Canada is joining 13 other countries in a non-binding pledge to sustainably manage 100 per cent of its oceans by 2025, continuing the Trudeau government’s international declarations on the environment.
The undertaking commits — or, in some cases, recommits — Canada to a variety of measures, including protecting 30 per cent of marine waters by 2030, rebuilding fish stocks, reducing plastic in the ocean and creating a sustainability plan.
“Having the world’s longest coastline, Canada recognizes that our economy and our well-being are deeply connected with the health of our oceans, and that we have a responsibility to protect them,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement accompanying the document.
“That is why we are committed to working with our international Ocean Panel leaders, and to developing a comprehensive blue economy strategy. We are also calling on more world leaders and other partners to join us in turning our goals into reality.”
Other countries supporting the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy include Norway, Australia, Japan, Ghana, Indonesia and Chile.
“Historically, the ocean agenda has never been focused and integrated on an international basis, and we’re at the point, I think, in history where everybody recognizes the health of the ocean should be a concern,” said Jean-Guy Forgeron, senior assistant deputy minister of strategic policy at Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Canada has made these promises before
The commitment to conserve 30 per cent of Canadian oceans by 2030 was announced in July when Canada joined the Global Ocean Alliance, led by the United Kingdom.
Ottawa has so far reached 14 per cent of the target by creating marine protected areas and marine refuges.
The process has met opposition from the fishing industry and some provincial governments in Atlantic Canada, which questioned the economic impact of closing areas to extraction activities.
“This is not easy,” said Forgeron. “There is no low-hanging fruit in creating protected ocean space. And it’s a very aggressive agenda.”
Fisheries and Oceans Canada is expected to introduce draft regulations this month to the Fisheries Act that will spell out how it intends to rebuild fish stocks that are being harmed by over-fishing.
The federal government is also promising a discussion paper in the new year on “boat-to-plate traceability” to assure consumers they are getting what they are paying for and to help stamp out illegal fishing and human rights issues on board vessels elsewhere.
“I think we’ll see in the next months, not years, whether this government is moving on this new strategy that they’ve signed on to,” said Josh Laughren, executive director of the environmental group Oceana Canada.
“This isn’t the first time governments have signed on to non-binding, long-term commitments, and people tend to get wary of more of those.”
Anya Waite of the Ocean Frontier Institute based at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said oceans are too important to the planet’s future not to act to protect them.
“The ocean controls our climate, carries 100 times the heat of the atmosphere and 50 times the carbon,” she said. “If we don’t have the oceans front and centre, we can’t understand climate change and we need development of the blue economy to include sustainability.”
A contrary view to a key commitment
While the steps are being welcomed by the environmental movement, there remains skepticism about the effectiveness of setting aside 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030 — known as 30 by 30.
It has been proposed in the United States Congress and is under consideration by the incoming Biden administration.
Ray Hilborn, from the University of Washington’s school of aquatic and fisheries sciences, said it is misguided.
“All the 30 by 30 will do is move the fishing effort from one place to another,” Hilborn told CBC News. “So if fishing effort is causing the problem, you’re not solving it; you’re simply moving the problem from one place to the other.”
He said countries like Canada and the United States have fishery regimes that can better protect species with specific measures like gear changes.
‘A lot left to do’
Hilborn acknowledged some areas need to close, although not permanently. He cited the North Atlantic right whale, which moved away from critical habitat zones off southern Nova Scotia and into the Gulf of St. Lawrence in search of prey.
“If climate change is going to change where the problems are, we need dynamic management,” he said.
Laughren supports the measures coming from the High Level Panel and is giving the Trudeau government the benefit of the doubt.
“I think the government deserves some credit for making oceans and oceans conservation a priority over the last few years, with a lot left to do,” he said.
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