When it comes to protecting the biodiversity of our oceans, Canada has fallen behind most other developed countries according to the final report by an expert panel convened by the Royal Society of Canada.

The report, released Feb. 2, examines the effects of fisheries, fish farming, and climate change on Canada’s oceans, and assesses the Government’s response to these threats.

Speaking at an online press conference, Jeffrey Hutchings, the chair of the expert panel and the Canada research chair in marine conservation and biodiversity, said the findings boil down to two main points: our oceans are threatened, and we have a responsibility to act.

It’s a responsibility, he said, that, for the most part, hasn’t been fulfilled.

While fisheries and fish farming can have drastic effects on fish populations, and more broadly on ecosystems, many of their impacts can be controlled with proper management.

Overfishing

Overfishing can cause declines in fish populations, which in turn can disrupt food webs and predator/prey relationships. The report mentions the decline of Atlantic cod as an example and the subsequent increase in shrimp.

After signing onto the 1995 UN Agreement on Straddling and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks and creating the 1996 Oceans Act, Canada agreed to implement the precautionary approach in order to protect marine biodiversity.

The precautionary approach is what it sounds like — being cautious where there is uncertainty about the consequences of certain practices.

A key aspect of the precautionary approach involves numbers, said Hutchings. Numbers for a target population size, a limit you don’t want the population to fall below, a minimum recovery time for populations that are at risk of falling below the limit and rules and limits of catch sizes.

“In other words, you have a plan. A plan with numbers for targets and limits,” he said. “The U.S. has these types of plans, Australia, New Zealand, and increasingly so in Europe. We agreed to have such plans, but we don’t have them for cod. In fact, we have them for almost none of our marine species.”

Aquaculture

Fish farming has affected biodiversity in various ways, including through the spread of disease from farmed to wild fish and the impact of chemicals and organic waste on sea-floor organisms.
While the spread of disease can’t be reversed easily, the report says fish farming in closed-containment facilities, rather than open-sea pens, would reduce the environmental impact of farming significantly.

Climate Change

The effects of climate change will be the most difficult to reverse, in part as the report points out, because, “unlike fisheries and aquaculture [fish farming], both of which are regulated by Canadian jurisdiction, the magnitude and rate of climate change are outside of Canada’s direct control.”

The best and simplest strategy to mitigate the effects of climate change, according to the report, is to “protect existing diversity and to rebuild depleted populations and species to restore natural diversity.”

‘Our Responsibility’

It’s estimated that Canada has the longest marine coastline in the world. According to the report, our oceans are also home to 16,000 known marine species — many more have yet to be discovered — and 40 percent of the world’s marine mammals.

Our oceans also provide numerous “ecosystem services.” They provide a valuable food source, act as a carbon sink, help control erosion — list goes on and on.

A monetary value hasn’t been determined yet for what Canada’s oceans provide, but as the report points out, if the value of other ecosystems is any indication it’s likely in the billions of dollars. The ecological services provided by Canada’s boreal forests, for instance, were valued at $703 billion, including $582 billion for the storage of carbon in forests and wetlands, in the year 2002. That amount is 10 times the net market value associated with the commercial extraction of wood.

With all this natural capital to protect biodiversity and apparently enough research and know-how to do it, how is it that Canada has lagged so far behind?

Hutchings said he wouldn’t attribute it to a lack of knowledge.

“I think we have pretty solid scientific advice, in terms of being able to provide good advice as to what harvest levels should be and how we should protect our marine ecosystems. To some degree, it is, I think, a product of this dual regulatory conflict with industry in the one hand and to conserve in the other,” he said.

One of the report’s main findings is that there is a significant conflict within Fisheries and Oceans Canada that has prevented concerted effort to promote biodiversity, as it is charged with both promoting development and diversity — two fundamentally competing interests.

A lack of direction also seems to be an issue.

“I would say that slow implementation under the Oceans Act is partly blamed on the Act itself and the lack of parliamentary guidance to bureaucrats and to those who have to implement the Act…I think [they] have had to develop the rules as they go along,” added David VanderZwaag, a member of the expert panel and the Canada research chair in ocean law and governance. “But if they had a clear legislative framework then I think they would have much greater success.”

While in some cases the problem has been the lack of a plan, the report also lists numerous examples where Canada has failed to live up to its commitments to preserve marine biodiversity, even with a sufficient policy — including only limited action to create Marine Protected Areas.

Under the Convention of Biological Diversity of 1992, Canada agreed to create a network of MPAs covering 10 percent of its ocean area by 2020. According to Hutchings, Canada likely won’t meet its target as currently only about one percent of its marine areas are protected.

Similarly, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has a solid policy on paper, the Sustainable Fisheries Framework, which says target and limit population sizes should be identified for marine species. But in practice, said Hutchings, that’s not happening either. Limits have been set for some cod fisheries but in some cases they’ve been ignored.

“If a fish stock falls below that critical point, there should be no directed fishery; the only removal that could be permissible would be an accidental catch,” he said, “yet there are cod stocks where we have identified these critical limit reference points and we still have directed fishery those cases.”

Ultimately the report is calling for updated and modernized policies and the political and social will that’s needed to effectively implement them. The future of Canada’s ocean ecosystems depends on it.