Protect the fish | Environment | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Protect the fish

Canada is dragging its feet in creating Marine Protected Areas, but Nova Scotia can lead the way.

The province wants to protect 12 percent of land from road-building and tree- harvesting. So why don't our oceans get equivalent protection?

"The easy answer is that the province doesn't have jurisdiction," says Rodrigo Menafra, the marine conservation coordinator for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. "But no signs have been given of supporting the establishment of Marine Protected Areas off Nova Scotia. There's been a sense of resistance."

A Marine Protected Area is a geographically defined piece of ocean on which human activity is legally limited. MPAs usually consist of no-fishing areas and areas where fishing is allowed as long as bottom trawling---dragging a fishing net along the ocean floor and taking everything in its path---is not involved.

Westerners have been preserving vulnerable ocean areas by closing them to fishing since 14th-century Britain. In 19th-century Scotland, a 10-year experiment compared a closed fishing area and an open one. The study showed for the first time that over-fishing damages a marine ecosystem.

Today, scientists can better enumerate the benefits of MPAs. They have more plants and animals, and more species, per cubic metre of ocean. Fish grow larger in MPAs and reproduce more---which is essential to recovering our lost fisheries.

Nova Scotia has one MPA, The Gully, just east of Sable Island. It is two-and-a-half kilometres deep, 15 kilometres wide and 65 kilometres long, home to 21 deep-sea coral species, shallow and deep-water fish, and a variety of whales and dolphins. Since it was protected in 2004 (after a 10-year process that still hasn't resulted in a monitoring plan), several new species have been discovered there, including some that were previously unknown to science.

"In addition to protecting ecosystems, MPAs increase our knowledge on how they function," Manafra says. "They also provide benefits to industry, which can market sustainable seafood and qualify for the increasingly demanded eco-labels."

In recent decades, as we've witnessed the collapse of fishing stocks and the increase of large-scale destructive fishing methods, the push for a global network of MPAs has increased. The international Convention on Biological Diversity commits 158 countries, including Canada, to protect at least 10 percent of marine and coastal regions.

Manafra argues that this target is far too modest, but Canada is a laggard on even this minimal commitment, with less than one percent of our oceans protected. The United States has about 1,800 federal, state and local MPAs. In Canada there are seven. Six more are promised.

One of the new MPAs will be in Nova Scotia, where half of one percent of the marine environment is protected. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has identified three areas of interest, all within 200 kilometres of Cape Breton. These areas were selected for their large banks, excellent fish habitats and the presence of commercially important or at-risk fish. All are more than 1,000 square kilometres. DFO has just completed a public consultation and has committed to designate the chosen site by 2012.

But Manafra says creating an MPA in this country typically takes seven to 10 years, meaning Canada will not meet its international commitments. If DFO can turn around an MPA in Nova Scotia as quickly as it claims, it will be a first.

To improve our chances, and the process in general, Manafra would like to see the province step up. "Nova Scotians have a strong cultural and economic connection to the ocean. Yet the Nova Scotia government has committed to protect nothing in the oceans."

Aside from a lack of political will, jurisdictional complications abound. Coordinating the myriad government departments (DFO, natural resources, environment, transportation, Coast Guard) at three government levels plus First Nations governments, plus the stakeholder groups (environmentalists, fishers, unions, consumers) and deciding who will take what responsibilities in creating, managing and enforcing, is a quagmire.

All of these complications could be overcome with a better-informed public---one willing to hold Canada to its commitments. Educating the public is where the province could play a role.

For now, it's easier to understand a protected forest area than to visualize a big piece of ocean where the rules are slightly different. But those small changes in well-chosen areas make all the difference for marine life and fishers.

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