On October 28, a vessel named the Polar Prince pulled into Victoria, B.C., and ended a 150-day-long tour from Canadian “coast to coast to coast.”
The “Canada C3” expedition left from Toronto on June 1, travelling 12,000 nautical miles in the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific oceans as part of the country’s 150th anniversary celebrations. Along the way, it passed through six ecozones, and passengers and crew witnessed some incredible biodiversity, including whales cresting in the Pacific, seabirds bobbing in the Arctic, and polar bears and arctic wolves along the shorelines.
Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna was in British Columbia to greet the ship at the end of the expedition, and to make an announcement: Canada has reached its goal of protecting five per cent of its marine and coastal areas by 2017, she said, safeguarding marine ecosystems like the ones through which the Polar Prince travelled.
While this is a step forward, there is more work to be done if the government is to live up to the next phase of its commitment — securing protection for 10 per cent of Canada’s marine and coastal areas by 2020.
Fixing holes in existing marine protection legislation
As part of its plan to meet its marine protection targets, the federal government introduced Bill C-55 in June 2017. The bill, which recently passed second reading and has been referred to the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, proposes changes to the Oceans Act designed to speed up and strengthen the protection of marine areas.
Right now, the Oceans Act empowers the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans to designate Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs. But the act suffers from several gaps:
Bill C-55 makes important progress towards filling some of these gaps. For example:
Bill C-55 also proposes changes to the Canada Petroleum Resources Act. These changes would clarify that Cabinet can prohibit oil and gas activities in an interim MPA (something they can arguably do already).
The Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs and the Minister of Natural Resources, who are responsible for offshore oil and gas rights in Canada’s north, would also gain the power to cancel oil and gas rights in an MPA or an area that may be designated as an MPA and to compensate the owners of those rights for that cancellation. If this power is used appropriately, it could simplify and speed up the MPA designation process in the Arctic.
Bill C-55’s shortcomings
While it makes important improvements, Bill C-55 suffers from several shortcomings:
Finally, Bill C-55 does nothing to incorporate minimum levels of protection into the Oceans Act.
The “Canada C3” voyage showcased the incredible diversity in Canada’s oceans and coastal areas. Now, we need to ensure that the government’s commitment to protecting these stunning places extends beyond the 150-day voyage.
Bill C-55, as drafted, will introduce some important positive changes to the Oceans Act. If enacted, these changes should advance the protection of marine areas. Can they be strengthened? Yes. Is more work needed? Yes.
In addition to fixing the gaps identified above, the government must not rely excessively on interim MPAs to meet its protected area targets. While interim MPAs can, if the ongoing activities exception is limited appropriately, provide important temporary protections, they are just that: temporary.
The fact that we have secured protection for five per cent of our marine and coastal areas is worth celebrating. Going forward, we need to be mindful of Bill C-55’s strengths and weaknesses if we want the government succeed in protecting double that by 2020.
From coast to coast to coast, the future of these marine ecosystems depends on it.