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With Mandate Letters out, what can we expect in terms of Ocean Protection & Management?

December 21, 2021

Shortly after the federal election, we reviewed the Liberty Party of Canada’s election platform. This post follows that post by analyzing the federal mandate letters, released on December 16, 2021.

With a new government elected on September 20, 2021, one of our best tools to forecast its priorities in the upcoming term is the Ministerial mandate letters from the Prime Minister to each Cabinet Minister. These were released on December 16, 2021 and West Coast has reviewed them to identify marine conservation commitments, and compared against what is required to combat our climate and biodiversity crises. This builds on our analysis of the Liberal Party of Canada’s pre-election platform commitments from October 2021.

Aquaculture and Fisheries

In our review of the party’s platform, we identified major gaps in its failure to address aquaculture and fisheries. These gaps have been addressed in the mandate letters. The letter to the new Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, the Honourable Joyce Murray, renews the federal government’s commitment to remove all open-net pen salmon farming from coastal BC waters by 2025. It also renews the federal commitment to developing an Aquaculture Act, which could set higher aquaculture standards across the country. These are necessary steps to protect endangered Pacific salmon and is a response to calls from First Nations, environmental NGOs, scientists, wilderness tourism operators, and commercial and recreational fishers.

The letter asks Minister Murray to implement new measures under the Fisheries Act, which was amended in 2019 to “restore lost protections, rebuild fish populations and incorporate modern safeguards so that fish and fish habitats are protected.” West Coast is part of a coalition of conservation organizations pushing the federal government to implement the Act, so that these purposes – as well as the purpose of addressing cumulative effects in relation to habitat loss and infringement of Indigenous rights – are achieved; this would include releasing policy guidance and enacting regulations to bring to life those 2019 amendments. This effort would also include upholding Indigenous nations’ inherent jurisdiction and authority regarding fisheries and fish habitat within their territories in accordance with Aboriginal and Treaty rights in Section 35 of the Constitution Act and the government’s commitment to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Also linking in with our work on protected areas, described below, we are pushing the Minister of Fisheries to designate “Ecologically Significant Areas” – a protected area designation that is provided for in the Act, but has not been used since it was introduced into the Act in 2012.

The letter also asks that the Minister advance “consistent, sustainable and collaborative fisheries arrangements with Indigenous and non-Indigenous fish harvesters.”

And it directs the Minister to implement the Pacific Salmon Strategy and create a conservation strategy for Atlantic salmon. As part of the Strategy, Minister Murray’s predecessor, the Honourable Bernadette Jordan, announced a closure of 60 percent of the Pacific salmon fishery last June.

Protected Areas

The letter to Minister Murray and the letter to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, the Honourable Steven Guilbeault, reinforce the government’s commitment to conserving 25% of our lands and waters by 2025 and 30% by 2030. The Ministers must work “to halt and reverse nature loss by 2030 in Canada, achieve a full recovery for nature by 2050 and champion this goal internationally.” The letters state that this work remains grounded in science, Indigenous knowledge and local perspectives – something with which West Coast wholeheartedly agrees. The key is that a high quality of protection is achieved, which up until this point has been an issue with Canada’s marine protection efforts.

An essential element of these conservation targets is the implementation of Marine Protected Area (MPA) networks, at least four of which are currently in development on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Although not specifically mentioned in the mandate letters, these networks can provide a host of benefits, and would be in higher-use areas of the ocean; their completion is an essential part of ensuring that MPAs are in place in areas of the ocean that are most at risk of overuse – and most in need of protection. Minister Murray has publicly stated her commitment to protecting areas beyond just those that are “easy to protect,” and that it makes sense to work with the coastal communities that depend on the fish stocks protection is intended to restore.

Minister Murray’s letter also included the vague direction to “renew and expand the Coastal Restoration Fund to restore aquatic habitats.” As with any high-level statements, the devil will be in the details, but we are heartened to hear that habitat restoration – and not just protection – is planned.

The letter to Minister Guilbeault incorporates the Liberal Party’s previous commitment to establish 10 new national marine conservation areas (NMCAs) in the next five years, working with Indigenous communities on co-management agreements. Currently underway is a study of the feasibility of establishing an NMCA Reserve in the Central Coast of BC, and the Southern Strait of Georgia has also been identified as a potential site for an NMCA Reserve in the future.

Climate-related Commitments

Climate change action has featured prominently in this government’s public statements. Not surprisingly, Minister Murray’s mandate includes several asks related to climate action. We are heartened to see this, as the ocean is crucial in climate regulation. However, the commitments reflect the high-level statements from the Liberal Party’s platform, containing very little additional detail. These commitments include:

  • To invest in areas with carbon storage potential (e.g. tidal wetlands, seagrass meadows and riparian habitats);
  • To modernize the Oceans Act, including to consider climate change impacts in regional ocean management and to create a national, interdisciplinary working group focused on climate-resilient ocean conservation planning; and
  • To expand climate vulnerability work to better inform marine conservation planning and management.

