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Oceans: Dare to be Deep

While Canada boasts one of the largest ocean territories in the world, only 1.3% of it is protected through meaningful long-term conservation measures. The federal government has committed to establishing networks of marine protected areas covering at least 10% of our oceans by 2020. Progress by all of our governments on creating new marine protected areas needs to speed up if we are going to meet that commitment.


Every second breath we take comes from the ocean that covers 70% of our planet. The ocean also regulates the temperature of our planet, and provides us with an important source of protein and food.

The ocean supports a tremendous diversity of life from coastal areas to the deep sea, and Canada has been given the extraordinary gift having the world’s longest coastline and vast reaches of the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Canada has an immense opportunity to be a global leader in marine conservation, yet our track record is dismal.


Emerging science demonstrates that, like their terrestrial counterparts, marine and freshwater protected areas need to be connected so marine species can thrive. 

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) offer an effective way to address multiple threats to a variety of species, creating sanctuaries for marine ecosystems to recover and species to thrive. Canada has committed to establishing MPA networks covering a minimum of 10% of our ocean by 2020. This is an important step towards CPAWS long term goal of protecting at least half of our ocean ecosystem.

Despite multiple national and international commitments to establish networks of MPAs, less than 2% of Canada’s ocean estate receives any form of meaningful protection. View our annual Oceans Reports.

The threat

Commercial and Recreational Fishing

Scientific evidence shows overfishing is the single most serious threat to the health of our marine ecosystems. Bottom trawling, or fishing by dragging a net along the ocean floor, profoundly disturbs marine ecosystems and is perhaps the most destructive of fishing practices. Both target and non-target fish and other organisms are killed by the trawl, and the seabed is physically altered. Frequent trawling prevents the intricate physical and biological structure of the seabed ecosystem from fully recovering.

Even where ecosystems are not physically destroyed they can be damaged by unsustainable fishing practices. Targeting top predators – such as tuna, salmon and cod, can have significant impacts on marine food webs. In addition to habitat destruction, and ecosystem effects from fishing, entanglement and inadvertent catch of marine mammals, turtles and seabirds in fishing gear is another threat to marine species from fishing activities.

Fish Farming

The impacts of salmon fish farming have received much public attention. Pollution escapes the net cages; infectious diseases are spread to wild fish, and freshwater are colonized by escaped farm fish (including non-native Atlantic species). These are very real threats not only to the native salmon population, but to other fish, shellfish and marine mammals.

Oil and Gas Exploration and Development

Oil and gas exploration and production present grave risks for marine species with oil spills being the most obvious and greatest threat. The spills from the Deepwater Horizon (2010) in the Gulf of Mexico and Exxon Valdez (1989) in Alaska have demonstrated the widespread and long lasting devastation to marine species and ecosystems. Following the Exxon Valdez spill almost 40,000 dead seabirds washed ashore and almost all of the 2000 oiled birds that were found alive later died; an estimated 250,000 birds are thought to have died as result of the spill.  Oil deposits are still found in seabed sediments some 25 years after the spill and which some scientists have suggested may pose a continued threat to sea otters.

Seismic surveys, used to find oil and gas deposits, produce high intensity/low frequency sounds and can be heard up to 4,000 km away. As whales rely on sensitive hearing and song for communication and hunting they are particularly vulnerable, with effects ranging from avoidance and changes in behaviour, to stranding events, death and population decline. ,  Seismic testing is also linked to physical injuries, changes in behaviour and death of eggs and larvae of various fish, crabs and squids.

Oilrigs also have serious impacts on marine life. A study of Canada’s Grand Banks found that artificial lighting, a place to roost, food waste and artificial aggregations of fish attract sea birds to oilrigs, many of which die from striking the rig, being incinerated by the flare or oiled.  The authors of the study note that a single rig reported 60 small oil spills (averaging 10 litres per spill) over a two-year period.
CPAWS is a member of the BC Alliance for the Preservation of the Offshore Oil and Gas Moratorium and the Gulf of St. Lawrence Coalition

Shipping and vessel traffic

Commercial shipping poses many threats to marine ecosystems and wildlife, and recreational boating can also harm sensitive marine ecosystems. Cumulative impacts range from minor spills and leaks, noise pollution, through to groundings and sinking.

Collisions with whales are a serious problem. Studies on the east coast have found that 30% of stranded humpbacks show evidence of ship-strike. In 2003 Canada took a leading role in reducing vessel collisions with endangered right whales on the East Coast by working with the shipping sector to reduce vessel speed, ensure that the whales had right of way, and eventually re-route shipping lanes to avoid areas of critical habitat.  While this benefited one population in one location, the threats of ship-strike are more widespread, and need to be addressed.

