My thoughts on Canada’s newest MPA

My thoughts on Canada’s newest MPA

By: Chris Miller

Earlier today, the Government of Canada announced that it has completed the designation process for St. Anns Bank Marine Protected Area off the coast of Cape Breton.

In short, this completes a six-year process between the time when this site was first announced as an “Area of Interest” for a marine protected area in 2011 and when it actually received real protection today through regulations established under the Oceans Act.

The process actually goes back further than that, to when St. Anns Bank was selected as one of three potential areas of interest in the Maritimes Region prior to 2011, or even further back to when those three potential short-list sites were first identified through the collaborative work of the Eastern Scotian Shelf Integrated Management process (ESSIM).

That’s a very long time to establish a marine protected area, which makes it all the more important to recognize that St. Anns Bank MPA has now achieved a significant milestone along this very long path toward official designation. On June 14th, the final regulations for Canada’s newest marine protected area will be published in Canada Gazette Part 2, and then the focus will shift from the designation of the MPA to its proper management.

I’m grateful for the hard work that many people undertook to make St. Anns Bank MPA possible.  Canada has a commitment to protect 5% of our ocean by the end of 2017, and at least 10% of the ocean by 2020. This is part of our international commitment under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). At the moment, only about 1% of our ocean estate is established as marine protected areas.

Many other countries have much more ambitious targets than us, with some seeking to protect at least 30% of their ocean territories. Several countries have already achieved this higher target and are much further along than Canada.

That being said, Canada is starting to turn the corner on marine protection after years of very little progress. It’s clear that this is now a priority for the federal government and real resources are being invested to ensure that these conservation targets are met. It’s certainly a change from a few years ago. Just in the past 12 months alone, the Government of Canada has established three new marine protected areas, with more on the way.

Perhaps even more significant is that Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is now undertaking comprehensive MPA network planning, which means they are looking at systems of protected areas involving multiple sites rather than proceeding in a piecemeal way, one site at a time.

If it takes 6 years, or longer, to create a MPA from beginning to end, then Canada will simply run out of time to achieve the at least 10% conservation target unless we switch to a more efficient means of selecting sites, using MPA network planning. The department is now moving in that direction and that is a welcome change.

An important site for conservation

St. Anns Bank MPA is an important site for conservation, but it’s not an obvious site for conservation.  What I mean by that is there is not one standout feature that makes the area significant. Rather, it’s the combination of things that matters most.

The nearby Gully MPA has one of the largest submerged canyons in eastern North America, upon which northern bottlenose whales are absolutely dependent. The Bay of Fundy has the world’s highest tides and the phenomenal upwelling and productivity that goes along with that.  St. Anns Bank is much more subtle.  It has an understated elegance that comes from the combination of biodiversity it contains.

The area contains a large foraging area for endangered leatherback sea turtles. It functions as a migration corridor for species entering and leaving the Gulf of St. Lawrence, such as the magnificent blue whales. It provides important overwintering habitat for the southern Gulf population of Atlantic cod.

Within St. Anns Bank MPA, there are all sorts of different habitat types for different species. There are shallow bank habitats, and deep-water channels, and rich slope-edges. Over 100 different species have been observed in these waters, including cold water corals and sponges and sea pens. There are Atlantic wolffish, and red fish, and American plaice, and white hake. It’s beautiful and important. And I’m really glad it’s finally protected after so many years.

I also want to take a minute to talk about the people who know this area the best; the people who spend time on the water, and especially the inshore fishermen who have been working these waters for generations.

I’m glad that Fisheries and Oceans Canada did not shut out fishermen from St. Anns Bank MPA, but instead, examined the impacts of different types of fisheries, and rightfully concluded that there was a big difference between impacts from bottom trawling versus impacts from laying snow crab pots on the ocean bottom. Three fishing zones were established where these lower impact fisheries can continue.

I’m also glad there is a very large core conservation zone that covers 75% of the marine protected area. That’s crucial for any MPA to have integrity. It needs an extensive zone where biodiversity can just do its thing, with as minimal disturbances from human activities as possible.

Those two things together are what make St. Anns Bank so important. The MPA respects the traditional livelihoods of the fishermen who know the area the best and it also respects the need for the MPA to be mostly off limits to industrial activities  through the creation of a strong core conservation zone.

To that end, it should also be pointed out that St. Anns Bank will be entirely off-limits to any oil and gas exploration or development.  It’s hard to imagine, but there are actually other MPA proposals in Canada right now where oil and gas exploration may be allowed inside the protected area boundaries. I think that is ridiculous and makes a mockery of our marine conservation efforts. So, thankfully, St. Anns Bank MPA will be spared from future oil and gas exploration. Let’s hope it shines a light on this problem and shows a better path to a healthier ocean.

So, after six long years of working on the St. Anns Bank MPA project, let’s acknowledge the important milestone that has been achieved. Today we celebrate, but tomorrow we get back to work!!!

By: Chris Miller

Chris is the National Conservation Biologist for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, based in Nova Scotia. He participated on the Stakeholders Advisory Committee for St. Anns Bank where proposed boundaries and fishing zones for the MPA were developed.