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Canada confirms protections for some marine areas but shipping pollution isn’t included

Wastewater from ships can include sulphur dioxide, carcinogens and heavy metals
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An Harbour Air seaplane flies past a container ship anchored on English Bay, in Vancouver, on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

By Rochelle Baker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Canada formalized its minimum protection standards for marine protected areas on Wednesday at a global ocean conservation summit in Vancouver.

Oil and gas activity, mining, the dumping of certain waste materials and destructive bottom trawling fishing won’t be allowed in any MPAs established from April 2019 and onward, said federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray and Steven Guilbeault, minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada, during a press conference at the IMPAC5 summit.

The new protection standard is a policy blueprint based on a 2019 promise by the federal government to curb these industrial activities.

However, the finalized standards don’t immediately address wastewater discharges from shipping — particularly scrubber wastewater that constitutes the bulk of contaminated water emanating from vessels in Canada’s oceans.

To avoid using expensive cleaner fuels, many ships have scrubber systems that use water to “wash” pollutants in dirty heavy fuel oil, such as sulphur dioxide, carcinogens and heavy metals, from the fumes. The untreated mix is then flushed directly into the ocean rather than the atmosphere.

The scrubber wastewater worsens ocean acidification, which inhibits the ability of marine animals such as oysters, clams, prawns and crabs to form shells.

The government intends to tighten regulations around the dumping of scrubber water along with oily bilge water, sewage, grey water (kitchen and laundry wastewater, cleaning products and other pollutants) and food waste in MPAs in Canada’s territorial waters by 2025 or 2026 after holding public consultations, Murray said.

Journalists weren’t able to ask the ministers questions on all the details of the protection standard because the document was not publicly released until an hour after the press conference was over.

READ ALSO: Governments, B.C. coastal First Nations endorse marine protection action plan

Canada will seek voluntary compliance from the shipping industry for any future wastewater measures in Canada’s waters up to 200 nautical miles from shore where international shipping regulations apply, according to Transport Canada.

It was disappointing that Canada didn’t take a leadership role on ship wastewater pollution in MPAs as it hosted a global conference on ocean conservation, said Anna Barford, shipping campaigner with Stand.earth.

“While our neighbours in Washington state, California and Alaska have already brought in mandatory measures to address pollution from ships, it appears that Transport Canada is once again dropping the ball by failing to include vessel discharges in their latest measures,” Barford said.

The federal government launched new voluntary discharge and treatment guidelines for cruise ships on sewage and grey water last spring. The cruise industry guidelines, which also failed to include scrubber wastewater, are slated to become mandatory this year.

The policy on MPA protections is a good first step, said Alex Barron, national ocean director for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS).

“It’s been a really long time coming, so we are really pleased to see them get to this point today,” Barron said.

“We’re looking forward to receiving more information on exactly how these standards are being defined because the devil is always in the details.”

The social, environmental and economic benefits from MPAs, such as healthy fisheries and ocean carbon storage, depend on strong protections, she added.

“That means minimum protection standards are as the name implies — the minimum needed for effective protection. Ecosystems need more in most cases.”

Other issues not included in the MPA protection policy are regulations around aquaculture operations, ships anchoring in protected areas with fragile seabed features like corals or sponges, or shipping noise that can stress or harm marine mammals like the endangered southern resident killer whale.

For MPAs established before 2019, the new minimum standards will be considered as their management plans come up for review, Murray said. And trap-based fisheries, such as the lobster fishery, will be excluded from the regulations, she added.

The MPA regulations do not apply to other types of marine conservation areas, for example, rockfish conservation areas, according to the policy posted online. It will also not apply to some activities, including those involving vessel safety, national defence or Aboriginal and treaty rights.

If oil and gas licences in older MPAs are not voluntarily surrendered by companies, those conservation areas will no longer count towards Canada’s pledge to protect 30 per cent of its lands and waters by 2030.

No dumping of waste such as dredge material or commercial fishing scraps will be allowed in new or existing MPAs, including any materials involving harmful drugs or pesticides.

The strong federal protection standard, combined with ambitious plans for new MPAs, will ensure Canada is on track to meet its marine conservation targets, Murray said.

“We can draw a line on the map but if we don’t have meaningful protection, what are we really doing?”

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