Noise from vessel traffic is perhaps the most significant impact on marine species; from 1950 to 2000 marine noise levels doubled every decade. The frequency of shipping and seismic noise overlaps that of various whale species’ vocalizations  and so has the potential of masking important communications between animals. Noise pollution can interfere with whale communication and socializing, hunting and feeding, and cause whales to avoid certain areas; if these impacts affect reproductive success and critical feeding grounds, they may have consequences for the entire population.

Finally, studies have also shown that vessel traffic disturbs seabirds, and reduces their available habitat. By reducing foraging time and resting habitat for seabirds, commercial and recreational ship traffic can cause habitat fragmentation, as well as causing high stress levels and higher energetic requirements.   

Climate Change

The entire marine realm – from estuaries and coastal waters to the open ocean and the deep sea - is at risk from climate change.  As marine biodiversity declines, the remaining species are more vulnerable to changes in their habitat.

What CPAWS is doing

Our long-term goal: Canada to complete a national network of marine protected areas that protect at least half of Canda's ocean estate, with an objective to meet the international target of protecting at least 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020.

In the lead-up to Canada’s 150th birthday, CPAWS is calling on the federal government to accelerate efforts to establish a national network of marine protected areas as an essential step to conserve marine life and support sustainable fisheries.

To achieve this CPAWS is calling on Canada to:

  1. Act quickly to complete the establishment of current marine protected area proposals;
  2. Launch regional marine protected areas planning processes to systematically identify marine protected area networks in all three oceans, including a large marine sanctuary of at least 150,000 sq km in each ocean.
  3. Ensure that in Canada's 13 marine bioregions, at least 30% is strictly protected -– that is closed to all fishing, as well as non-renewable resource development.

Read CPAWS' Backgrounder for more information.

Read our Ocean Fact Sheet

Proposed Protected Areas (view on map)

Proposed Marine Protected Area (MPA) Description and Opportunity

Hecate Strait, BC, Pacific Ocean

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Described as “living fossils”, these 3000-year-old reefs are the only sizable glass sponge reefs left on earth!


First discovered in 1987, glass sponge reefs were thought to have gone extinct with the dinosaurs some 40 million years ago. Glass sponge reefs are found nowhere else in the world outside BC waters, and have been growing on the Hecate Strait seafloor for over 3000 years. They provide important deep sea habitat for a variety of species and are extremely vulnerable to damage from trawlers, long lines and prawn traps. The area was closed to groundfish trawling in 2002 and the site was announced as an Oceans Act MPA area of interest in 2010. Since then CPAWS participated in stakeholder consultations and the development of draft regulations and management plan. The management plan will allow for some fishing activities above the reefs and hopefully protect them from indirect impacts from sea-floor fishing through sedimentation.

Scott Islands, BC, Pacific Ocean

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Internationally recognized as a globally significant bird area and are known to be the most important breeding ground for seabirds in BC.


They are home to about half of the world’s Cassin’s Auklets, 90% of Canada’s tufted puffins, and 95% of Pacific Canada’s common murres. The islands are protected but the birds spend most of their lives feeding at sea where they are risk from oil pollution and competition with commercial fisheries for food. A proposed boundary was released in 2012 and it was hoped that this site would be designated soon after, however concerns with the suitability of the existing regulatory process have delayed this.

Southern Strait of Georgia, BC, Pacific Ocean

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The Southern Strait of Georgia is home to more than 3000 species and is critical habitat for the endangered southern resident orca whales and “old growth” rockfish which live for over 100 years in the swaying fronds of kelp forests.


In 2003, Parks Canada began the process to establish the Southern Strait of Georgia National Marine Conservation Area, and in 2012 released a proposed boundary. Progress has been very slow and we now expect that a draft concept will be released by Parks Canada in Fall 2015 and the public consultation will be completed by Spring 2016.

Big Eddy, BC, Pacific Ocean

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The Juan de Fuca or “Big Eddy” provides a rich supply of nutrients to the marine ecosystems off the west coast of Vancouver Island, supporting the incredibly rich and diverse marine life including orcas, sea otters, seabirds, and salmon, for which the area is famous.


A National Marine Conservation Area that connects with the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary in Washington State could create an International Marine Peace Park to effectively protect this important and vulnerable area. In January 2012, Parks Canada issued a request for proposals for a study to identify potential areas for a National Marine Conservation Area that did not proceed. In the absence of further progress CPAWS has undertaken an independent review of marine ecosystems in the area to support any future studies or proposals.


Lancaster Sound, NU, Arctic Ocean

One of the most biologically productive marine areas in the Arctic. The largest Arctic polynya provides open water year round and ice edge habitats that are critical for seabirds, sea ducks and many marine mammals, including narwhals and most of the endangered eastern population of bowhead whales.


