Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs, are relatively new to Atlantic Canada, arriving in May of 2004 with the establishment of The Gully off Nova Scotia’s eastern shore. Here is a 2,364 square kilometre stretch of ocean under special management for its contributions to coastal ecology, our first such safe-house but far from our last.
In the next two years it would be joined by the Musquash Estuary, Gilbert Bay, Basin Head and Eastport MPAs, each comparatively small and as diverse in design as the assets they protect, from lobster spawning grounds in the waters of Newfoundland to Bottlenose whale habitat along the Scotian Shelf.
Dr Anna Metaxas is a marine ecologist and professor with Dalhousie’s Department of Oceanography, specializing in ocean floor invertebrates such as lobsters, mussels, urchins, barnacles, sponges and even deepwater corals. It’s often this so-called “benthic community” which MPAs are built around, thus earning her professional attention.
“They work,” she said, naming MPAs a powerful tool in the protection of unique or vulnerable ecosystems, spawning or feeding grounds, and of species endangered or overtaxed.
Because of restrictions imposed on fishers, however, MPAs have met with skepticism from both industry and individuals, particularly in the case of St Anns Bay east of Cape Breton Island, declared protected on June 8 of 2017. The majority of this MPA’s 4,364 square kilometres are off limits to extraction of any kind, with aboriginal exceptions. Some of its zones allow commercial fishing in forms considered safe to local ecology, but for the most part, these waters are closed.
Dr Metaxas puts this closure into context – counting all our regional MPAs, fisheries closures and Areas Of Interest (regions under consideration for MPA status) we fall just shy of protecting 5 per cent of Atlantic Canadian waters. Our federal government has set a goal of 10 per cent for all Canadian waters by 2020.
“10 per cent is not a lot of ocean,” she said. “You can treat it as we’re closing 10 per cent, or you can treat it as we’re keeping open 90 per cent. There is no question that, with certain MPAs, some fishers are going to be displaced and they’ll have to go elsewhere. There’s no other way of doing this; this is what it takes to have a healthy ocean which, at the end of the day, will help fisheries.”
As she describes it, the overall bolstering of marine ecology made possible by MPAs more than makes up for the waters we’ve closed on their behalf, and, incidentally, the waters we must continue to close. While 10 per cent is an exciting step forward, Dr Metaxas said it’s far from enough.
“The science indicates that you need to have at least 30 per cent protection to maintain biodiversity and a healthy functioning ocean,” she said, going on to say this network of MPAs must be representative of our region’s varied ecosystems, well enforced and designed with connectivity in mind. And still, the majority of Atlantic Canadian waters will be open for business.
“There’s no question that if we want to save the oceans, parts of it will have to be closed to extraction, whether that’s mineral resources or fishing.”
The newly minted St Anns Bay Marine Protected Area is our first in over a decade and exemplifies many of Dr Metaxas’ criteria, possessing a diverse ecosystem and standing as a migratory pathway to and from the Gulf of St Lawrence, its borders containing overwintering and feeding grounds for innumerable species, commercial and otherwise. Its establishment might require the relocation of some regional fishing operations, but its contributions to surrounding ocean could be considerable.
“This is actually a true Marine Protected Area that encompasses a number of depleted species and a number of distinct habitats,” she said. “It’s a productive area and it’s representative of the eastern Scotian Shelf.”
Dr Metaxas cautions that the benefits of MPAs to fish species are no replacement for fish stock management itself, merely another tool to be used in conjunction with others. After all, fish move, and their treatment outside MPAs is as important as their treatment inside. And protected areas take time, she said, both to establish and to affect change, so the rise of MPAs in Atlantic Canada can be treated, quite rightly, as an investment in the future.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, author, and writer active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with the Chronicle Herald.