Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure for me to speak today on an issue that is so important to the people I represent in North Island—Powell River. The history of my riding is defined by its surrounding marine environment. The ocean is important to our culture, economy, and identity. The richness and biodiversity provide enormous potential for both present and future generations. The ocean provides numerous opportunities for commercial, recreational, and aboriginal fisheries; tourism; transportation; education; and biological research.
Today I am happy to be speaking to Bill C-55, an act to amend the Oceans Act and the Canada Petroleum Resources Act. This act deals with marine protected areas, or MPAs for short. Despite supporting this bill, I hope to convey in the latter part of my speech that we, the New Democrats, have serious questions about it.
We need to be proactive in our conservation efforts to protect marine ecosystem functions, species, and habitats for future generations. Many ecosystems are under threat. A healthy and productive ecosystem is key to achieving sustainability and the harvest of living ocean resources.
In 2010, Canada agreed to marine conservation targets established under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity to conserve 10% of coastal and marine areas, through effective management networks of protected areas and other affected area-based conservation measures, by 2020. The commitment was reconfirmed in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly's 2030 agenda for sustainable development.
Since signing the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in 1992, Liberal and Conservative governments have dragged their feet. Where are we today? Canada has only protected 1.5% of its oceans within marine protected areas. Canada ranks near the very bottom of protecting our ocean biodiversity, following behind China, at 1.6%, and Japan, at 5.6%. Australia and the United States have come out on top, with 33.2% and 30.4% protected areas respectively.
The current process for establishing and managing MPAs under the Oceans Act is long and tedious. My support for this bill is based on the fact that it provides some new legal tools to speed up the creation of marine protected areas. Specifically, it would empower the minister to designate marine protected areas by order and to prohibit certain activities in those areas. This bill would clarify the role the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans in establishing a national network of MPAs.
As a country, we are still falling short of our international commitments to protect our marine biodiversity. I see this as an accountability measure. When Canada fails to meet our targets, the minister can rest assured that the responsibility will fall solely on his shoulders. There is no more time for excuses.
Bill C-55 would increase ministerial powers to terminate private resource interests in MPAs and would create stronger penalties for those found violating the rules. Specifically, it would update and strengthen the powers of enforcement officers. It would update the act's offence provisions, in particular to increase the amount of fines and to provide that ships may be subject to the offence provisions, and it would create new offences for a person or ship that engaged in prohibited activities within a marine protected area.
The issue of enforcement officers is a big concern in my riding. Many indigenous communities I represent have come to me wanting to do more than just watch what happens to the oceans in their traditional territory. They want to help. Repeatedly, these communities have talked to the minister's office about resources to train their people to support the protection and defence of their traditional lands. This is an area where the minister's office must start to move forward. When I think of the multiple spills in the ocean in my riding, for example, the indigenous people were there immediately. With the proper training, they could have supported the tracking of the impact, which we actually have very little information on. Protecting our oceans must include the people who have lived on the land from time immemorial.
As far as the MPA minimum standards go, these are steps in the right direction. However, to have a complete picture, one must look at what MPAs really do. In this context, we are not talking about marine protected areas in a generic context; we are referring specifically to the DFO program under the Oceans Act.
A marine protected area is an area of sea that forms part of the internal waters of Canada, the territorial sea of Canada, or the exclusive economic zone of Canada and has been designated under this section for special protection.
While this lofty definition to increase conservation is wonderful, there is little backing up how it will be done. Let me explain. This bill fails to set minimum protection standards and targets for zoning for marine protected areas, which would render the designation inconsistent at best and meaningless at worst. A lack of minimum protection standards for MPAs would make the rules so inconsistent and permissive that most MPAs would allow commercial fishing. One would even allow oil and gas exploration. I do not know how members feel, but I think oil and gas extraction is not compatible with conservation and should never be permitted inside a protected area. National parks have standards. Why can our marine areas not have the same?
According to Rudolphe Devillers, professor of geography at Memorial University, “Scientific studies have shown again and again that stricter protection provides greater biodiversity benefits”. Canada needs to set strong protection standards, in line with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and set legislated protection targets if it is to meet its international commitments.
At present, just over 1% of Canada's oceans are protected, an area just a bit larger than Nova Scotia. Only a tiny portion of our ocean, approximately 0.01%, is highly protected, meaning that no fishing or oil and gas extraction is allowed inside the MPA.
By not setting minimum protection standards, the Liberals are trying to appear progressive by almost meeting targets but have not made the hard choices to protect biodiversity. This is not only the NDP bringing up this important issue. Widespread opposition from environmentalists, from the WWF to CPAWS, has raised the issue. Fifteen university scientists from St. John's to Victoria have written to both the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and the Minister of Environment and Climate Change asking for stiffer conservation measures in Canada's 12 marine conservation areas as well as those being proposed for the future.
According to Linda Nowlan, staff counsel, West Coast Environmental Law:
These proposed amendments are useful short-term additions to the federal Oceans Act and related oil and gas laws, but they could and should go much farther. For the long arm of the law to be truly effective we need...stronger legal powers like minimum protection standards, and requiring ecological integrity as the foremost priority in MPA management. With a vast area in three seas within our boundaries—and the world’s longest coastline—Canada must implement a forceful, modern Oceans Act.
Bill C-55 would give the minister far too much latitude to decide what activities were permissible in an MPA. The minister would have the authority to list all the permissible activities that were ongoing activities in a marine protected area. The minister could also repeal the order that designated marine protected areas in the first place just five years later.
Liberal promises on ocean protection and environmental protection are still mostly talk. Canadians do not want to see more Harper targets and exemptions for the oil and gas sector.
I do not think we could discuss the protection of the environment without the involvement of coastal first nations. They are important parties in the decisions about how to conserve marine biodiversity and resources in B.C. As B.C.'s first peoples, coastal first nations have a long-standing historical connection to the ocean and its resources. While first nation community conservation areas have the potential to contribute to the MPA network goals, in most cases these areas would not qualify as MPAs, according to the definition. Bill C-55 makes no mention of this specifically. However, I know how important the sustained biodiversity in our coastal communities is, especially the ones I represent. In my riding, many first nation communities are spread across some of the most remote and beautiful places. They live on the ocean and are already doing the important work. An increase in training to support them in protecting the ocean just makes sense.
In my concluding remarks, I would like to ask the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans to take a stand, listen to experts, and amend this act to include minimum standards for marine protection areas. Our planet deserves it.
I also hope that the Liberal government will finally fully implement the Cohen Commission recommendations. In my riding, there are serious concerns being raised about fish farms. This was a promise—