When a decision is made to proceed with the NMCA, Parks Canada, the Qikiqtani Inuit Association and the Government of Nunavut will need to develop an interim management plan, including the identification of fully protected core zones as required under the NMCA legislation, and negotiate an Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreement. To date an ecological and mineral and energy resource assessments, together with a traditional knowledge study have been completed. Last year Parks Canada and the Inuit requested feedback from key stakeholders, including CPAWS.



Tawich, QC, James Bay, Arctic Ocean

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The proposed area in south-east James Bay is noted for a remarkable biodiversity including the most southern population of polar bears in the world as well as a distinct sub-population of beluga whales.


First proposed to Parks Canada in 2009, the NMCA project is strongly supported by the communities of Wemindji and Eastmain, as well as by the Grand Council of the Crees, as a way of balancing development in the community with protection of their environment. The signing of the offshore land claim agreement in 2011 set the stage for Parks Canada and the Grand Council of the Crees to formally begin talks about the creation of the NMCA. However, no further discussions have been held since 2011.

Niqiqyuam, NWT
(Darnley Bay)

Anguniaqvia Niqiqyuam in Darnley Bay is a site of great cultural importance to the Inuvialut people as a subsistence hunting and fishing ground. It is also an important feeding ground for Arctic char, beluga whales, polar bears, ringed and bearded seals and is home to the only thick billed murre colony in the Canadian Arctic.


Since the nomination of Anguniaqvia Niqiqyuam a number of scientific assessments, local and traditional knowledge workshops and a socio-economic analysis were completed. In 2013 a draft regulatory intent was developed which has been under review by the local community and stakeholders. The regulatory intent requires Ministerial approval, and then specific regulations must be drafted.


Gaspésie, QC, Atlantic Ocean

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These waters, close to Forillon National Park, are characterized by a high productivity and are visited by a significant cod population of southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, the endangered leatherback turtle as well as important summer foraging ground for the blue whale, the largest animal on Earth.


The area was formally recognized as an “area of interest” by DFO in June 2011. Given the shared jurisdiction between Ottawa and Quebec, collaboration between the two governments is essential for the area to gain protection status.

Îles-de-la-Madeleine, QC, Atlantic Ocean

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Les Îles de la Madeleine (the Magdalen Islands) are located in southern Gulf of St. Lawrence in a shallow basin with the warmest marine waters in Canada. The islands offer a stunning diversity of coastal ecosystems as well as a high diversity of marine organisms. Important populations of Roseate Tern and Piping Plovers nest in this region, as do species seldom found at this latitude such as American Oyster.


In December 2011 a very encouraging agreement was signed between the federal and provincial governments to conduct a 2-year ecological, cultural and economic study of the area to better inform an eventual decision to protect the area. The study was published in March 2014, but since then no new agreement between the federal and provincial governments has been reached to proceed with work on this project.

St. Lawrence Estuary, QC

This MPA project was initiated by DFO in 1998 as a way to completely protect the beluga habitat in the St. Lawrence Estuary. The vast area of interest surrounds the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park and is an area of exceptional biodiversity.


Public consultations were held in 2004 and with First Nations in 2005. Since this is an area of shared jurisdiction, collaboration between Québec and Ottawa is essential.

In the Fall of 2013, TransCanada tabled an oil terminal project at Cacouna, inside the boundaries of the proposed MPA and within the essential habitat of the threatened beluga population. A vast citizen mobilization against the oil terminal project, as well as several legal challenges, led TransCanada to abandon the project in the Spring of 2015.

South Coast Fjords, NL, Atlantic Ocean

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From low sandy beaches to the west and immense granite cliffs and deep fjords to the east, this is the largest, undeveloped alpine coastline in Canada. Ice-free year round, these fjords are a haven for blue, humpback, fin and killer whales in the winter and habitat for endangered leatherback turtles in the summer. Local communities have expressed interest in establishing an NMCA as it could provide an economic boost to the area through increased ecotourism. The spectacular fjord region remains vulnerable to oil and gas exploration and overfishing, and the historic outport culture continues to decline as the historic fishing industry remains moribund. CPAWS-NL plans to gather data from the area this summer and build awareness and support for the project to move forward.

Laurentian Channel, NL, Atlantic Ocean

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The channel contains the highest levels of diversity off the shores of Newfoundland. The area supports the largest concentration of black dogfish in Canada, and is the only location where pupping occurs.


DFO has decided not to consider cod as a priority species for the development of conservation objectives, in spite of its ecological importance. CPAWS is concerned that significant changes to the boundary will remove some of the most ecologically significant portions of the proposed MPA, including important cod and redfish populations. We are also concerned that although there will be no fishing allowed within this MPA, the proposal is for it to remain open to industrial activities such as seismic testing.

