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Can Canada dare to be deep?

by Sabine Jessen

This story was printed in the Spring/Summer 2011 issue of Canadian Wilderness

How does that joke go? I have good news and bad news—which do you want first?
When it comes to conserving Canada’s oceans and great freshwater lakes, there is certainly a mix of both, and if we want to move the balance more toward the good than the bad, then we’re going to need your help.

While Canada boasts one of the largest ocean territories in the world, less than 1% of it is protected through meaningful long-term conservation measures. This despite a commitment we made 20 years ago under the International Convention on Biodiversity to establish a network of marine protected areas by 2012. The bad news is, we’re not going to make our goal. The good news is that Canada does have strong legal tools to establish various types of marine protected areas (MPAs), so progress is possible!

Some progress

After 16 years of working to advance marine conservation in Canada, I’m feeling more hopeful about the opportunities to make significant progress. CPAWS now has a very active and growing program to promote marine conservation involving our local chapters in most of Canada’s marine regions.

We’re now seeing progress towards finalizing a number of marine protected areas after many years of slow and painstaking development. For example, last year, after two decades of collaboration with the local Haida Nation and the federal government, CPAWS celebrated the establishment of Canada’s first marine conservation area, the Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve/Haida Heritage Site—sometimes referred to as Canada’s “Galapagos of the North”. This spectacular area on Canada’s Pacific coast where dozens of species of whales, healthy fish populations, along with seabirds and sea lions thrive is now protected from mountain top to the ocean floor.

For over a decade we’ve been urging Canada to adopt the international best practice of planning for networks of MPAs on each of our coasts and in the Great Lakes. Countries like Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. are now far ahead of us in this process. It’s been frustrating to see Canada lag behind.

More good news is that last December the federal government finally released a draft framework for establishing a marine protected areas network. And while there are still many things that need to be improved in the draft document, we’re finally moving in the right direction.

Our goal: 12 by 2012

CPAWS has set a marine conservation goal for Canada to reach by the end of 2012 —that we will complete or significantly advance 12 new marine protected areas by December. This in turn will create momentum for establishing a full network of marine protected areas by 2020.

Our plan is to “turn up the volume” on this goal over the next 18 months. We’ll be calling on our supporters to let decision-makers know how they feel about protecting more of our precious oceans and great freshwater lakes.

Why “12 by 12”? The numbers roll nicely off the tongue, but there is more thought behind it than that. CPAWS has been actively engaged in a number of government-led processes to establish new Canadian marine protected areas—and we’ve identified 12 that we believe could be completed or reach significant milestones by 2012, especially with public support.

On the Pacific coast, these include the amazing Hecate Strait Glass Sponge Reefs, the Scott Islands – home to tufted puffins and millions of other seabirds, and the “Big Eddy” off the west coast of Vancouver Island. We’re also continuing to develop support among affected communities and businesses for establishing a Southern Strait of Georgia NMCA, home to endangered rockfish and Orca whales.

On the Atlantic coast, CPAWS is promoting the establishment of MPAs in the Gaspésie and Laurentian Channel, St Anns Bank and a national marine conservation area for the South Coast fjords of Newfoundland. We’re also optimistic that a longstanding proposed marine conservation area in the Gulf of St Lawrence around Les Îles de la Madeleine (Magdalen Islands) will be completed soon. And finally, that there will be a NMCA in the Bay of Fundy, home to the highly endangered Right Whale.

We’re also seeking protection for Quebec’s Gaspésie, a region of wetlands, exceptional oceanic features and islands, and habitat for the blue whale. In the Arctic, there are plans underway to establish a marine conservation area in Lancaster Sound where narwhals and walruses thrive, and off Quebec the Cree have proposed a national marine conservation area in James Bay, called Tawich, home to polar bears and beluga whales. These too are areas where CPAWS is speaking up.

With your help, we can make it happen! Please keep your eye out for more news and opportunities in the months ahead to get involved in our campaign that challenges Canada to “Dare to be deep, protect 12 by 12”!

Sabine Jessen is CPAWS’ National Oceans and Great Freshwater Lakes Program Manager.