Canada has signed international commitment to protect its ocean estate. However, Trudeau’s plans to increase offshore oil exploration will undermine protection targets explains Sabine Jessen, Ocean Programs Director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society
D. LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News. On June 18th, the party of France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, won a large majority of seats in France’s parliamentary elections. Although the importance of that victory was diminished somewhat by a record low turnout, President Macron wasted no time in announcing an ambitious policy in the battle to address potentially catastrophic climate change. His new ecological transitions minister, the popular environmentalist Nicolas Hulot, stated that France will issue a moratorium on new oil and gas exploration licenses. Among other things, the moratorium will essentially kill development of fracking in mainland France and in the country’s overseas territories. Meanwhile, another young and telegenic Western leader, Justin Trudeau, made a very different sort of announcement. On Friday of last week, Canada’s Trudeau government proposed to allow oil and gas exploration in a new marine protected area that it plans to establish where the Gulf of St. Lawrence meets the Atlantic Ocean. The establishment of the marine protected area is part of Trudeau’s promise to set aside 10% of Canada’s coastal waters by 2020 for protection. But environmental groups and ocean scientists argue that Ottawa is undermining the effort by allowing future oil and gas exploration in that zone. Now here to discuss this with us is Sabine Jessen. Sabine is the national director of the Oceans Program for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. She also serves as the marine conservation director for the British Columbia chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and she has served as an advisor to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, BC Parks, the British Columbia Commission on Resources and Environment, and the Economic Council of Canada. Sabine joins us today from Vancouver. Thanks for joining us, Sabine. SABINE JESSEN: A pleasure to be here. D. LASCARIS: Sabine, last year you coauthored a study that examined the progress that has been made in protecting North America’s marine environment. The study found that in North America, Canada is the furthest behind in protecting the ocean, and it also stated as follows, “Based on our analysis, our overall conclusion is that there remains a long way to go in reaching national and international targets to protect at least 10% of the ocean estate in North American countries. Overall, less than 1% of continental North America’s ocean estate is protected and only 0.04% is in fully protected areas that scientists say are the best hope to protect ocean ecosystems for the long term.” My question, Sabine, is what is the ocean estate, and why is it important that the ocean estate be protected? SABINE JESSEN: The ocean estate basically goes from a country’s coastline out to the 200-mile limit of the exclusive economic zone, so it takes in two parts of the ocean territories: the territorial sea and the exclusive economic zone. In Canada, we have the longest coastline in the world, and we have a very large ocean estate, but we have in the past done very little despite those commitments we’ve made to actually protect it through marine protected areas. D. LASCARIS: Let’s talk about those commitments for a moment. Canada is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. What are the main obligations that this convention imposes on Canada? SABINE JESSEN: In 2010, under the convention the signatories including Canada agreed that by 2020 we would protect at least 10% of our ocean estate. As you noted, in our report last year, we were at less than 1%. Now the Trudeau government when it came in, they did make significant commitments to actually meet those targets. We’ve had the targets for a while, and they actually said they’re going to meet them. In fact, they actually set themselves a very ambitious interim target of protecting 5% by the end of this year. D. LASCARIS: Right. What is the actual extent of the protection today? SABINE JESSEN: With some recent announcements, we are at, if you count everything regardless of how well it’s protected, we are at 1.54%. D. LASCARIS: If I might just focus on the phrase “that are protected to some extent,” I think you said- SABINE JESSEN: Yeah. D. LASCARIS: [inaudible 00:04:41] to the convention, you talked about the amount of ocean estate that must be protected under the convention. The convention specify exactly what protection means, and if so, what does it say about that? SABINE JESSEN: The whole purpose of a Convention on Biological Diversity is to halt the decline in species and habitats both on land and in the ocean. The commitment applies to the land, as well as the sea because we are seeing biodiversity decline globally at a huge rate, so the convention is all about getting countries to do more to stop that decline. One of the best tools to do that, not the only tool but one of the best tools, is through protected areas that protect all elements of biodiversity in a particular place. That means if you’re protecting all of biodiversity, you’re not allowing industrial uses, you’re not allowing things in the ocean like