St Anns Bank, NS, Atlantic Ocean

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St. Anns Bank is located on the Eastern Scotian Shelf not too far from the Cape Breton coastline. It is a key migration route for fish and marine mammals and contains an ecologically diverse ecosystem including important habitat for a number of species, such as the leatherback turtle, Atlantic wolfish and Atlantic cod, as well as deep-sea corals and sponges.


A stakeholder advisory committee agreed on a final proposal several years ago and DFO Maritimes Region has been in the process of developing regulations for implementation. This designation process is taking longer than expected.

Bay of Fundy, NS and NB, Atlantic Ocean

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The Bay of Fundy contains the highest tides in the world, which provide nutrient rich waters that support a rich diversity of marine life. Home to 22 species of whales and dolphins, the Bay of Fundy provides critical habitat for the endangered North Atlantic right whale. The Bay also contains rich mudflats and tidal salt marshes, which provide critical feeding areas for over 1 million migratory shorebirds each year. The deeper waters of the bay support deep sea corals, and horse mussel reefs.


CPAWS has been working to encourage the establishment of a National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA) within the Outer Bay of Fundy and encourage the government to undertake comprehensive marine network planning for the entire Bay. Some progress has been made over the past year by DFO Maritimes Region to undertake marine network planning, including establishing the Bay of Fundy as a separate zone requiring MPA establishment and some initial analysis of high priority sites. No progress has been made by Parks Canada for an NMCA.



Dare to be Deep – 2010 CPAWS Event Tour (2010)

Attracting hundreds of people nationwide, CPAWS' Fall 2010 Dare to be Deep tour showcased the success of Gwaii Haanas and the importance of marine protected areas.   See photos, videos and more from the tour.

SeaChoice.orgSeaChoice: Healthy Choices, Healthy Oceans

SeaChoice is a sustainable seafood program established by CPAWS, David Suzuki Foundation, Ecology Action Centre, Living Oceans, and Sierra Club BC.

Science Based Guidelines for Marine Protected Area (2011)

Commissioned by CPAWS and released in May 2011, these science-based guidelines were developed to inform the design and implementation of effective networks of MPAs throughout Canada’s oceans. Read the full report, summary, press release and more.


Take Action!

Dare to be Deep: Protect Canada's ocean!
Dare to be Deep: Protect Canada's ocean!

Over 16,000 people have signed on in support of marine protection in Canada. Add your voice to support advancing marine conservation through the establishment of a network of marine protected areas!

Sign the pledge!
Help to fully protect BC'S ancient glass sponge reefs
Help to fully protect BC'S ancient glass sponge reefs
Please ask the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and Canadian Coastguard to fully protect BC’s ancient and unique glass sponge reefs.
Read more | Write a Letter
Dare to be Deep: Protect Canada's ocean!
Dare to be Deep: Protect Canada's ocean!

Over 16,000 people have signed on in support of marine protection in Canada. Add your voice to support advancing marine conservation through the establishment of a network of marine protected areas!

Read more | Sign the pledge!


Canadian Wilderness, Spring 2016 (Spring 2016)

Nature: Part of the climate change solution

Executive Summary: Dare to be Deep, SeaStates Report on North America’s MPAs (June 2016)
Dare to be Deep: SeaStates Report on North America’s Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) (June 2016)

In the first ever joint assessment of progress on marine protected areas (MPAs) in North America, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and the Marine Conservation Institute (MCI) find Canada, Mexico and the USA have a long way to go to collectively and individually reach international and national targets to protect at least 10% of the continental ocean estate.*

Oceans Report 2015: Dare to be Deep: Are Canada’s Marine Protected Areas Really ‘Protected’? (June 2015)

The question we pose in this report is ‘how well do Canada’s marine protected areas actually protect ocean ecosystems from industrial activities?’ This seems like a fairly straightforward question, yet it turned out to be much more difficult to answer than we expected, and the information we uncovered is worrying.

A New Climate for Conservation: Nature Carbon and Climate Change in BC (January 2010)

A New Climate for Conservation: Nature, Carbon and Climate Change in British Columbia explores the role of nature conservation in a climate action strategy for ecological adaptation (Part 1) and ecological mitigation
(Part 2), with the key recommendation to develop a comprehensive and integrated Nature Conservation and Climate Action Strategy for the Province of British Columbia. This report was commissioned by the Working Group on Biodiversity, Forests and Climate, an alliance of Environmental Non-governmental Organizations (ENGOs) including: B.C. Spaces for Nature, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, David Suzuki Foundation, ForestEthics, Land Trust Alliance of B.C., West Coast Environmental Law, and Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.

View more publications

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