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David Suzuki: Canada must do more for its oceans

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It's been 20 years since Canada's East Coast cod fishery collapsed, and we still have no recovery target or timeline for rebuilding populations. That's just one finding in a damning report from a panel of eminent Royal Society of Canada marine scientists.

Sustaining Canada's Marine Biodiversity notes that Canada has "failed to meet most of our national and international commitments to protect marine biodiversity" and "lags behind other modernized nations in almost every aspect of fisheries management."

For a country surrounded on three sides by oceans, with the longest coastline in the world, that's shameful. Beyond the jobs, recreational opportunities, food, medicines, and habitat that our oceans provide, they also give us life. Half the world's oxygen is produced in the oceans by phytoplankton, which are threatened by rising ocean temperatures and acidification because of global warming.

Successive federal governments have failed to recognize our oceans as much more than reservoirs of resources to exploit for short-term gain. You'd think the decline of the Northern cod fishery, largely caused by mismanagement, would have taught us something. Now, with some West Coast salmon fisheries on the verge of collapse, and little real effort to protect our oceans, it appears we can expect more of the same - unless we start demanding more from our government.

The Royal Society panel focused on climate change, fisheries, and aquaculture, "because of their potential for impact on Canada's marine biodiversity." The problem, it found, was not an absence of knowledge, science, or policy, but rather "a consistent, disheartening lack of action on well-established knowledge and best-practice and policies, some of which have been around for years."

Canada's Fisheries Act, which dates back to 1868, doesn't mention conservation. Our 1997 Oceans Act has yet to be effectively implemented. And the Species at Risk Act has been largely inadequate. Although Canada has made an international commitment to establish a protected network covering 10 per cent of our ocean territory, it has protected less than one per cent.

In fact, the federal government recently rejected millions of dollars in funding for a collaborative effort to establish a marine spatial plan and network of protected areas in Canada's Pacific North Coast waters. First Nations, industry, the provincial and federal governments, and environmental organizations, including the David Suzuki Foundation, had been making progress on the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area (PNCIMA) for years, but the federal government stymied the process by failing to invest adequate funding and by rejecting support from a philanthropic organization.

It's reason? The government was worried that marine protected areas and marine use plans based on ecosystem science might restrict oil tanker traffic. The loss of more than $8 million dollars from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation was a blow to the process, and the government has not stepped in to make up for the shortfall.

Rather than protect the Pacific's valuable resources, opportunities, and habitat on which 40 per cent of the world's marine mammal species and countless other plants and animals depend, it appears the government would rather risk it all by pushing the Northern Gateway pipeline project to ship crude bitumen from the tar sands through precarious Pacific Coast waterways to China and California.

The report also notes that climate change could drive some salmon species to extinction, that increasing acid levels could harm "everything from corals to mussels to lobsters", and that fish farming can harm wild stocks through spread of parasites and diseases and interbreeding.

Besides an apparent lack of interest on the part of government regarding the health of Canada's oceans, the report identifies a major problem that puts us behind most developed nations: a "major conflict of interest at Fisheries and Oceans Canada between its mandate to promote industrial and economic activity and its responsibility for conserving marine life and ocean health."

The panel offered a number of sensible recommendations, which include addressing the conflict of interest and living up to our national and international commitments to marine biodiversity.

Our government is gaining a reputation for ignoring or discounting the advice of scientists. Let's tell our leaders that our future depends on the future of the oceans and that this advice must be heeded. The science is clear: it's time to do more.

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