A marine protected areas network is crucial for Nova Scotia

Photo: Alisha Postma (divebuddies4life.com)

There has been a lot of talk recently about marine protected areas (MPAs), as Canada strives to achieve its international commitment to protect at least 10% of our ocean. The importance of MPAs is much more than just reaching a percent target, so, I thought this would be an opportune time to discuss MPAs, and why they are so crucial. From the extensive mudflats of the Bay of Fundy, to the deep submarine canyons of the Scotian Shelf, our ocean contains important ecosystems and marine life, which we need to protect. MPAs are one of the tools available to help.

The ocean is critical for life on Earth. It provides the majority of the oxygen that we breathe, regulates the weather and climate, and is a significant food source. The ocean has been important to people here in Nova Scotia for thousands of years and has become deeply embedded within our culture. The ocean is home to sacred Mi’kmaq sites, and is a source of recreation and relaxation to residents across the province. It provides economic opportunity and livelihood to people across Nova Scotia. It is no wonder that 75% of Maritimers feel strongly that we must protect marine ecosystems and continue to sustain the economy and jobs in coastal communities (Source: WWF-Canada’s National Environics Survey).

Despite its importance, a lot has been taken from the ocean, and collectively, we have placed it under considerable stress. Too often the approach is: “out of sight, out of mind”. Oil and gas development, including off the coast of Nova Scotia, poses a huge threat to ocean ecosystems. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrated just how devastating disasters of this nature can be. Years later, the impact of this spill on the marine environment is still apparent. Even in the absence of a catastrophic spill, oil and gas development have big implications on the marine environment. Seismic testing, for example, impacts whales, which communicate through sound. Globally, we have dumped a huge amount of plastic into the ocean, threatening the species that live there. Unsustainable fishing practises, such as bottom-trawling have destroyed bottom habitats and devastated fish populations. Open-pen finfish aquaculture can threaten inshore fisheries. The list goes on and on.

Of course, MPAs are not the solution to all of these problems, but they are helpful in protecting important areas and helping to restore balance in ocean management. It’s hard to imagine a sustainable ocean that doesn’t have some areas that are dedicated primarily toward conservation, particularly areas with high marine biodiversity, ecological or cultural importance, or high sensitivity.

MPAs are helpful for both the ocean and society for a variety reasons. They can protect important marine habitat, endangered species and help to restore fish populations that have been subject to years of overexploitation. Recent research surrounding the Galápagos Marine Reserve, provides evidence that suggests that the reserve may enhance tuna availability to local fisheries, demonstrating that the benefits of MPAs can transcend boundaries. MPAs can also help to maintain vibrant coastal livelihoods through increased economic opportunities such as ocean tourism. For communities where tourism is an important component of the local economy, MPAs have been recognized as a mechanism to protect the environment and promote sustainable tourism. MPAs can also help to prevent restrict current and future development of destructive activities such as open-pen finfish aquaculture. From coastal MPAs managed by local communities in the Philippines, to the massive offshore areas, such as the Ross Sea MPA (1.55 million km2) off the coast of Antarctica, the global community is actively working to protect the ocean. It is imperative that Canada is a part of this global effort.

In Nova Scotia, there are currently only two MPAs designated using the Oceans Act: 1) The Gully, and more recently, 2) St. Anns Bank. These MPAs help protect unique habitat, exceptional biodiversity and biological productivity. While the government has made progress in ocean conservation over the last couple years, this is not enough to protect the full range of marine ecosystems off our coasts. The Atlantic Coast of Nova Scotia lacks MPAs, as does Bras d’Or Lakes and the Nova Scotia side of the Bay of Fundy. There are huge gaps in the offshore, with the two existing MPAs only occurring in the Eastern Scotian Shelf area.

Fortunately, the federal government has committed to undertaking comprehensive MPA network planning for the Maritimes Region and we expect that plan to be released in the near future. This could be an important step for ocean conservation in Nova Scotia if the plan is ambitious enough and if it protects ecologically significant areas. We shall see. Canada (and Nova Scotia) have some catching up to do.

Once the draft MPA network plan is released, your feedback will be essential for maintaining momentum and pushing the government to fulfil their promise in implementing marine protection in an effective and timely manner.

Be sure to stay tuned, as we will ensure to let you know when the draft MPA Network Plan is released. We will be posting information on twitter and facebook, as well as our website.

Thank you for reading!

Best fishes,

Meghan Borland