Is Canada Taking Shortcuts to Hit Marine Protection Targets?

Canada protected areas

The government is counting fisheries closures as protected areas in order to hit a 2020 target. Many scientists argue this is not meaningful conservation.  This article from Hakai Magazine explains more.

Marine and coastal areas the world over are suffering deaths by a thousand cuts: overfishing, pollution, oil and gas development, climate change, and much more. To stop the bleeding, the United Nations (UN) formed the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992. But in the 18 years that followed, little progress was made.

In 2010, the UN devised a strategic plan, known as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, and asked countries to commit to, among other things, protect 10 percent of their marine and coastal areas by 2020. The Aichi targets were an attempt to motivate countries to act.

As one of 196 signatories, Canada made the commitment. It needed to do something: of more than 900 species in the country monitored by World Wildlife Fund Canada, more than half are declining, their populations down an average of 83 percent compared to 35 years ago.

In the first seven years after the Aichi targets were set, Canada moved slowly. At the beginning of 2017, less than one percent of the country’s marine area was protected. But suddenly, at the end of 2017, that figure shot up to 7.76 percent.

Such a rapid leap raises questions.

To make such swift gains, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), a federal government department, designated some new and some pre-existing locations with fisheries closures as “marine refuges.” Of the 51 marine refuges designated in the 2017 surge, 29 were existing fisheries closures that were renamed. These refuges impose far fewer restrictions on the kinds of activities that can take place within them than proper marine protected areas, which are typically managed with more stringent rules and are more difficult to create.

It’s not yet clear whether all of these newly protected areas—amounting to about 275,000 square kilometers as of December 21, 2017—will ultimately count toward fulfilling the Aichi targets. Based on efforts by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to define international standards for biodiversity protection, they most likely will not.


With the 2020 deadline rapidly approaching, a mandate commitment from the Prime Minister, and a string of reports from the Auditor General of Canada outlining how various government departments were failing to meet their conservation commitments, it’s easy to understand the appeal of passing off fisheries closures as properly protected spaces. The government is standing by its position that these fisheries closures qualify in the face of more stringent standards promulgated by IUCN and conservation scientists in Canada.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada has developed its own criteria based on advice from the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat, another government department, says Jeff MacDonald, director general of oceans and fisheries policy for DFO. These criteria take into account the emerging directions of IUCN’s recommendations, he says. Canada even advocated for its approach to be adopted by the international community at a CBD meeting earlier this year.

The main point of contention stems from wiggle room left in the language of the Aichi targets. Those targets call for ecosystems to be safeguarded by marine protected areas or “other effective area-based conservation measures.”

That caveat allowed countries to count areas that offer the same protections as marine protected areas, even if they aren’t designated as such. But Canada and other countries have been stretching that loophole wide, prompting IUCN to work to strengthen and clarify its definitions.

To understand why some scientists think Canada is cutting corners to hit its target, it’s illustrative to look at IUCN’s criteria from its draft document released earlier this year. According to the organization, a properly protected space should:

  • Have a geographically defined area;
  • Be governed under a specific authority;
  • Be managed to conserve biodiversity;
  • Be long-term, without any end point;
  • Conserve nature as a whole, rather than selected elements of biodiversity;
  • Protect existing ecosystem services;
  • Protect existing cultural and spiritual values.

The protections afforded by Canada’s new marine refuges are significantly weaker. For one, they don’t preclude industrial activity other than fishing. They don’t even prevent all kinds of fishing. Many of the new marine refuges prohibit bottom trawling to spare delicate corals, sponges, and sea pens but leave other parts of the overlying sea open to fishing.

Read the full article Is Canada Taking Shortcuts to Hit Its Marine Protection Targets? at Hakai Magazine.

Tags: , , , ,