Canada's Oceans Need Meaningful Protections. Here's Why

10/27/2016 03:14 EDT | Updated 10/27/2016 03:23 EDT
Barrett & MacKay via Getty Images
Mating North Atlantic Right Whales, Eubalaena glacialis, Grand Manan Basin, Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, Canada

Written by Bettina Saier, Vice-president, oceans

The world's oceans cover 70 per cent of the planet's surface and produce more than half the oxygen that sustains all life, but they're suffering, according to the Living Planet Report 2016.

The report's Living Planet Index shows a 36 per cent overall decline of ocean species between 1970 and 2012 and identifies overexploitation as the biggest threat to ocean species, followed by habitat loss and climate change. Almost one-third (31 per cent) of fish stocks globally are harvested at unsustainable levels, an increase since the last Living Planet Report in 2014.

This degradation of habitat threatens human lives and livelihoods as well, both globally and closer to home. Canada has already seen the kind of species declines and fishery collapses the Living Planet Report describes. In the late 1980s, cod stocks around Newfoundland plummeted due to historical overfishing and changing environmental conditions, and even after a moratorium was declared in 1992, many feared the species had been pushed to extinction.

Marine mammals such as the North Atlantic right whale are threatened by shipping collisions and entanglement in fishing gear. Beluga whales are threatened by chemical and noise pollution, as well as loss of habitat. And all species in Canada will feel the effects of climate change, which is happening faster than species can adapt.

With the world's longest coastline and rich marine life in all three oceans, Canada should be a leader in ocean protection.

It's easy to focus on the large, impressive ocean mammals, but those big animals need a lot of smaller fish for food. Forage fish -- small prey species like herring and capelin -- need to be abundant to sustain the larger ones, all the way up the food chain. Forage fish are vulnerable to climate change and overfishing, and at least three Canadian forage fish stocks are known to be in critical condition. There could be more in trouble -- we just don't know, WWF-Canada found in this recent study of the state of forage fish in Canada.

A first step to slow biodiversity loss in our oceans is to develop a network of marine protected areas that shelter ocean life and habitats, giving species and their habitat a place to recover from human impacts like pollution or overfishing, in the same way that national parks do on land.

At the moment, Canada only protects about one per cent of its oceans and Great Lakes, though it has committed to increasing that to 10 per cent by 2020. Expanding the area protected, and including meaningful minimum standards that would prevent oil and gas exploration and significant commercial fishing, could make a great difference to species and habitats, and possibly even reverse some of the biodiversity declines we've seen in our oceans.

The Living Planet Report 2016 sounds the alarm, but we're the ones responsible for responding to the call. With the world's longest coastline and rich marine life in all three oceans, Canada should be a leader in ocean protection. Ocean health can be restored. Now's the time to make critical changes.

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