Seas of Trouble

Andrew Park

“Ad mare usque ad mare”—from sea to sea. So goes the motto emblazoned on Canada’s coat of arms.

But with some significant exceptions, Canadians probably don’t see Canada as a maritime nation. Nevertheless, Canada has the longest coastline of any sovereign nation, and Canada’s Exclusive Economic Zone stretches across 2.9 million square kilometers of the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans.

Canada has rights over the exploitation of resources in this vast ocean estate. But we also have a legal and (some would say) moral duty to conserve commercial fish stocks and protect species at risk. These rights and responsibilities are jointly governed by the Fisheries Act, the Oceans Act, the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act and the Species at Risk Act. Canada also has an Oceans Strategy that calls for the holistic management of our territorial waters.

In principle, this legislation and the strategy provide the basis for a strong, sustainable ocean management regime. In practice, however, our management of marine resources has all too often been held hostage to political expediency. Recent severe cuts to oceans monitoring and the weakening of the Fisheries Act have left our ability to deliver on conservation and management goals in doubt.

Furthermore, the oceans worldwide are suffering multiple environmental stresses. These include ocean warming, ocean acidification, overfishing, the spread of anoxic dead zones produced by excess nutrients and warming waters, and marine pollution. Together, these stresses constitute an existential threat to the health of the oceans and the very survival of some ocean ecosystems. Contemplating the latest research on ocean health, Alex Rogers, the director of the International Programme on the State of the Ocean stated “the health of the ocean is spiraling downwards far more rapidly than we had thought.”

Canada is experiencing all of these marine environmental problems to some degree. We’ve done our share of overfishing, most notably in the case of Atlantic Cod. While dead zones so far appear to be absent from Canadian waters, warming waters and nutrient enrichment may be changing all that.

There is an area off southern Vancouver where all sea life dies each year from hypoxia (lack of oxygen) and a dead zone may also be developing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Due to warming water and changing currents, the area of Arctic summer sea ice has been declining since the early 1970s. In 2012, the summer ice minimum was only 3.41 million square kilometers, the lowest ever recorded.

Ocean acidification due to climate change has Canadian waters more than the global average, thinning the shells of some crustaceans and killing commercial oysters.

Our share of the responsibility for marine environmental problems varies, and with it our power to craft a regulatory or management response. The cod collapse was partly a result of predatory overfishing on the nose and tail of the grand banks by European trawlers, but over-optimistic allowable catches set by Canadian politicians and flawed science also played leading roles in the collapse.

The warming ocean, loss of sea ice and ocean acidification are regional symptoms of the planetary problem of climate change. Their solution ultimately lies in a binding international agreement to reduce our collective greenhouse gas emissions. And of course, Canada, a conspicuous underachiever in limiting those emissions, has to be a part of that agreement.

So what should Canada’s policy responses be to marine environmental stresses over which we have limited control, and which we often have no idea how to fix? One answer is to enact policies that build up the resilience of marine ecosystems. Resilience, in ecological terms, is the ability of an ecosystem to bounce back from a disturbance or from a chronic stress. We could improve the resilience of our coastal waters by greatly expanding our network of marine protected areas, or MPAs.

MPAs conserve and renew fish stocks, and increase overall biological diversity, which is one of the keys to increasing ecosystem resilience. The federal government should also reverse recent changes to the Fisheries Act, restoring the connection between fish conservation and habitat protection that was excised from the Act in 2012. And in response to the rush to exploit oil and mineral resources in the Arctic, Canada should work through the Arctic Council, the Oceans Act and the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act to establish firm rules over and limits on Arctic development. And most importantly, we must renew our commitment to engaging constructively in international climate negotiations if we want to limit ocean warming and acidification.

Media coverage of the oceans crisis is largely invisible, but the oceans are as much a part of our Canadian heritage as are mountains, forests and the Great Lakes. It is our global responsibility to manage them better.

Andrew Park is the Green Party of Canada environment critic. Michelle Mech is part of the GPC Climate Change Advisory Group.

This article was first published in Embassy News: Water and Oceans Policy Briefing (June 4, 2014)