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Canada lags on protecting marine biodiversity

Posted on behalf of Hannah Hoag.

Canada’s marine biodiversity is under threat and there’s no strategy for fixing it, states a report released today by the Royal Society of Canada. According to the independent panel behind the assessment, the heart of the problem lies in the conflicting responsibilities of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), a federal department with the joint role of promoting industrial and economic activity and conserving marine life and ocean health.

The international ten-person panel found that climate change, aquaculture and over-fishing were having negative effects on Canada’s marine ecosystems and species. The oceans are becoming warmer and less salty, food webs are being disrupted and disease is being transferred from farmed to wild species. The panel also gauged whether Canada was fulfilling its obligations to sustain marine biodiversity. The answer: no.

“We’ve made many commitments, but we have not met those commitments and we don’t have a plan,” says Jeff Hutchings, an expert on marine biodiversity and conservation at Dalhousie University in Halifax and the panel’s chairman.

Several national and international agreements, such as the UN Fish Stocks Agreement, commit Canada to protecting its marine biodiversity. Even so, “Canada has fallen well short of the progress made by most developed nations,” the authors write. Canada should have set targets for exploited fish stocks, including target population size and limits that aren’t to be exceeded.

“The United States, Australia, New Zealand, and increasingly parts of Europe have these plans, but we don’t have them for Canadian Atlantic cod, or for most of marine species,” says Hutchings.

Canada is also committed to establishing a national system of marine protected areas, and during a 2010 Conference of the Parties of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, it agreed to set aside 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020. To date, only 0.8% is protected.

The panel made seven recommendations to establish Canada as a leader in ocean stewardship and marine conservation. Among them, it urged the federal government to resolve the conflicts of interest surrounding DFO and to limit the discretionary power of the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans.

Other countries have managed to overcome such conflicts. In the United States, the Magnuson-Stevens Act requires recovery plans for over-fished stocks and provides impact assessments for fisheries. It also mandates the following of scientific advice, says Dave VanderZwaag, the Canada Research Chair in Ocean Law & Governance at Dalhousie University, and one of the panel members.

Hutchings is among those who would like to see the DFO’s fishing industry activities transferred to Industry Canada.

“If they were separated, and they probably should be, the outcome would depend on the weight the political leaders give to science and conservation. At present, the government gives little emphasis to science and even less to conservation,” says Daniel Pauly, a marine biologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who was not part of the panel.

A spokesperson for DFO would not comment on the report until it has been reviewed by the department.

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