VANCOUVER — The federal government marked World Oceans Day on Tuesday by moving to protect unique marine areas in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, including 9,000-year-old living reefs off the British Columbia coast.
Gail Shea, minister of fisheries and oceans, announced that two sites have been tabbed for designation as marine protected areas.
The first is in B.C.’s Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound, a region that’s home to the ancient glass sponge reefs up to nine storeys tall.
The second is within the Laurentian Channel off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador in an area occupied by a diverse mix of marine life, including whales.
The announcement was heralded by conservation groups, but the good news was hampered by the continuing ecological disaster occurring in the Gulf of Mexico.
For many conservationists, the ongoing oil spill off the U.S. Gulf coast is proof that even more needs to be done to protect Canada’s precious waters.
“Up until now, I have to say we’ve been a bit disappointed that overall governments haven’t done enough to protect our oceans,” Sabine Jessen, oceans program manager for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said in an interview.
“We still only have about one per cent of our ocean territories protected, so there’s still a long way to go and a lot of work to do.”
Jessen said World Oceans Day always spurs government announcements. So too, she said, has the oil spill in the gulf.
The World Wildlife Federation’s Canadian chapter said the spill should serve as a stark reminder that any risk to ocean ecosystems is a risk to the economy.
“Smart planning, careful stewardship, and effective management of our oceans are our best hope to achieve lasting benefits and sustainability for our ocean industries and coastal communities,” Darcy Dobell, a WWF-Canada spokeswoman, said in a written statement.
The organization said it hopes Ottawa’s recent announcements are the early steps towards the implementation of smart oceans management, adding that the federal government is making progress on its commitment to establish a marine protected area, albeit slowly.
Jennifer Lash, executive director of B.C.-based non-profit Living Oceans Society, said it long seemed as though little was being done to protect West Coast waters.
“For a long time, we didn’t see much of anything and it was quite discouraging,” she said in an interview.
“But now we’re starting to see some movement and I’m really starting to feel a little bit more confident that we will see better protection of our oceans.”
On Monday, Ottawa announced plans to expand protection for an area off B.C.’s northern coast known among conservationists as the “Galapagos of the North.” The federal government said it will protect a 3,500-square kilometre area covering the waters and seabed surrounding Gwaii Haanas national park.
Tuesday’s announcement means the two sites off B.C. and Newfoundland and Labrador are being considered for designation as marine protected areas. The designation is reserved for regions that significantly contribute to the health of marine ecosystems and Ottawa has committed to establishing a network of such sites by 2012.
Once a site is classified as an area of interest, it must undergo a detailed evaluation and public consultation process before earning the marine protected area designation.
Jessen said the glass sponge reefs are certainly deserving of such preservation.
The sponges live between 150 and 250 metres below the water. They are filter-feeding animals that can be found throughout the world, though only on the West Coast do they form reefs.
The extremely fragile reefs have been badly damaged in the past by fishermen trawling nets along the sea floor. The fishermen voluntarily stopped trawling in the area a few years ago and in 2007 the Department of Fisheries and Oceans began enforcing a ban.
“These are the only living glass sponge reefs known in the world and are precious beyond words,” Jessen said. Scientists had believed the reefs went extinct 30 million years ago until they were spotted in West Coast waters in 1987.
“It was like finding a herd of dinosaurs still on land.”
The area within the Laurentian Channel is a spawning, nursery and feeding area for a number of species, including the porbeagle shark. Marine mammals also migrate through the corridor while moving in and out of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.