA) and presents a golden opportunity to set a standard for all future designations of this type as well as for other MPAs in Canada.

You can tell the government to step up protection for the Scott Islands (send a letter from the CPAWS-BC website here) and make sure protection is strong for all of Canada’s parks and marine protected areas at Let’s Talk Parks, Canada! Both of these short consultations close soon, so please consider taking part now.

 

By Linda Nowlan, Staff Counsel and Maryann Watson, Marine Campaigner

 

[1]Jamieson, G.S. and Levesque, C. 2014. Identification of Ecologically and Biologically Significant Areas on the West Coast of Vancouver Island and the Strait of Georgia, and in some nearshore areas on the North Coast: Phase II – Designation of EBSAs. DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Res. Doc. 2014/101. vii + 36 p

[2]Drever, M. (2002). Important Bird Area Conservation Plan For the Scott Islands. Prepared for the Canadian Nature Federation

[3]Boutillier, J. 2016. Characterization and Analysis of Fisheries Related Risks to Significant Species, Habitats and Ecosystem/Community Properties within the Proposed Scott Islands marine National Wildlife Area