All of the Ministerial mandate letters discuss taking climate action, including “addressing climate-related challenges communities are already facing.” We will watch closely to see how these high-level statements are operationalized in policy.

Environmental standards for shipping and cruise ships are missing

Like in the election platform, the mandate letters contain no mention of standards to address the environmental impacts of shipping, particularly in MPAs. Our understanding of the impacts of shipping on marine life has been growing in the last several years, and it is clear that shipping is harmful to marine life. West Coast will continue to work with our partners to demand that the legal tools available to the federal government to reduce the harmful impacts of shipping are implemented.

The mandate letters for Minister Murray and the Minister of Transport, the Honourable Omar Alghabra, do included direction to continue work on the Oceans Protection Plan, in partnership with Indigenous peoples, which focuses on marine safety and addresses some environmental impacts.

Cruise ships are an enormous source of marine pollution, so we are disappointed that the federal government has not paid more proactive attention to this issue (notably, recommendations to address this pollution appeared in the Conservative Party of Canada’s pre-election platform).

Co-governance missing from Fisheries letter

Minister Murray’s mandate letter does not mention co-governance with Indigenous nations. This is notable, as the past four mandate letters (from 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019) to the Fisheries Minister have included direction to work with “Indigenous Peoples to better co-manage our three ocean coasts” (the earlier letters simply stated “our three oceans”). Rather, this year’s letter mentions “working” or “collaborating with” Indigenous Peoples, and Minister Murray’s mandate letter includes a high-level direction to “work with Indigenous partners to better integrate traditional knowledge into planning and policy decisions.” Co-governance is crucial in marine areas, and its importance has been recognized by the National Advisory Panel on Marine Protected Area Standards in its 2018 report. Co-governance is flourishing in protected areas in BC (e.g. in the Gwaii Haanas NMCA and the SGaan Kinghlas-Bowie Seamount MPA) and in the Arctic (e.g. in Tallurutiup Imanga NMCA and the proposed Pikialasorsuaq, the North Water Polynya). Co-governance is also incorporated into the revised Coastal First Nations Fisheries Resources Reconciliation Agreement released in August 2021.

Indigenous Guardian Programs

Minister Guilbeault’s letter does mention co-governance in relation to new NMCAs, as described above, and it asks that he “support new Indigenous Guardians programs and establish new Indigenous Guardians Networks.” West Coast would like to see secure, long-term funding for nations to establish and manage IPCAs and Indigenous Guardian programs, as well as recognition of Indigenous jurisdiction and authority within protected areas.

Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs)

The letter also asks that he support Indigenous communities to build capacity to establish more Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs). IPCAs are grounded in Indigenous laws, governance and knowledge systems and contribute to fulfilling long-standing responsibilities to their territories and are crucial to fighting the climate and biodiversity crises.

All of the mandate letters ask the Ministers to work to implement UNDRIP – which explicitly includes the right to self-determination and self-government (examples in practice being establishment and management of IPCAs as well as Guardian programs).

Blue Economy

The letter to Minister Murray also instructed the Minister to grow the “blue economy” to create jobs in coastal communities, while being supported by a conservation plan. This is work that was started by the previous Minister of Fisheries, Minister Jordan, and West Coast is working with a coalition of environmental NGOs to ensure that the blue economy focuses on conservation and reconciliation.

Plastic pollution

The Liberal Party’s platform included a host of commitments relating to plastic pollution, which necessarily extend into the marine sphere. Minister Murray’s mandate letter mentions expanding the “Ghost Gear Program” (of cleaning up abandoned fishing gear and plastics littering the coast and marine environment), and supporting community shoreline cleanups.

Minister Guilbeault’s letter directs him to “build on the Ocean Plastics Charter [an informal agreement to reduce plastic pollution] by working with leading countries on the development of a new global agreement on plastics,” as well as a number of other plastics reduction and recycling commitments.

Investing in plastics recycling must be carefully considered, as this is the preferred solution to plastic pollution of the plastics industry itself (it allows the industry to keep producing and profiting), and is currently ineffective and fraught from a human rights and global fairness perspective (rich countries export their plastic waste to the Global South).

Minister Guilbeault’s letter specifically mentions other steps to achieving zero plastic waste by 2030, including requiring producers pay for managing plastic waste.

The marine-related commitments in the mandate letters described above are strong and include many of the priorities that West Coast Environmental Law and other environmental NGOs have been advocating for. We look forward to what this government will accomplish and intend to hold them to account as they get to work realizing these commitments.

Top photo credit: Stephanie Hewson

Erin Gray – Staff Lawyer
Stephanie Hewson – Staff Lawyer