Canada is truly an ocean nation. Our long coastline touches on three oceans, Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic, and hundreds of communities and tens of thousands of jobs are dependent on marine health. We have benefitted from our marine regions through the wealth gained through the fisheries and tourism as well as traditional aboriginal activities.
As Farley Mowat documented decades ago in Sea of Slaughter, we have already caused a drastic loss of biodiversity in our oceans. The Magdalen Islanders once hunted walrus, we had Orcas on the east coast, seabirds once blocked out the sun in their enormous numbers, while the coho, sockeye and steelhead salmon runs kept hundreds of B.C. canneries humming, and sea otters existed in large numbers, hanging on to their kelp moorings to munch on abalone. As beautiful as our oceans are today, what we see is a tragically decimated and threatened water world.
Our oceans are facing numerous threats — over-fishing, pollution from both land-based and marine sources, astonishing levels of plastics circulating in the oceans — an estimated 143 million tons of plastic currently imperils life in the seas, and the dual climate change-related threats of increased temperatures and acidification are the most dangerous of all. On top of all this we have the increased threat of oil and gas development in fragile ecosystems.
Recently, we have seen a growth of off-shore oil and gas, creating conflicts in some areas between fishing and fossil fuel industries. The US-Canada agreement to keep oil drilling off Georges’ Bank on the east coast was extended in May 2010 to December 31, 2015. A similar measure is urgently needed for the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The Gulf is the most biologically productive marine region in Canada and is essentially an inland sea, as it is surrounded by four Atlantic provinces, with Prince Edward Island in the middle. Any oil spill would be caught in the counter-clockwise currents of the Gulf, bringing disaster to a multi-billion dollar fishery. Despite this and despite the fact the promised regional environmental review promised by the Minister of Environment in June 2011 has not yet taken place, the Gulf of St. Lawrence is specifically targeted in Budget 2012 for oil and gas development.
Similarly, recently the Harper Conservatives have launched an oil rush for license bids in the Beaufort Sea. There is no ecosystem more fragile than that that is ice-covered (at least at the moment) for much of the year. It is worrying that the National Energy Board has recently accepted industry demands to remove the requirement that any project must be capable of drilling a relief well in the same drilling season to cap any blow-outs. This is conditional on industry having another viable technology to achieve the same end. So far, the industry has not explained how it will meet this relaxed requirement.
At the same time as the Harper Conservatives aggressively promote off-shore oil and gas development, as well as super-tanker traffic with bitumen crude heading west from Kitimat through some of the most treacherous waters on earth, they are also cutting the emergency response measures to cope with disaster.
Environment Canada’s Environmental Emergency Programme has been shrunk from regional offices, including one in Vancouver, to one office in Quebec. Ten Coast Guard operations are being shut down. In BC alone, we are losing the search and rescue operation in Vancouver plus marine communication operations in Kitsilano, Comox and Tofino. The cuts affect the ability of the Coast Guard to monitor and deal with marine pollution offences. As well, the safety of mariners could be affected.
Meanwhile, the entire contaminants programme within DFO has been shut down. Nearly all of the DFO scientists studying marine toxicology across Canada are being laid off – 75 scientists. Dr. Peter Ross, a globally respected scientist from BC, recently dismissed from DFO, lamented, “The entire pollution file for the government of Canada, and marine environment in Canada’s three oceans, will be overseen by five junior biologists scattered across Canada – one of which will be in BC.” (quoted in Times Colonist, “Ottawa sinks pollution checks,” May 20, 2012)
Most shocking, as the Prime Minister presses on to put super-tankers in the Hecate Strait, ranked by his own government as the fourth most dangerous body of water on the planet, scientific studies to determine DFO’s Centre for Off-shore Oil, Gas, and Energy Research (COOGER) is closing, ending work in progress in many areas, including a “Baseline Hydrocarbon Study in Hecate Strait.” It was studying impacts of oil and gas leaks, counter-measures for an oil spill, restoration of environment after any spill, among other key areas.
For Oceans Day, June 8, 2012, our Prime Minister is land-locked.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May represents Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.
Originally printed in the Hill Times.