industrial-scale commercial fishing because those are the things that really significantly impact the species and the habitats that you’re trying to protect. D. LASCARIS: To a layperson like myself, protecting 10% of the ocean estate does not sound like a particularly ambitious goal because it implies that 90% of the ocean estate is unprotected. SABINE JESSEN: Yes. Yes. D. LASCARIS: Is protecting 10% of the ocean estate, let’s talk about the science, not political reality, truly adequate from a scientific perspective to ensure the long-run health of marine ecosystems? Or a 10% threshold simply the best outcome the signatories to this convention could agree upon given the political realities of the time? SABINE JESSEN: I think it’s very definitely the 10%, and is at least 10%, that that very much is a political target because globally we were just so far behind protecting the ocean compared to the land, although the land target is only 17%. But you’re absolutely right. From a scientific perspective and everything we know, the science on the ocean side is it’s at least 30% that needs to be protected. There’s a growing global movement to say we should really be protecting at least half. Surely, it’s enough for us to use half as one species that we share the planet with and allow half for the rest. So that is something that is being talked about quite a bit now internationally. D. LASCARIS: A very recent study in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution concluded that oil and gas exploration will cause significant damage to the marine environment. What type of damage would that type of exploration likely cause in the Gulf of St. Lawrence where this particular marine protected area is situated? SABINE JESSEN: What that study addressed was the use of seismic exploration techniques, which is basically sending sound waves into the ocean, and that helps them map and find non-renewable resources buried in the seabed. We have known for a long time that seismic activities are very harmful to marine mammals, but what this study showed is that it’s also very harmful to the zooplankton, the smallest creatures that live in the ocean that sustain the entire food web. They were shocked at their results, and they are very concerned that by allowing seismic activity in the ocean, we are actually undermining the entire marine food web. D. LASCARIS: Of course, if you’re going to conduct … There’s no point to conducting exploration unless you’re going to actually exploit any economically viable reserves that you find, and that presumably is going to create a whole range of other negative effects upon the marine protected area. SABINE JESSEN: Of course, yeah. Because if you do find something, then you’re getting into drilling and the potential for spills and all the other things that are associated with oil and gas development in the offshore. D. LASCARIS: I understand that there are offshore petroleum boards for the Canadian Maritime Provinces of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. What authority do these boards have over marine protected areas, and what influence, if any, does industry have over the boards themselves? SABINE JESSEN: The boards themselves, the legislation establishing those boards gives them supremacy over every other piece of legislation that applies to the ocean. So if the board won’t agree to a prohibition on oil and gas activity in, say, a proposed marine protected area, then, for example, Fisheries and Oceans Canada can’t prohibit it because it’s up to the board. So in the example, recently Canada established St. Anns Bank off Nova Scotia, in that case, offshore oil and gas was prohibited. But in the case of Laurentian Channel in Newfoundland offshore region, the board, I guess, has declined to allow for a prohibition in that marine protected area. D. LASCARIS: Do industry representatives or persons with close links to, for example, the fossil fuels industry, do they sit on these boards? SABINE JESSEN: The boards are governed by the province. It’s a joint board between the province and the federal government, so it’s established by those two levels of government to govern how oil and gas exploration and development occurs in the joint areas. D. LASCARIS: I want to just conclude our discussion by going back to the statements I made at the outset about the recent announcement by the French government. I talked about the French government’s moratorium on new oil and gas exploration licenses. France produces far less oil and gas than Canada but has a population that is almost twice as large as Canada’s. Also, Canada is a country that is really no less wealthy than France. In light of these facts, I wonder if France can impose a moratorium on new and oil and gas exploration, why can’t Canada’s Trudeau government do the same thing? SABINE JESSEN: I don’t know. I have no idea why we haven’t done that and why, even in the areas that we’re saying that we’re trying to protect for biodiversity, we can’t even prohibit it in those areas. I really don’t understand this thinking. D. LASCARIS: This has been Dimitri Lascaris speaking to Sabine Jessen about the Trudeau government’s announcement that it is going to allow oil and gas exploration in the marine protected area in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Thank you for speaking to us today, Sabine. SABINE JESSEN: Thank you. D. LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.