By Surfrider Pacific Rim Chapter Manager Lilly Woodbury

As we dive deeper into the era of the anthropocene, the question of how to  transform our relationship with the earth becomes more and more pressing. This includes the major ideological shift needed, from viewing the earth as a factory farm to continually extract from, to truly understanding it as a living being with inherent worth. Along with this shift, what are some of our major tasks as human beings? Surfrider Foundation understands these tasks as protection and restoration; to protect the integrity of existing ecosystems, and restore ecosystems that we have damaged. Considering the former action, protection must be accomplished with environmental justice in mind, and needs to be done quicker and more strategically – as the spirit of urgency hangs in every molecule of air we breathe. Looking at what is being done in Canada, what are we doing to see these environments can be preserved for the next generations to live by? Before continuing here, it’s imperative to first recognize that the land that has been claimed, bordered and defined as Canada is Indigenous land. The same applies for waters within “Canada’s” jurisdiction, these borders are constructed and exist as part of a colonial legacy. When this article refers to “Canada”, please bare this in mind. Now, one of the mechanisms implemented by the federal government is Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) through Canada’s Ocean Act, which, according to Surfrider Foundation Headquarters “function as safe havens for marine life, where the ocean can rebuild and restore itself. Marine Protected Areas help marine ecosystems withstand the impacts of pollution, development, overfishing and climate change.” According to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) these tracts of oceans become legally protected, but permit a certain degree of activities depending on their impact on the ecosystems being protected.

In 2010, Canada committed to the marine conservation targets established under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. This agreement, commonly known as Aichi Target 11, commited Canada to conserving 10 percent of coastal and marine areas through Marine Protected Areas and other effective area-based conservation measures by 2020. This target appears manageable, but, as we know with other agreements like the Paris Accord, these targets can still manage to be unattainable by our government. At the end of 2015, Canada only had 0.96% of marine territory protected, but the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was able to reach an interim goal of 5% protection in just two years.

With just over a year away until we clank our champagne glasses to the sights and sounds of 2020, we still have a lot of work to reach a full 10% protection of waters. Part of Canada’s plan to reach this is the largest MPA ever proposed, currently known as the Offshore Pacific Area of Interest, which lies adjacent to the coast of Vancouver Island (please note, this proposed MPA is different than the proposed fishing closure on the continental shelf off the southwestern coast of Vancouver Island). This area makes up 2.43% of Canadian waters with a size of 140,000 km2, but the only the benthic zone will have protection from human activities, including longline fishing, bottom trawling, mining and mining exploration, as well as shipping. This region has been chosen for its special seafloor features, mainly being 13 seamounts and a series of hydrothermal vents, which significantly support the ecological integrity of the Offshore Pacific Bioregion.

Why are these features outlined as needing the most protection? According to NOAA, a “seamount is an underwater mountain formed by volcanic activity. Scientists recognize these structures as biological hotspots that support a dazzling array of marine life.” These submerged giants provide habitat for many species, including sponges, sea stars, urchins and deep-sea corals. Seamounts are known as the oases as the sea, akin to finding a lush garden amidst an unquenched desert. The biodiversity of seamount habitats is created by the shape of the immersed mountains; due to the steep slopes of seamounts, nutrients are carried from the depths of the ocean in a process known as upwelling. This cold nutrient-filled water rises to the surface, which then provides food for marine life, allowing for the proliferation of phytoplankton, which in turn attract all levels of the food chain.

To add to this phenomena, hydrothermal vents are openings in the sea floor where mineral rich water flows out, forming at zones where seawater encounters magma. You can imagine this like a large plume of opaque smoke emerging from the sea crust, and flowing out into the ocean like a chimney and its smoke in a night sky. The mineral rich water is extremely hot, and also carries a lot of chemicals which contribute to the ocean’s composition. In this seemingly hostile zone, many organisms have been discovered, whom depend on the chemical processes and interaction of sea water and magma. This feature was only discovered by scientists in 1977, which illuminates how much we have to learn about the profundity and intricacies of the planet we call home.

We are on a long journey to understand the unknowns of the ocean, but the more we learn, the more acute the need for protection becomes. According to the David Suzuki Foundation, “protected ocean ecosystems provide resilience against climate and other environmental changes, filter and cycle waste and nutrients, and provide homes to the marine species that feed and sustain our communities.” Larger MPA’s, like the proposed Pacific Offshore Area, are also more effective for the ecological benefits, which flood beyond the MPA borders. Currently, the DFO is still in the consultation process for this MPA, but the future is looking bright for this proposal. If this MPA is implemented, its long term success partly depends on the local understanding and support for the designation. For coastal Vancouver Islanders, this proposed MPA seems far from the waters we surf, fish, adventure, and overall depend on. However, the implementation of this MPA will help us gain a greater understanding on how to protect the Southern Shelf Bioregion our surrounding coastal waters are a part of, and how to go forward creating greater networks of protected areas amongst the oceans we depend on.

To learn more about the MPA designation process, visit http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/oceans/aoi-si/offshore-hauturiere-eng.html