Where there’s a will, there’s a way – Canada’s commitment to marine protected areas

Photo: Ray Morris via Flickr.

“Canadian governments can and must do much more to protect Canadian ecosystems and biodiversity,” says the latest report from the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development – a must-read for anyone concerned about biodiversity protection in Canada.

The report’s 36 recommendations are meant to rapidly increase the extent of our protected spaces. The report, entitled Taking Action Today: Establishing Protected Areas for Canada’s Future, is a detailed and thorough examination of promises made and promises kept on protected areas. It contains a trove of facts and figures about the government’s progress, including an historical overview, catalogue of benefits and impacts of protected areas, survey of the current extent and types of protected areas, and up-to-date maps.

This blog focuses on the report’s sections on federal marine protected areas (MPAs). We welcome the report’s emphasis on strong and effective laws that compel action for meaningful marine conservation, and anticipate a positive legislative response from the government.

Trouble at sea – MPAs (partly) to the rescue

The ocean urgently needs more protection, and MPAs do work. Evidence is mounting that fish recover quicker and the health of sensitive species and habitats improves when some areas are made off limits to fishing and other extractive uses.

A recent UBC study found that expanded “no-take” zones can offset the negative impacts of overfishing outside protected areas, and that fish can evolve to stay away from fishing nets. Lead author Daniel Pauly said: “The boats got bigger and now we can cover the entire range of the tuna. The distance doesn’t protect them, depth doesn’t protect them, nothing protects them except our decision to remove ourselves from certain areas in the form of marine reserves.”

More good news on MPAs comes from Scotland, where there’s no evidence yet of significant socioeconomic impacts from MPA management and associated fishing closures, according to a newly released government monitoring report.

Accelerating marine protection – Canada needs to catch up and go beyond targets

How can we overcome the delays in setting up more MPAs?Taking Action Today provides a pathway forward, and incorporates many of the points made in the brief we submitted to the Committee, which highlighted the need for legislative changes. We were pleased to see the report quote us on the issue of political will: “Government can act quickly when the will is there.... Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Currently Canada does not show that will and does not fare well when it comes to marine protection. The responsibility is shared by three government agencies:

  • Parks Canada protects 14,000 km2under various marine designations, representing 0.25% of Canada’s total marine area
  • Environment and Climate Change Canada manages about 19,600 km2of national wildlife areas and migratory bird sanctuaries with marine components, representing 0.35% of Canada’s marine area
  • Fisheries and Oceans Canada manages eight MPAs under the Oceans Act, protecting 10,396 km2, or 0.19% of Canada’s marine areas

These figures total less than 1% of Canada’s marine estate, notes the Committee, well below Aichi Target 11 which commits states to protect 17% of terrestrial and inland water and 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020. Fortunately, the government made a commitment to meet these targets in the 2015 Ministerial mandate letters.

Biodiversity protection may require protection of far greater areas than the Aichi targets. Taking Action Today agrees and quotes the recent U.S.-Canada Joint Statement on Climate, Energy, and Arctic Leadership which explicitly states that the two countries will “take concrete steps to achieve and substantially surpass” the 17% and 10% targets in the coming years.

Recommended new legal requirements for minimum protection and ecological integrity

The Standing Committee’s report emphasizes law as a tool for change, discussing examples we presented of other jurisdictions that have successfully expanded their protected area networks because they were compelled to do so by law, including California, Australia, the United Kingdom, the European Union and South Africa. (For details on these and other examples, see our brief at pgs. 2-3.)

Like other witnesses, notably CPAWS, we called for enshrining minimum protection standards for MPAs in law. So Recommendation 26 is welcome news: it asks the government to “confirm minimum conservation standards of protection for each category of federal protected area to meet accepted international standards.” The report agrees that the IUCN conservation categories should be legislated, following the practice of many other countries, such as Australia, and the IUCN’s Guidelines for Protected Areas Legislation.

Recommendation 30 echoes some of our key advice on amending MPA laws.  Here’s the full text:

The Committee recommends that the Government of Canada amend and strengthen the National Marine Conservation Areas Act and the Oceans Act in order to:

  • Enable interim protection of national marine conservation areas before they are formally established, subject to pre- existing legal rights of others; 

  • Specify a shortened timeframe for the development and implementation of a national network of marine protected areas; and
  • Enshrine the restoration and maintenance of ecological integrity as the overriding priority for Canada’s marine conservation areas in parallel with the Canada National Parks Act.

Indigenous protected areas and co-governance

Taking Action Today also tackles protection in Indigenous territories, and records witnesses like Chief Steven Nitah: “For tens of thousands of years our peoples managed the land so well that you thought it was empty.”

Three recommendations relate to this topic:

  • Establish a national program of Indigenous guardians;
  • Pursue common conservation objectives and reconciliation through a nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples (with four more detailed sub recommendations on how to do this); and
  • Protect highest ecological value arctic waters for traditional uses and future generations by deep collaboration.

This section complements the current work of the Cabinet Working Group to Review Laws and Policies Related to Indigenous Peoples. Marine laws, like other federal laws, need to be reviewed for consistency with the government’s obligations to Indigenous peoples, including full implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

The Committee seems to agree with our position that the concept of co-management, recognized by the government as a way forward in establishing protected areas, would be even more valuable if it were authorized in legislation. The report notes our brief’s citation of a study that concluded that laws that authorize Indigenous co-management end up protecting a greater area than those that do not include such language.

Other influential people are also calling for legislation on this issue. Mary Simon, the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs' Special Representative, recommended that the Government of Canada identify the policy and legal measures that would be required to establish Indigenous Protected Areas for new ambitious marine conservation goals in her Interim report on the Shared Arctic Leadership Model.

Getting the federal house in order

On the critical issue of government coordination, the report recommended that all federal departments should actively collaborate with each other. Our brief called for clarifying the relationship of MPA laws with other legislation, and said that the different Acts governing MPAs in Canada should require all federal agencies to comply with restrictions or prohibitions in protected areas. 

MPAs and integrated planning – The case of BC’s Marine Planning Partnership

Another welcome recommendation relates to the need for MPA network planning to take place within broader marine planning processes. Taking Action Today should bring some overdue attention to the Marine Planning Partnership (MaPP) and its innovative large-scale ocean zones and unique co-governance structures. See here and here for more on MaPP, our key marine program priority.

You can also check out our new website, Protect the Great Bear Sea, to see how the MaPP plans need legalization for maximum durability of biodiversity protection results.

The Committee’s report repeats our recommendation that marine protected area network planning for the North Coast region “should build on MaPP’s developed planning and zoning work to help Canada take a major step forward in meeting its commitment.”

From sea to shining sea

There’s much more in the Standing Committee’s 120-page report. It explores innovations in funding and monitoring. It delves into the relationship between species at risk and protected areas, and investigates carbon storage in natural areas. It recommends the creation of a permanent national conservation body consisting of representatives from all levels of government to lead planning to meet the Aichi targets and overarching longer-term conservation plans, and a corresponding national stakeholder advisory group.

We are an ocean nation, and many believe that nature is a key to Canada’s soul. This report – notably issued unanimously by MPs from our three major political parties – recognizes these national beliefs. We hope that the report will help shape government policy towards conservation areas in the critical years to come.



Linda Nowlan, Staff Counsel, WCELRF