Buried under a late-May news barrage, Canada's government made small but important changes to the Oceans Act and Petroleum Resources Act that will strengthen protection of at-risk marine ecosystems. The most significant is that government will no longer have to wait for marine-protected-area designation to prevent harmful activities but will have the power to implement "interim protections".
Changes to the Petroleum Act "allow Natural Resources Canada and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada to negotiate the voluntary surrender of a company's oil and gas interests" and compensate companies if marine-protected-area designation means cancelling projects.
Freezing harmful activities for up to five years will give government time to consult with provinces, territories, Indigenous communities, stakeholders, and the public before it formally protects a marine area. The changes are in line with the government's goal of protecting 10 percent of Canada's ocean territory by next year. It has made progress, with 8.27 percent now protected, up from less than one percent in 2015.
It's progress worth celebrating on World Oceans Day (June 8). Many Canadians may not know the UN declared this special day at Canada's urging. With three oceans surrounding the world's longest coastline and more than 350,000 ocean-dependent jobs, it makes sense for Canada to honour and protect these ecosystems and the tremendous resources they provide. But is it too early to pat ourselves on the back?
A Greenpeace study by York and Oxford university researchers argues we must protect at least 30 percent of oceans by 2030, including areas outside territorial jurisdiction, "to address the crisis facing our oceans and enable their recovery". (I believe that falls short of what's needed.) The report, 30×30: A Blueprint for Ocean Protection, shows that a network of "fully protected marine protected areas" is feasible and something the world should consider as governments negotiate a global ocean treaty through the UN, expected in 2020.
The push for greater ocean protection marks a growing shift in our perception of the seas, from a resource storehouse and dumping ground for wastes to a source of life. Oceans are vital to our survival and contribute to our prosperity and quality of life. They produce more than half the world's oxygen and are the largest carbon sink. And they offer yet unknown potential for medical discoveries.
But we know more about Mars than the immense scope of ocean life. We've only explored about five percent of the underwater world. Less then a half-century ago, no one contemplated that a multitude of species could live around deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Further altering our value system to put the environment first and look out for all species' needs will allow us to base development decisions on recognizing that we benefit from maintaining natural ecosystems.
Beyond Oceans Act amendments, Canada is also examining Fisheries Act updates to address increasing pollution, ecosystem destruction, and declining biodiversity. This would include measures to rebuild fish stocks, many of which are severely depleted. Similar action has proven successful in the United States. However, fishing quotas aren't enough, as fish face numerous threats that only healthy, abundant stocks may be able to withstand. Marine protected areas help safeguard the diversity and abundance of plants and animals in and around them, improving their resilience to human activity, climate change, and other, often unexpected, events.
We often take the oceans' gifts for granted, underestimating their value, resulting in devastation to local economies and cultural values. Attempting to balance priorities between the environment and the economy requires constant, exhausting renegotiation and compromise. The false assumption is that conservation activities cost more than the environmental impacts of growing industrial activity.
We must continue shifting our perspective. We can't continue to prioritize short-term economic objectives over the very ecosystems that sustain us. Acting for our immediate benefit can destroy the intricate balance and put a species or even the whole ecosystem in peril. A single oil spill could threaten the existence of southern resident orcas.
If we care about human prosperity, we must protect oceans. Supporting their natural resilience by restoring their biological diversity would deliver long-term benefits for food security and social and economic well-being. Let's stay the course on leadership and progressive action on this important issue.