Most Marine Protected Areas in Canada Have Room for Improvement

Leading conservationist discusses new research and how minimum standards could help the country meet conservation targets

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Most Marine Protected Areas in Canada Have Room for Improvement
Bull kelp off the coast near Queen Charlotte Lodge in British Columbia.
Bull kelp off the coast near Queen Charlotte Lodge in British Columbia.
Duane Fuerter

With the longest coastline and one of the largest ocean jurisdictions in the world, Canada is home to some of the most productive and diverse marine ecosystems on the planet. Yet this rich marine biodiversity, on which our own health and well-being depends, is being degraded at an unprecedented and accelerating rate.

Marine protected areas (MPAs) can reverse biodiversity loss and help marine species, ecosystems, and the people who rely on them adapt to climate change. But to do so, they need to meet minimum protection standards—which establish a critical baseline on which to build but, historically, have been a challenge to define. In September 2021, the journal Science published the peer-reviewed paper “The MPA Guide: A Framework to Achieve Global Goals for the Ocean,” which outlined a simple but robust scoring framework of how well-protected and managed an MPA is, and thus how effective it will be in producing economic and social benefits. 

Over the past five years, Canada has gone from global laggard to world leader in the area of ocean protection by increasing the percentage of its waters that are covered by MPAs from 1% to 14%—and by committing to ambitious targets of 25% by 2025 and 30% by 2030. Alex Barron is the national director of the ocean program at the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), a nongovernmental conservation organization. CPAWS has played a key role in securing these commitments and works to support the establishment and effective management of MPAs in Canada while respecting the sovereignty and leadership of Indigenous nations.

This interview with Barron has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Can you tell us about the work your organization, CPAWS, does on marine protected areas?

Alex Barron of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society photographs northern gannets at Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Alex Barron of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society photographs northern gannets at Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Sabine Jessen

A: The CPAWS mission for Canada’s ocean is simple: more MPAs, better MPAs, and MPAs in the right places. Since 2012, we’ve issued an annual report to assess the country’s progress toward protection targets, to evaluate protection standards, and to compare progress with other countries. The goals of these reports are to drive public dialogue and provide information and recommendations to strengthen policy and action on specific MPAs.

When we did our 2016 report with the U.S.-based nonprofit Marine Conservation Institute, we found that there was not a standardized measure of MPA protection or implementation that applied to Canadian, U.S., and Mexican MPAs. This made comparisons and evaluations of sites really difficult.

Q: Did Science’s recent publication of “The MPA Guide” help with that?

A: The development of “The MPA Guide” was informed by some of these early struggles and driven by a global concern about poor protection standards. CPAWS was thrilled to be the first organization to use it to assess Canada’s MPAs in our recently published report, “The MPA Monitor: Assessing Canada’s Marine Protected Areas.”

Canada counts a number of different sites, which have varied levels of protection, toward its 30% by 2030 marine conservation targets. In our 2021 report, we focused on federal MPAs that are established under the strongest legal tools and should, theoretically, be the best protected in Canada. We assessed 18 sites based on elements in “The MPA Guide” and relative to the federal government’s minimum standards to paint an evidence-based picture of where the country stands on ocean protection, and to provide recommendations for strengthening Canada’s MPAs.

Q: What are “minimum protection standards,” and why are they important?

A: In 2019, CPAWS, along with other conservation groups, raised concerns about the integrity of some Canadian MPAs. For instance, at one time the Laurentian Channel MPA was going to prohibit all fishing but allow oil and gas activities. This undermined the effectiveness of the MPA’s protections by permitting industrial pursuits that could disturb, damage, or destroy marine life. In response, the federal government announced minimum protection standards for new MPAs that prohibited the most harmful activities—bottom trawling, oil and gas activities, mining, and dumping—from occurring within an MPA boundary. This was a major step forward in our work to improve Canada’s MPAs because the minimum protection standards offer some certainty to stakeholders and communities about what can and cannot occur within the boundaries of a protected area. The government is currently working to operationalize the standards, with clear definitions and policy or legal tools to ensure they’re implemented in all new federal MPAs.

Q: How did CPAWS apply “The MPA Guide” to the analysis?

A: “The MPA Guide” consists of four elements: Stage of Establishment, Level of Protection, Enabling Conditions, and Outcomes. As an early tester of the framework, we were provided with information to assess the Stage of Establishment and Level of Protection elements and ensure the framework and decision support tool was applicable in the Canadian context. The guide was still being finalized while we were evaluating Canadian sites, so we didn’t have direction to assess the other elements. We’ll review those in the future.

