Profiles in tragedy

Jennifer Hunter July 26 1999

Profiles in tragedy

Jennifer Hunter July 26 1999

Water Worlds

Ottawa wants to establish a network of protected marine areas, but progress is frustratingly slow


By John Geddes in Ottawa

Hal Whitehead calls it jousting. The Dalhousie University biologist watched with fascination last summer from his research vessel Balaena as two northern bottlenose whales, both males, circled towards each other near the surface, dove down a little, and then crashed heads. They repeated the ritual three times. What were they up to? “We just don’t know,” the whale researcher says. “It may be a competitive thing; it may be a friendship thing.” One thing he does know is where to find these litde-understood marine mammals again as he sets sail this August, hoping to catch sight of another jousting match. About 130 of the whales, up to eight-metre-long cousins of the much smaller, more familiar botdenose dolphin, live 200 km off Nova Scotia in an underwater canyon known simply as the Gully.

A few months ago,Whitehead was optimistic that by this summer detailed planning would be well under way for protecting the deep-water home of the whales he studies. But he has been disappointed. After a promising start last December, when federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister David Anderson designated the Gully as the first East Coast pilot project in his ambitious bid to establish a national network of marine protected areas, progress has been frustratingly slow.

Whitehead was expecting to be invited to join a working group to hammer out rules to safeguard the Gully, with participants drawn from the fishing industry, oil and gas exploration companies, environmental organizations, governments and science. To his surprise, Fisheries and Oceans dropped its plan to form the committee, at least for now. The department’s explanation: acrimony among the interest groups—particularly distrust between the fishing and offshore energy sectors—made it impossible to coax them into sitting down at one table. “I pushed personally for protection for the Gully,” Whitehead says. “But since it was designated, frankly, nothing much has happened.”

Unsteady progress is the rule, not the exception, as Ottawa takes its first steps towards setting aside a system of conservation zones beneath the seas to parallel the National Parks on land. The Gully is only one such case. Off the west coast, Anderson has designated four protected areas last summer and fall. But since then, detailed work has not even begun on specific plans for protecting these unique Pacific Ocean sites, which include undersea volcanoes and reefs richly populated with creatures from coral to sea lions. The conservation priorities vary widely among these pilot projects. For the Gully, the biggest worry is the prospect of exploration activity from the nearby Sable Island offshore gas fields encroaching on the whale habitat. For some west coast sites, more careful management of fishing around fragile, unusual ecosystems is a top concern.

But focusing on how to best safeguard the sites themselves is often taking a backseat to sorting out government roles and jurisdictions. In British Columbia, federal and provincial bureaucrats are locked in prolonged talks aimed at a broad framework for who will do what when it comes to conservation in B.C. waters. A full year has passed since a discussion paper on the subject was published jointly by Ottawa and Victoria, and “there is still no action plan,” complains Sabine Jessen, Vancouver-based executive director of

the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. And, she adds, “none of the details of how we are going to move forward are laid out.”

That means no decision on what fishing—if any—would be allowed in the protected areas and no plan for monitoring the sites or enforcing whatever restrictions are imposed.

Still, environmental groups and ocean researchers hesitate to criticize government officials for trying to sort out high-level issues before honing in on the areas slated for protection.

After all, Canadas oceans have fostered intricate political and bureaucratic ecosystems. At the federal level alone, three different government entities have roles in ocean conservation—leaving plenty of potential for confusion and conflict. The Canadian Wildlife Services enabling act was amended in 1994 to allow it to protect special marine habitats; Fisheries and Oceans got the legal authority to set aside marine protected areas with the passage of the new Oceans Act in 1997; and a new act under which Parks Canada will establish marine conservation areas is slated to be passed into law in the fall. “From a stricdy technical viewpoint, you probably would say, yes, it all could be rationalized,” Anderson allowed in an interview with Macleans. “On the other hand, with goodwill, it probably doesn’t matter.”

Whether enough goodwill exists up and down the government food chain to create an efficient oceans conservation system remains to be proven. Federal responsibilities are already sorted out—to some extent. Fisheries and Oceans is responsible for protecting unusual undersea sites, along with areas of critical importance for maintaining fish populations. Parks Canadas long-term aim is to set aside “representative” areas in 29 ocean zones already mapped out, with a focus on public education. The Canadian Wildlife Service is mainly responsible for marine areas that are vital to migratory birds. The provinces’ roles are less clearly defined, but can hardly be ignored: British Columbia already has an extensive network of small inshore protected marine sites and, like the Adantic provinces, it defends local fishing and aquaculture interests.

Those interests have already proven they have the clout to thwart efforts to set aside protected places. Last March, Parks Canada was forced to abandon a feasibility study into making Newfoundland’s Bonavista and Notre Dame bays the province’s first marine conservation area. Local fishing and

Canada’s oceans have fostered intricate political and bureaucratic ecosystems

aquaculture industries angrily opposed Ottawa even looking into the idea. Andy Mitchell, the federal secretary of state responsible for Parks Canada, says the setback taught Ottawa the importance of “being more aggressive in our education process.” Newfoundlanders were suspicious of Ottawa’s assurances that not all fishing would have been banned had a conservation area been established. But while he insists the opposition was ill informed, Mitchell nonetheless defends his decision to retreat. “One of the things that we’re absolutely firm on,” he told Macleans, “is that these marine conservation areas are going to be established in consultation with the local communities.”

Such consultations can take many years, with uncertain results. But Anderson also hopes a go-slow approach will eventually win over environmental groups. As it stands, organizations like the World Wildlife Fund credit Anderson—who generally gets high marks as a sincere champion of the environment—for pressing ahead. But the WWF, among other conservation groups, is worried about the absence of firm minimum standards in Anderson’s policy. Even oil and gas exploration and fishing by the controversial bottom-trawling method are not explicidy outlawed. Instead, the rules for each site are to be hammered out on a case-by-case basis. But Anderson predicts that the standards set for the first few sites will become, in effect, the bottom line for future protected areas: “As we get enough sites where we’ve got a site-specific minimum standard, we’ll start discovering norms.” Discoveries of a more compelling sort could be made this summer. Off Nova Scotia, Whitehead and his fellow researchers plan two expeditions to study their beloved northern botdenose whales. One of their recent finds: the whales dive to a stupendous 1,453 m—almost equal to the length of three CN Towers laid end to end—to feed in the Gully, far deeper than any whale was previously believed to venture on a routine basis. On the opposite coast, University of Victoria biologist Verena Tunnicliffe is using a submersible to study the Endeavour Hot Vents, a designated marine protected area 250 km southwest of Vancouver Island, where the tectonic plates of the ocean floor diverge and plumes of superheated, chemically complex fluid percolate up into the seawater— creating an almost alien environment. She says many species of strange barnacles, worms and other creatures that thrive around the hot vents are found nowhere else. Life under the sea can seem mysterious and untouched by the passage of time. And, as proponents of the new marine protection policies are learning, so can political decision-making. ES3