01/21/2013 05:11 EST | Updated 03/22/2013 05:12 EDT

Progress slow on marine protection areas, report finds

A new report from an environmental group says the federal government is moving too slowly in setting aside marine areas for environmental protection.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society was urging Ottawa to have a network of 12 protected sites by the end of 2012.

In its report released Monday, the group says that while that didn't happen overall, progress is also too slow.

Sabine Jensen, national oceans manager for CPAWS, credits the government for progress it has made in four areas: St. Anns Bank, the Hecate Strait glass sponge reefs, the southern strait of Georgia and the Scott Islands off the coast of British Columbia.

But Jensen says in many other areas — from the Bay of Fundy to the Arctic Ocean's Lancaster Sound — there has been little progress. In the meantime Jensen says industrial activity continues.

"One example I can give you is on the West Coast, in Hecate Strait in British Columbia, where we're trying to protect the glass sponge reefs. One of the issues that's been raised by the scientists is the fact that the sponges are very sensitive to sedimentation issues," Jensen said.

"And current trawling occurs right adjacent to those sponge reefs. And so if we don't stop that trawling and that continues they could be smothered and that could affect their long-term health."

Jensen worries that progress isn't going to get better in 2013 either. She points to the staff cuts at Environment Canada and Parks Canada last year.

"As we lose both science capacity and planning and management capacity, it does suggest that things are going to go slower rather than faster," Jensen said.

Kent defends department's progress

The federal environment minister says he understands Jensen's impatience.

Butt Peter Kent says declaring an area a protected site isn't as easy as drawing a circle on the map.

"The consultation process, the inter-departmental consideration, the discussions and negotiations with local, regional governments, provincial and territorial governments, First Nations, all take time," Kent said.

Kent said his department is working as quickly as it can, and he points to all the work his government has done since getting elected to protect other areas, both off the coast and on land.

Jensen however points to Australia as an example where governments can move quickly to create protected marine areas.

"They have just finished a national network that now amounts to — if you look at everything they have protected in their ocean — 36 per cent of their ocean territory and we have one per cent. So we see that it can be done," she said.

The federal government has committed to protecting 10 per cent of its marine areas by 2020.

Jensen is skeptical that target will be met unless Ottawa picks up the pace.

Kent concedes that even though his department is working as quickly as possible, he can't guarantee his government will hit that target either.