Marine Protected Area Legislation Must Be Improved

MP Fin Donnelly's Speech in Response to the Government's Bill C-55

Madam Speaker, I rise today to speak in favour of Bill C-55, an act to amend the Oceans Act and the Canada Petroleum Resources Act, and to offer a few suggestions on how the bill could be improved.

Let me say at the outset that I share the government's commitment to the international community and to the protection of 5% of Canada's marine areas by 2017 and 10% by 2020, with the aim of protecting our oceans by halting the destruction of marine ecosystems. However, since signing the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, consecutive Liberal and Conservative governments have failed to take meaningful action to make good on this international commitment.

In the protection of marine areas, until very recently Canada lagged behind China at 1.6%, and is still behind Japan at 5.6%. Australia and the United States are much further ahead, with 33.2% and 30.4% of their oceans protected respectively.

This legislation would provide some much-needed new legal tools to speed up the creation of marine protected areas, but it falls far short of Canada's international commitments to protect our marine biodiversity.

While it has been encouraging to watch repeated announcements this past year of new marine protected areas, Canada is playing catch-up. The best parts of the bill will help us get there. The problem is that in the rush to meet our international commitments, the government has prioritized quantity over quality in the areas protected. That is a big mistake.

Most Canadian MPAs are not meeting international conservation standards and this legislation will do nothing to address that deficiency. It fails to set minimum protection standards and targets for zoning of marine protected areas, which renders the designation inconsistent at best and meaningless at worst.

It goes without saying that ecological integrity should be the foremost priority of MPA management. However, due to a lack of minimum protection standards, at this point Canada's MPAs offer an insufficient level of protection of sensitive ecosystems.

In its report, “Linking Science and Law Minimum Protection Standards for Canada's Marine Protected Areas”, West Coast Environmental Law states that ecological integrity should be a top priority for MPAs. The report states:

Decisions on activities permitted within marine protected areas should be required to prioritize maintenance of the protected ecosystems' processes, and functions.

The Canada National Parks Act (CNPA) and associated regulations require the prioritization of “the maintenance or restoration of ecological integrity” to guide decisions on allowable activities.

The national parks policy elaborates this in principle, stating that “national park ecosystems will be given the highest degree of protection to ensure the perpetuation of natural environments essentially unaltered by human activity” and that “human activities within a national park that threaten the integrity of park ecosystems will not be permitted.”

The CNPA also gives the Minister the power to designate Wilderness Areas in “any area of a park that exists in a natural state or that is capable of returning to a natural state”, and when that designation is made, the Minister may not authorize any activity to be carried out in a wilderness area that is likely to impair the wilderness character of the area.

Including requirements to maintain ecological integrity of protected marine ecosystems within Canada's Oceans Act would ensure adherence to protection standards and thus link science to legal practice.

A concern that we are hearing more and more about is ocean plastics and marine debris. We firmly believe that the government needs to implement a strategy and to fund programs that will preserve the ecological integrity of our MPAs from this growing hazard.

Some current and proposed MPAs allow harmful activities like oil and gas exploration and extraction, mining exploration, industrial fishing, including bottom trawling. Banning these activities from protected areas should be the obvious choice.

When we compare MPAs to the protections offered to terrestrial parks it becomes even more striking. In the words of World Wildlife Fund President David Miller:

Oil and gas extraction is not compatible with conservation and should never be permitted inside a protected area. National parks on land have long had this in place as a minimum standard. It seems outrageous that a marine area could be designated as protected and yet an oil and gas platform could still be placed there, but that's exactly what going to be allowed in the Laurentian Channel unless the government of Canada changes course. The channel is a critical migration route for some of our most endangered whales, and oil and gas exploration and extraction threatens them with noise pollution, habitat disturbance and physical injury from seismic blasting.

This situation is an appalling double standard. We would not allow oil and gas exploration in a national park on land, so why would we allow it in a protected area in our oceans? The answer to this problem is clear. A strong set of protection standards, in line with the International Union of the Conservation of Nature, and legislated protection targets should be adopted by the government in order to meet our international commitments.

