In a report released Monday, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society points to flaws in Canada's marine protected areas — zones intended to conserve aquatic species and habitats under various provincial and federal legislation.
CPAWS says only 0.11 per cent of Canada's ocean territory is fully closed to what it calls extractive activities such as fishing and oil and gas development. The report says that in the United States and the United Kingdom the area is closer to 10 per cent.
Of the 23 federally managed marine protected areas (MPA's) the report focused on, CPAWS says eight allow for the possibility of oil and gas extraction and 14 contain no areas fully closed to fishing.
"For the most part, there is little difference between what is allowed inside our MPAs and what occurs outside their boundaries," the report says.
CPAWS spokeswoman Sabine Jessen says although conservation areas are established with the intention of protecting an ecosystem from human activities, this often does not hold true in practice.
"The next thing you know there's this long list, sometimes pages, of exemptions for all these different activities that in fact contravene the initial point of the regulations," said Jessen in an interview.
"On the land we don't allow hydroelectric development, logging, mining, oil and gas development inside our protected areas because we know those are going to impact the very values we're trying to protect. So why do we have this double standard when it comes to the ocean?"
The report expresses particular concern over the Laurentian Channel off Newfoundland and Labrador, an area being considered for protection by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The department's website says the area is "ecologically and biologically significant" and is home to at-risk species.
CPAWS says the federal proposal would still allow oil and gas drilling and seismic testing within the protected zone.
The department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the subject.
"In practice, the oil and gas industry will be able to extract oil and gas anywhere within the marine protected area," said Rodolphe Devillers, a geography professor at Memorial University in St. John's.
Devillers said in addition to the potential for industrial accidents, he is concerned about the disturbance to an ecosystem during the installation of oil and gas infrastructure.
The proposed Laurentian Channel zone would be the largest ocean conservation area in Canada, Devillers said. But he said it's a case of the federal government attempting to expand its protected area without putting the proper regulations in place.
"There is a race to have more protected areas, but those protected areas are not necessarily very effective or at the right places," said Devillers in an interview.
"Part of me really wants to see more protected areas, but another part wants to see meaningful ones."
Canada is a party to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, which has a target of protecting 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas worldwide by 2020.
CPAWS says marine protected areas cover one per cent of Canada's ocean territory.
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