With the recent announcement from the Federal Fisheries Minister, Dominic LeBlanc, on the Marine Protected Area (MPA) surrounding the Hecate Strait Sponge reefs and the resulting fishery closure, it is hard to identify what the government's commitment of protecting 5% of Canada's ocean by this year and a further 10% commitment by 2020 actually means.

An MPA is a zone in the ocean designated by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans with tighter regulations aiming to conserve and protect something endangered, unique or ecologically important.

The federal government has been consistent in their message of committing to 5% of Canada’s oceans by year-end 2017 and up to 10% by 2020. This was an election promise that has, in turn, become a directive.

Prior to the latest announced MPA Hecate Strait Glass-Sponge Reef, 3.2% of BC's coastal waters are already part of 200 existing MPA’s. The Hecate Strait MPA brings it up to 3.7% with an extra 2410 Square km’s of coverage.

The Hecate Strait Glass Sponge Reefs are up to 9,000 years old and can be many stories high in some cases. When discovered in early 2,000, DFO and the industry closed this area to bottom contact. Since then, the DFO worked in consultation with all the stakeholders to develop an adaptive management zone around the reefs to allow fishing while monitoring effects on the reefs. However, when the MPA was in the gazetting process, ENGO delivered a mass email campaign of 1,300 emails to close all fisheries within the MPA. One theory being it is not a park unless someone is shut out. When the minister considered this, he changed the consulted agreement and closed the adaptive management zone to fishing. He has now stated ¨we will monitor the area and consider the results from further research on the specific risks of various fishing methods to the reefs¨.

The next MPAs would be the Scott Island National Wilderness Area, a large offshore MPA, as well as PNCIMA. The Scott Island NWA, which was to have none of the existing fisheries to be affected and a permanent closure of a few non-existent fisheries, will likely be the next designated MPA (it has already been gazetted). However, with the gazetting process feeding off the success achieved in the Hecate Strait fishery closure, the ENGO’s ramped up the campaign taking to social media and had upwards of 11,000 responses. Mostly in the form of form letters.

If the government closes these fisheries that have no effect on the stated goals of the MPA of protecting various birds, it could have a far-reaching effect. Between 4-11% of the halibut TAC is taken from within these waters. The tuna fishery spends substantial time in these waters. Lingcod, salmon,  sablefish and trawl would lose significant grounds, negatively affecting coastal communities that rely on these fisheries for employment. It would be a devastating blow to BC’s commercial fishery.  

A fishery closure in the large offshore MPA would have less effect on most fisheries but would hit the tuna fisheries strongly. North Pacific Albacore Tuna are highly migratory and spend very little of their lifecycle in BC waters. After spending their first year close to where they are hatched in the central Pacific, they migrate in their juvenile years to the Pacific Northwest between July and October. Once mature, the North Pacific albacore spend their remaining life in warmer waters of the central Pacific. Imagining how a fishery closure would contribute to protecting BC’s offshore environment is particularly hard since it depends on the goals of a large offshore MPA.

With the ENGOs using their political will to promote fishery closures, it is important for the fishing industry to stand together and use its political will to counterbalance the argument. This means, putting some of our issues aside to work together to ensure fishery closures are to protect ecological areas, like the Hecate Strait Sponge Reef, rather than a closure for the sake of a closure.