02/15/2017 13:13 EST | Updated 02/16/2018 00:12 EST

B.C. fishing industry upset over pending announcement of marine protection area

VANCOUVER — The federal government's decision to ban all fishing in some marine protected areas off Canada's west coast threatens the livelihoods of hundreds of Canadians and ignores years of discussions with the fishing industry, says the country's largest commercial fishermen's association.

Jim McIsaac, the Pacific vice-president of the Canadian Independent Fish Harvesters' Federation, said that an anticipated marine-conservation announcement by the Fisheries Department will hurt jobs and raise seafood prices.

"We've been sold down the road," McIsaac said on Wednesday, calling the move both extreme and unnecessary.

"We're more than disappointed," he added. "These are people's lives. These are people's livelihoods."

The federal government is expected to announce on Thursday a 2,000-square-kilometre marine conservation area comprising three sites between Vancouver Island and the archipelago of Haida Gwaii aimed at protecting the region's sensitive glass-sponge reefs.

The B.C. coast is believed to be one of the last remaining homes for glass-sponge reefs, described by the environmental organization Living Oceans as fragile relics of prehistoric times that were thought to have gone extinct before their rediscovery in the late 1980s.

Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc said in Vancouver on Wednesday that the government does not believe imposing fishing restrictions to protect the marine ecosystem is an either/or proposition, adding that it is possible to do so while balancing the interests of industry.

"People should be careful before they pull the fire alarm and tell Canadians that, as the government meets the commitments that we made to Canadians, it will necessarily have these devastating economic impacts," LeBlanc said.

"Obviously, that's not a view we have and we'll continue to work with the industry to make sure that's the case."

LeBlanc made the comments after announcing the government's official endorsement of a marine conservation agreement between federal, provincial and First Nations governments for Canada's Pacific coast.

The government is committed to meeting its target of protecting five per cent of Canada's marine ecosystem by the end of the year, and 10 per cent by 2020, he added.

Only about 1.3 per cent of Canada's ocean territory was protected when the federal Liberals were elected in late 2015.

McIsaac said the government's conservation announcement will have a "cascading effect" that could hurt workers, including those who crew the more than 50 boats that fish in the area and those involved in processing the catch.

The federation had proposed a plan to protect about 1,000 square kilometres of seabed but still allow fishing in the surrounding areas and in the water above the glass-sponge reefs, he said.

"From the fishing community's point of view, fishermen have been working on protecting sponge reefs for considerably longer than the seven years in the marine-protected-area process, McIsaac said.

Fishermen brought in a voluntary closure around the reefs in 2000 and endorsed an official closure under the Fisheries Act in 2002, he added.

"We're trying to protect the environment and our jobs, and that doesn't seem to be on the agenda," McIsaac said.

The federation represents 8,000 fishing industry workers across Canada.

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