Canada's failure to protect marine biodiversity 'disappointing and dismaying,' asserts panel chair

Vancouver Sun, 2 February 2012 By Larry Pynn

Canada is failing miserably at protecting its rich marine biodiversity from the looming threat of climate change, an expert-panel report for the Royal Society of Canada concluded Thursday.

"Canada has made little substantive progress in fulfilling national and international commitments to sustain marine biodiversity," the panel report found.

The report noted that the Fisheries Act is beset with regulatory conflicts in terms of protecting and exploiting fish stocks, and the minister of fisheries and oceans wields too much discretionary power.

The report also says the Species at Risk Act has proven ineffective at protecting and recovering marine species at risk, and a promised national marine protected areas network "remains unfilled."

The application of a "precautionary" management approach with harvest-control rules and recovery plans remains "absent for most fisheries," the report added.

Panel chairman Jeff Hutchings, a biology professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said the federal government's lack of action at protecting marine biodiversity is "extremely disappointing and dismaying," a concern that also applies to management of high-profile Atlantic cod stocks.

"Anybody can see, and anybody can assuredly be bloody angry, that 20 years after the collapse of the northern cod fishery we don't have a target for recovery," he told a Vancouver news conference. "How is that possibly consistent with responsible management of our oceans?"

Canada has the world's longest coastline and a total of 7.1 million square kilometres of ocean — in the Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic — amounting to a global stewardship responsibility, the report found.

Well under one per cent of Canada's oceans is protected.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society is calling on the federal government to protect 12 marine sites by the end of 2012, including four in B.C. — the southern Strait of Georgia; the Big Eddy, also known as the Juan de Fuca eddy — an ecosystem off the west coast of Vancouver Island and Washington state's Olympic Peninsula; the Scott Islands, off northern Vancouver Island; and Hecate Strait near Haida Gwaii.

More than 16,000 marine species have been recorded in Canada, although there may be at least two to three times as many species still to be found.

Hutchings urged Canadians to show greater concern about the impact of climate change, fishing, and aquaculture on marine biodiversity. The best strategy against such "key stressors" is to protect existing diversity and to rebuild depleted populations and species to restore natural diversity.

Nations such as Australia, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, European Union, and the U.S. are well ahead of Canada in this regard.

In Parliament on Thursday, NDP fisheries and oceans critic Fin Donnelly (New Westminster-Coquitlam) raised the panel's report during question period.

Fisheries minister Keith Ashfield said in response that Canada has a "sustainable fishery" and that "we manage it very carefully with the best science advice that is provided to us."

Panel member Brian Riddell, chief executive officer of the Vancouver-based Pacific Salmon Foundation, said in an interview that the issue is a lack of execution, not a lack of policy and planning.

"We're not actually seeing it to fruition and implementation," he said.

Canada might look at the U.S. Magnuson-Stevens Act and its regional fishery councils that develop management plans, including for restoration of depleted stocks, he said.

"It's a powerful act, with tight time frames," he said. "A lot of people would say they're ahead of us on this."

The report noted the Pacific is particularly rich in seaweed species, the Arctic in small crustaceans, and the Atlantic in fishes. Canadian waters host 40 per cent of the world's marine mammal species.

It also said indicators of climate change include increased surface water temperatures, and high-latitude waters becoming less salty, reducing the transport of nutrients from deep waters to surface waters.

A nearly ice-free Arctic summer could occur as early as the late 2030s, the reports says, and increasing sea levels are forecast to lead to increased flooding, coastal erosion, and saltwater intrusion into wetlands and groundwater. Canada's oceans are also becoming increasingly acidic, and oxygen levels have been declining in some areas.

Riddell, who served 30 years with the federal fisheries department, including time as division head of salmon assessment, said it is important to realize there have also been improvements in the past decade.

"A lot has changed," he said. "It's easy to talk about overfishing, but it has largely been put in the past now."

But the threat of climate change requires Canada to be "more responsive" at protecting marine species, including those that comprise important commercial fisheries, he said.

The Royal Society of Canada is a national body of Canadian scholars, artists and scientists, promoting learning and research in the arts and sciences.

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