Ocean Conservation Through Marine Protected Areas

Canada has less than two years to meet its target to protect 17% of terrestrial and inland waters and 10% of ocean areas by 2020, commitments made under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Icons of the conservation movement, such as John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, are widely credited for convincing the public to care about protecting natural spaces in the late 1800s. Today, 47 National Parks protect 328 198 square kilometres of land across Canada. Canada also has the longest coastline in the world of over 200 000 kilometres, running through three oceans. Our oceans provide critical habitat for over 40 species of marine mammals, including whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, and polar bears, and dozens of fish species. Marine protected areas are quickly becoming critical conservation tools to protect ocean ecosystems and species. 

As we near the 2020 deadline, it is important that we don’t just race to meet our minimum conservation targets. We also need to ask, are protected areas effective to achieve truly meaningful biodiversity conservation for the future?

Background: Biodiversity Conservation Targets

Biological diversity – or biodiversity – refers to “the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems”.

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) in the Gulf of Boothia, Nunavut.

At the 2010 meeting of the Conference of the Parties (the term that refers to the countries who have signed a Convention) to the CBD in Japan, Canada agreed to a Strategic Plan for Biodiversity, which involves a set of 20 targets to be pursued from 2011-2020 known as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

Under Target 11 of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, countries agreed that,

  • By 2020, at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water, and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes.

Countries will achieve this target by increasing and improving protected areas and spaces.

Why We Need Marine Protection

The need to increase ocean conservation is apparent. Ocean ecosystems are vital for the health of the planet. The world’s oceans have tremendous cultural, economic, and ecological importance for billions of people. Unfortunately, the world’s oceans face increasing threats due to climate change and other anthropogenic factors, such as overfishing, entanglements in fishing gear, shipping, oil and gas exploitation, and pollution.

Canada is an Arctic country. Arctic environments face increasingly longer ice-free seasons, with reductions in both the timing and extent of sea ice. As sea ice declines, there will be increased pressure on Arctic ecosystems from marine shipping, oil and gas exploitation, and commercial fishing. Already, about 80% of the world’s fish stocks are depleted, overexploited, or fully exploited.

There are only an estimated 350 North Atlantic right whales left in the world. These species call Canada’s oceans home and need areas where they are protected from entanglement in fishing gear, the biggest threat to their survival. Source: Center for Biological Diversity

The Canadian Species at Risk Act (SARA) lists 69 marine mammals and fish as Endangered or Threatened and another 44 as Special Concern. The North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) spends part of its year in Canada and may be reduced to as few as 350 individuals left in the world.  Over the past 15 years, on average, listed species have continued to decline and the rate of that decline has actually increased. Based on data from 2 313 monitored populations, marine species declined by an average of 9% between 1970 and 2014.

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Protecting marine species and ecosystems ensures that human communities that rely on oceans for cultural and sustainable economic uses can continue to do so in the future, safeguarding both ecological and human well-being. For instance, the Nunavut Government estimates that the seal hunt in Nunavut provides communities with an estimated food value of $5 million. WWF reports that the world’s oceans are the main source of protein for one billion people around the world.

Marine Protected Areas

To meet the target to protect at least 10% of marine areas by 2020, Canada and other countries have created marine protected areas. While each country has its own legal frameworks to create marine protected areas, they share many similarities. Similiar to parks and protected areas on land, marine protected areas are identified areas in the ocean set aside for conservation that have specific management frameworks and permitted uses. Marine protected areas provide governments with the tools to exclude harmful human activities from taking place within their borders.

Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area. Source: Parks Canada

Marine mammals and fish are not static. I mentioned that 113 marine mammal and fish species are listed under SARA in Canada. The problem with species at risk legislation is that it tends to be overly focused on individual species and too often does not do enough to protect wider habitats and ecosystem functions that species rely upon. As with terrestrial ecosystems and species, effective ocean conservation depends on connectivity and networks of marine protected areas that are safeguarded from harmful human activities.

Creating Marine Protected Areas

In Canada, the government is using three main mechanisms for marine protection to create a network of protected areas, “established and managed within an integrated oceans management framework, that contributes to the health of Canada’s oceans and marine environments”.

Through various legislative frameworks, the Government of Canada can create Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), National Marine Conservation Areas (NMCAs), and National Marine Wildlife Areas. Each form of marine protection falls under the jurisdiction of different federal government departments and agencies and each takes a different approach to protection. Canada can also create what are referred to as Marine Refuges, areas of ocean closed to commercial fisheries but generally carry far less protection than the other three mechanisms of protection.

