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Oceans Act amendments raise the bar on marine protection, say environmental lawyers

Friday, June 16, 2017

Proposed changes add some wind to the law’s sails; more needed for rough waters ahead

VANCOUVER, BC, Coast Salish Territories – West Coast Environmental Law Association welcomes the proposed amendments to the Oceans Act, Canada’s flagship marine protection law, now celebrating its 20th anniversary.

These new amendments have the potential to speed up the current glacial pace of marine protected area (MPA) creation and restrict some of the activities that have the potential to cause the most harm in MPAs, such as offshore oil and gas drilling, but they come up short of setting out minimum legal protection requirements.

“These proposed amendments are useful short-term additions to the federal Oceans Act and related oil and gas laws, but they could and should go much farther,” said Linda Nowlan, Staff Counsel. “For the long arm of the law to be truly effective we need even stronger legal powers like minimum protection standards, and requiring ecological integrity as the foremost priority in MPA management. With a vast area in three seas within our boundaries – and the world’s longest coastline – Canada must implement a forceful, modern Oceans Act.”

The amendments announced this week create a new option and process under the Act to designate an Interim Marine Protected Area by a Ministerial Order, a far faster process than the way MPAs are now created. Under this new process the government will have five years to convert the Interim area into a permanent Oceans Act MPA through regulation. New activities that may harm marine ecosystems proposed for areas being considered for Interim MPA status such as fisheries, seismic testing, undersea mining and offshore oil and gas extraction may be immediately restricted when the Ministerial Order for the Interim MPA is issued. Existing fisheries activities in these areas may also be restricted.

The Oceans Act amendments are accompanied by amendments to the Canada Petroleum Resources Act, which create a new legal authority that can be used to prohibit new oil and gas activities in MPAs and cancel existing oil and gas interests in MPAs in some circumstances.

“Right now, we spend years negotiating which resource extraction activities can and cannot take place in an MPA – which is unsettling and frustrating given that the primary purpose of MPAs is protection. We don’t have these discussions for national parks on land, so why are they so common in the ocean arena?” Nowlan said.

As recommended by the Parliamentary Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, West Coast is calling for the Oceans Act to specify minimum protection standards for MPAs. Legally enshrining these standards can provide certainty, help Canada meet accepted international standards, and ultimately result in healthier oceans.

Another key point in the proposed amendments is the use of the precautionary principle, which will ensure that Canada errs on the side of protecting marine areas from harm in the face of scientific uncertainty. West Coast applauds the proposal of this new provision, which will apply to all MPAs and MPA regulations, and believes that this core tenet of modern environmental law should be better incorporated into all Canada’s environmental statutes.

“While we commend the government for introducing these short-term amendments to the Oceans Act, we urge the government to go deeper and include minimum standards in the Act, as marine scientists and marine law experts recommend. We are keen to keep collaborating with all levels of government on strong laws for ocean protection, so our irreplaceable oceans continue to thrive for years to come,” said Nowlan.


For more information, please contact:

Linda Nowlan, Staff Counsel | West Coast Environmental Law

Additional resources:

Backgrounder: Is Canada’s Oceans Act up to the job on its 20th anniversary?