This is exactly what 59 scientists from across the world requested in an open letter to the fisheries and oceans minister and the environment and climate change minister. The letter stressed that scientific studies have shown repeatedly that stricter protection provides greater biodiversity benefits. They argue, at minimum, we should ban the most damaging activities to marine biodiversity, such as oil and gas activity, undersea mining, ocean waste dumping, and industrial scale fishing. Marine protected areas are home to countless at-risk species, and by definition, those ecosystems are in great need of protection.

This is important. We cannot allow a lack of legal rigour and haste to prevent us from accomplishing the goal we have agreed to. The government has made much of its commitment to science-based public policy, but with Bill C-55, it has again chosen to ignore the best available conservation science. The Liberal government should listen to the scientists within the scientific community, and not let the bill be another broken promise to Canadians.

Unfortunately, the government's environmental record is a string of broken promises and unfulfilled campaign commitments. It begins with the stunning approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, with the promised review of public consultation and environmental assessment. The people of British Columbia did not vote for a seven-fold increase in the number of oil tankers in Vancouver harbour, and they certainly did not vote for the accompanying risk of an oil spill that would devastate our coast.

It continues with no action on their promise to restore essential environmental protection legislation. On the campaign trail, Liberals promised to restore the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and the Navigation Protection Act. While we wait, they have approved the construction of the now defunct Pacific NorthWest LNG terminal on critical salmon spawning grounds, and cleared the way for development of the Site C dam under the weakened legislation.

The Liberal record of saying one thing and doing another is why we should all be concerned that the bill gives the minister far too much latitude to decide what activities are permissible in an MPA.

Ministerial discretion has become a red flag for Canadians. Too often, the government has promised one thing in regard to environmental protection and climate change, while using ministerial discretion to accomplish the exact opposite. Recently, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans made an exemption to the Fisheries Act to allow one of the potentially most destructive projects on the planet to move forward, the KSM mine in British Columbia.

KSM will be the largest open pit mine in North America. Building this mine will require destruction of upper tributaries of the North Treaty and South Teigen Creeks, which flow into the salmon-bearing Nass and Bell-Irving rivers, for tailings storage. Alarmingly, KSM will store more than 27 times the amount of tailings stored at the Mount Polley Mine, using the same technology that failed three years ago.

We need clear legislation with strong guidelines to constrain ministerial discretion. These powers should be used to forward the ecological integrity of a marine protected area rather than permitting harmful activities. Recent research shows MPAs that permit harmful activities are less effective at achieving biodiversity than those with large no-take zones where extractive activity is banned.

Dr. Susanna Fuller, from the Ecology Action Centre, believes that MPAs core no-take zones should encompass 75% of a given MPA. Canada is nowhere close to reaching that high bar. Right now, the minister has the discretion to determine what activities are allowed in an MPA, and how restrictive each zone in an MPA can be.

So far, Canada's fisheries minister has implemented a no-take zone in only five MPAs to date, and those areas are tiny in comparison to the overall MPA. Canada should follow international examples, and make no-take zones the rule rather than the exception in MPAs.

I would like to speak for a moment about opportunities for co-governance of MPAs between indigenous nations and the crown in Canada.

West Coast Environmental Law has published a paper entitled “An Ocean of Opportunity: Co-governance in Marine Protected Areas in Canada”. It states:

Indigenous peoples have been governing marine territories using their own legal traditions since time immemorial. For the most part, indigenous legal orders have not been recognized or upheld in the governance of marine protected areas (MPAs) in Canada. The current Government of Canada has committed to “a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with indigenous peoples, based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership.” Co-governance arrangements in MPAs are one way of achieving a true nation-to-nation or Inuit-to-Crown relationship by creating space for the healthy interaction of Canadian and indigenous laws. With the Government of Canada’s renewed commitment to protect at least 10% of Canada’s oceans by 2020, there is a unique opportunity to implement co-governance arrangements in both new and established MPAs.

The report states that Canada has an opportunity to become a world leader in recognizing and implementing meaningful co-governance in MPA law, and I agree.

In closing, Canada's New Democrats understand there is no one-size-fits-all solution to marine protected areas, and we recognize that different MPAs are going to require different types of protections. Canada is large and geographically diverse. Local context must be taken into account. While uniform standards may not make sense for all coasts, minimum protection standards absolutely do, and that is what is missing from the bill.

The government needs to listen to scientists, first nations, working fishers, the provinces and territories, and concerned Canadians, so that we make the necessary improvements to Bill C-55.