Canada’s marine protected areas network is being advanced in five priority marine bioregions: the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Scotian Shelf, the Newfoundland-Labrador Shelves, the Western Arctic, and the Northern Shelf. Source: Fisheries and Oceans Canada

The Government of Canada acknowledges that meeting its targets will require “collaborative and collective action” with multiple interests. Canada’s protected areas strategy includes an Indigenous Circle of Experts, a National Advisory Panel, and a National Steering Committee.

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In particular, the government states that meeting its targets “will rely on meaningful, full and effective participation of Aboriginal peoples, including First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples”. To that end, Canada has also recognized the need to respect Indigenous jurisdiction through the creation of Indigenous protected areas. (There is a lively and important discussion about the need to “decolonize conservation” and the historical impacts of nature preservation on Indigenous rights.)

“Canada’s natural spaces are a vital component of our culture, heritage, economy and our future, and they are of global importance.”

2020 Biodiversity Goals and Targets for Canada

As of June 2018, Canada has protected roughly 454 381 square kilometres of marine areas, contributing to 7.9% of its marine conservation targets (by contrast, we have protected 10.5% of terrestrial and freshwater areas).

Are Protected Areas Enough?

The problem with the international biodiversity targets and the marine protected areas model is that they focus strictly on achieving a quantitative area of protection but do not necessarily address the differences between cultural needs, ecosystem services protection, and the biodiversity value of areas.

In a recent paper published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia called for the development of “nature retention targets” focused on keeping natural systems and processes functioning. Martine Maron and colleagues note that even if we succeed in protecting 10% of ocean areas, most “evolutionary processes, ecological functions and biota are, and probably will always be, beyond the boundaries” of national jurisdictions.

Maron and colleagues argue that protected areas are being relied upon to achieve too many purposes beyond protecting biodiversity. Instead of focusing on a percentage of protected ocean areas, we need a multi-faceted approach that can address all the needs of biodiversity and humanity.  Such a multi-faceted approach will include protected areas but will not exclusively rely on them.

In a “nature retention” approach, we should focus on developing quantitative indicators for a desired global state of nature. For protected areas to be truly meaningful, we should establish area-based and quality-specific targets that clearly identify the intended benefits to nature conservation and human well-being.

The leatherback sea turtle, listed as endangered in Canada since 2012. Source: WWF

To be effective conservation tools, marine protected areas also need to have the teeth to exclude potentially harmful human activities. In fact, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which outlines six categories of protected areas and associated criteria, specifically excludes industrial activity from marine protected areas.

Unfortunately, in Canada, marine protected areas do not automatically exclude activities such as oil and gas exploration or shipping. For example, the Laurentian Channel Marine Protected Area, off the coast of Newfoundland, is set to remain open to oil and gas exploration in over 80% of its area, which could have potentially harmful effects for species such as the endangered leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea).


The future of biodiversity depends on healthy, functioning ecosystems. Since nature and wildlife are not static, it is difficult to address their needs with static lines on maps. As 2020 fast approaches, Canada and other countries are hurrying to meet their conservation targets. But we need to ensure that we are not simply checking the appropriate boxes without keeping an eye on the long-term goals of biodiversity conservation and nature retention.

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I’m optimistic about the attention that marine protection is currently receiving. If we can make marine protected areas meaningful and effective conservation tools, they are a great opportunity for the multiple levels of government in Canada to respect Indigenous jurisdiction and to advance conservation needs that have been recognized internationally.

Appise Bay in Nain, Nunatsiavut.

An exciting recent initiative for integrated and adaptive marine management and conservation is the Imappivut Marine Plan in Nunatsiavut, Labrador. In September 2017, Environment and Climate Change Canada and the Nunatsiavut Government (the Inuit regional government in Labrador) signed a Letter of Intent to develop a marine plan for the 48 690 square kilometres of coastal and marine areas within the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement. The Nunatsiavut Government is setting an important precedent in its work to develop a plan that represents the needs of human communities and marine ecosystems and species.

When addressing species at risk, we also need to focus on habitat level needs. Wildlife needs healthy, connected habitat that meets all of its needs. Canada’s record of species at risk management to date is not outstanding. The Government of Canada takes far too long to identify critical habitat for wildlife listed under SARA (a fundamental step in identifying recovery plans). At the provincial level, provincial governments have been slow to act to take strong management action for species at risk (see caribou in Alberta).

If we are going to effectively manage and conserve the world’s oceans (and land and freshwater) we need to focus on the needs of wildlife and ecosystems. As the world changes and faces new threats to biodiversity, our management approach and policies also need to change. We will need a system of adaptive management that can continue to address needs as they arise and respond to changing conditions – this might mean adjusting the borders of protected areas accordingly. It will certainly mean excluding harmful human activities from protected areas.

2 Comments on “Ocean Conservation Through Marine Protected Areas

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