On Monday June 7th, just before World Ocean Day, the government of Canada made a giant step forward in the area of marine conservation. Environment Minister Jim Prentice amended legislation on Monday to create the Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve. The reserve is off the southern coast of what were once called the Queen Charlotte Islands, now called Haida Gwaii (Islands of the People).
This new reserve extends 10 kilometers offshore from the current Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, so it also protects a 3,500 sq. km. zone that covers the Hecate Strait and the Queen Charlotte Shelf natural marine region. This area has at least 3,500 species of marine life, including the endangered Stellar sea lion.
Prentice said that this new legislation would still allow for traditional fishing and recreational use, but would prohibit offshore oil drilling in the area. Four oil companies that held leases in the area voluntarily relinquished them in 1997, which smoothed the way for the marine conservation plan. Along with Parks Canada, the aborigine group Haida Nation co-manages the conservation zone, a first for Canada. The zone effectively creates a national park that goes from the 600 metre mountain peaks to 1200 meters down under the waters of the Hecate Straight.
It is an important step that Canada has taken, and it is something to be pleased about. However, of the area set aside, only 3% has been designated as no-take, meaning no fishing or exploitation of any sort. Scientific consensus is very strong that at least 30% of each habitat needs to be protected for effective marine conservation, which means no fishing. As an example the Australian government just increased its no-take area of the Great Barrier Reef from 5 per cent to 30 per cent, as they determined that 5 per cent was not working.
So while this is certainly a step in the right direction, it doesn’t go as far as it needs to go. Even setting 30 or 40% of this region as completely protected would still allow the Haida to use the other 60% for traditional fishing purposes.
Marine protected areas provide safe places for wild marine populations to replenish themselves. They have numerous ecological benefits, including higher densities of plants and animals, higher species diversity, and greater numbers of large organisms than in adjacent unprotected areas. With respect to fisheries management, these benefits can decrease the chance of stock collapse, accelerate population recovery rates, decrease variability in annual catches, and provide fishery-independent stock data. As fish densities within these areas increase in the absence of fishing, populations may ‘spill over’ into adjacent areas, which can contribute to local fisheries.
At the same time, there needs to be recognition that fish form the primary protein source for over a billion people. Maritime protected areas will improve local fish stocks over time.
Rather than simply blundering about and destroying things, we need to start repairing the damage that we’ve done, picking up the pieces of what’s left, and start rebuilding. We can no longer claim ignorance as a defense. By setting up and properly managing these marine protected zones, we can start the work. No matter what, though, any ocean recovery will be a long time coming.