Island Tides: Movement for Oceans

Elizabeth May

From June 6-8, 2017, I attended the United Nations for the special High-Level United Nations Oceans Conference. Without a doubt, it sparked the greatest global focus to date on our oceans – and on World Oceans Day, June 8th.  The conference was in the context of the Sustainable Development goal for healthy oceans, co-chaired by Fiji and Sweden.  The success of the gathering was that the issues were not merely discussed; numerous partnerships and projects were announced and funded.

What was striking was the complexity of the issues and threats facing the great blue world of our planet. I kept thinking about the oceans agenda as it existed at the time of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.  Key issues then were over-fishing, endangered marine species – particularly threatened whales and dolphin species, and land-based sources of marine pollution.  All those issues are still on the agenda in 2017, but more pressing issues have been added to the list. Much of the focus of the United Nations conference was on the growing problem of plastic pollution of the oceans.  Between micro-beads added to toothpaste and facial creams to plastic bags and water bottles, 8 million tonnes of plastic is discarded every year into the world’s oceans.  Fish ingest the plastics. Sea turtles and sea birds as well as fish are killed by plastics and the problem is getting worse.  The UN meetings launched a Clean Seas Campaign to directly attack the problem- calling for countries to take action against single-use plastic consumer goods, ban microbeads and find ways to clean up existing plastic contamination.

As well, the conference dealt with the negative impacts from global climate change and warming ocean temperatures and its evil twin – ocean acidification caused not by warming, but by physical mixing of atmospheric carbon into ocean water, creating carbonic acid that can melt the shells of ocean creatures.  All nations (except the USA) re-confirmed the importance of the Paris Agreement.

The issue of over-fishing is increasingly presented as the problem of illegal, unreported and unregulated fisheries got action from the FAO. The FAO led the negotiation of the Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (PSMA).  I keep looking back to the UN Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and believing it, if properly implemented, could end high-seas illegal fisheries.  We have a long way to go to end the horrific rates of destruction of species, in some cases form off-shore draggers enslaving human beings as crew.  No more desperate state for humans exists on the planet as for those slaves held at sea for years working in appalling conditions – with punishment for complaint a swift death at sea.

Canada’s delegation at the UN Conference was led by Minister of Fisheries Dominic Leblanc and included Members of Parliament from the Liberals, Conservatives, the Bloc and Green Parties.  Minister Leblanc’s main focus was on the marine biodiversity challenge and Canada’s commitment to 10% of our coastal areas to be within some form of protection by 2020, with 5% by the end of this year.  The goal is complicated by having several federal mechanisms for protection.  In Saanich-Gulf Islands, we wait for the completion of the National Marine Conservation Area in the Salish Sea (still referred to by government as Southern Strait of Georgia).  The proposal was endorsed in 1970 by no less than Jacques Cousteau, yet here we are in 2017 with no clear indication of a time line to conclude protection.  Clearly, the process must be aligned closely with the nation-to nation negotiation and recognition of sovereignty of the many coastal indigenous nations that have navigated and fished these waters for thousands of years.  But we should be making it a priority. This marine protection is under the jurisdiction of Environment and Climate Change, within Parks Canada. As well, Environment Canada has jurisdiction over Marine Wildlife Areas. Meanwhile, DFO has jurisdiction over Marine Protected Areas under the terms of Oceans Act.

On June 15, amendments to the Oceans Act were tabled for First Reading. The changes focus primarily on modernizing and expediting the creation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).  While there are more changes I would like to see (such as ensuring MPAs have the goal of protecting ecological integrity), overall, the amendments are encouraging.  Under the proposed changes to the Oceans Act, the pace of creating MPAs (currently, on average, at least a 7 year process) will be speeded up.  The minister will be empowered to designate Interim Marine Protected Areas. Under the proposed process the government will have five years to develop the regulations that transition an interim area into a permanent MPA. New and damaging activities proposed for areas being considered for interim MPA status  — such as fisheries, seismic testing, undersea mining and offshore oil and gas extraction —  may be immediately restricted when the Minister acts to create interim protection. Existing fisheries activities in these areas may also be restricted. Still, it is the case that any and all of marine protections in Canada do not necessarily preclude any human activity. Most protect existing economic activities.

I was particularly pleased that the Oceans Act amendments include changes to the Canada Petroleum Resources Act. Once approved through parliament, there will be a new legal authority to prohibit new oil and gas activities in MPAs with the Minister having the power to cancel existing oil and gas interests in MPAs, with financial compensation.

Humanity is in a desperate race against time to save the lives of our oceans, and ourselves.  This month, most nations took real steps in that race.

Originally published by Island Tides newspaper. See for more breaking West Coast news, views and enterprise.