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Watchdog says B.C.’s marine protected areas fall short in protecting biodiversity

Activities such as bottom trawling active in some MPAs, future threats looming
Within the Scott Islands marine National Wildlife Area (yellow area), about 15 per cent features active bottom trawling (in red), making it ineffective at protecting biodiversity, per a new CPAWS report. Map by CPAWS.

Some of Canada’s marine protected areas are falling short of their conservation goals, according to a new report.

The report, by Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), studied 18 Canadian Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) using a new standardized tool the organization developed. It found that while some areas are doing their job, most are actually weakly protected.

Five of the assessed MPAs are in British Columbia waters. The protection of these areas is a “mixed bag,” said Alex Barron, National Director of CPAWS’ Ocean Program, in a press release.

One of the reasons for this variation is because different areas are protected through different regulatory mechanisms — rules for which vary, said Kate Macmillan, CPAWS British Columbia interim ocean conservation manager, in an interview.

“Often when folks think of protected areas, they may think of them similar to parks on land, where all activities are prohibited, but that’s not actually the case,” she said.

The Scott Islands marine National Wildlife Area, located off northwest Vancouver Island, is one of Canada’s largest MPAs and represents about half of the nation’s MPA coverage in the Pacific. Unlike some other MPAs protected through the Oceans Act, it was established under the Canada Wildlife Act in 2018.

Despite its status, bottom trawling, a fishing practice in which a net is towed along the ocean floor, is still permitted inside its borders.

“Bottom trawling creates a lot of environmental damage, threatening the overall effectiveness of conserving that large area,” said Macmillan.

Gaps in MPA regulations as they exist now could also have consequences in the future — should pressure to start oil and gas development or mining in the ocean increase.

“Even though it doesn’t seem like an immediate threat, you just never know — political winds can change,” she said.

As a result, CPAWS is requesting minimum standards for MPAs that would prohibit oil and gas activities, mining, dumping and bottom trawling inside them — a change the federal government committed to in 2019.

“It might seem like a far-off issue, but this is something that we can solve right now,” she said.

The organization is also highlighting the importance of establishing a network of MPAs in the Pacific, would help not only protect key areas of biodiversity, but also provide marine species refuges from stressors, she said.

“Without creating these marine protected areas, there’s a continued risk of losing species and ecosystems that are important to the overall health of the oceans, but that are also important for coastal communities that depend on them.”

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