For our analysis, we reviewed a range of MPA materials, including legislation and associated documents such as regulatory impact assessment statements, management plans, monitoring reports, and feasibility studies. We also consulted with local experts in cases where the publicly available information was limited.

It wasn’t an easy process. Legislation is rarely crystal clear and usually requires interpretation. We sometimes had to piece together what activities were happening in an area from multiple sources of information. For example, a regulation might tell you what sort of fishing is prohibited, but not what sort of fishing is still allowed. Additionally, Indigenous fishing rights are constitutionally protected in Canada, and so Indigenous fishing is allowed in Canadian MPAs. Because Indigenous fishing is a complex issue and there is limited information available on Indigenous fishing and harvesting, we didn’t include this activity in our assessment. However, we acknowledge that all extraction activities will have some degree of impact.

In other cases, we had to infer the risk and impact to species or habitat based on likelihood of the activity occurring in that area and whether there might be fragile and sensitive ecosystems at risk. Most importantly, we had to keep reviewing all sites and comparing them against each other to ensure consistency.

Q: What findings stand out from your analysis of Canada’s federal MPAs?

A: Our analysis indicates that seven MPAs are strongly protected, eight are weakly protected, two are incompatible with biodiversity conservation, and one is proposed but not yet established. The results were heavily skewed by very large and weakly protected sites, such as the Scott Islands marine National Wildlife Area off British Columbia and Tuvaijuittuq interim MPA in the high Arctic.

We also found considerable regional differences in protection levels, with the more strongly protected MPAs generally found in Atlantic Canada, large but weakly protected MPAs in the Arctic, and a bit of a mixed bag in the Pacific.

Our analysis further revealed that just four MPAs met all four of the minimum protection standards and that if those standards were implemented across all sites, two MPAs would move from incompatible to weakly protected and another two would jump from weakly to strongly protected. This shows that the minimum standards do provide a critical baseline of protection.

Also, the federal government is counting other sites toward its marine protection targets that are not included in this analysis. We’ll be evaluating those sites in the future.

Q: Your report notes that Indigenous-led conservation and co-management is critical to the future of marine conservation in Canada. Can you explain what you mean by that?

A: Here in Canada, governance and equitability, and the importance of Indigenous leadership, is a major concern. Recognizing the authority of Indigenous peoples to steward their waters and, at a minimum, co-govern MPAs in Canada is absolutely fundamental. What’s more, Indigenous co-management can improve conservation outcomes while protecting areas of cultural significance. At CPAWS, our work must always be done through a lens of equity.

Q: How can your latest “MPA Monitor” report and the “Guide” help decision-makers and MPA managers?

A: “The MPA Guide” was designed for real-world application and provides a systematic framework to evaluate MPAs and assess likely conservation outcomes. It gives managers, policymakers, and practitioners worldwide a clear and consistent approach to understand the current state of marine protection and take concrete steps to improve MPA effectiveness.

We hope that our report has done some of the heavy lifting for decision-makers and MPA managers in Canada and that, based on this analysis, they can review management practices, policies, and regulations to strengthen protection measures.

Although Canada has made a lot of progress on ocean protection, our report shows that there’s still work to be done if we are to maximize conservation benefits. We provide 20 recommendations that Canada can get to work on now to ensure that as we look to the 30% target, we know we’re also guaranteeing quality MPAs that produce benefits for nature and for people.

Q: What does 2022 hold as Canada moves to improve the quality of protection in its MPAs while also staying on course to meet its 30 by 30 targets?

A: The coming year will be particularly important as countries affirm their commitment to the 30 by 30 conservation goal and begin building their roadmaps to get there. CPAWS is honoured to be partnering with the International Union for Conservation of Nature and federal, provincial, and Indigenous governments as a host organization of the 5th International Marine Protected Area Congress (IMPAC5) in Vancouver next September.

We see IMPAC5 as a watershed moment for ocean protection. It’s an opportunity to shine a spotlight on Canada’s progress and for Canada to follow through on its commitments to minimum protection standards and establishing strong MPAs.

Directly following the congress, there will be a one-day summit for global decision-makers and leaders to reflect on and respond to key findings and lessons learned from the congress and chart a course toward protecting 30% of the global ocean by 2030 in strong and effective MPAs.


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