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Feds fall short in protecting vital ocean habitat off BC's coast: report

The federal government's progress towards legally protecting Canadian marine habitat -- including four vulnerable areas off B.C.'s coast -- is compromised by weak conservation measures, according to a 20-page report released today by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS).

The report evaluated federal efforts towards enshrining 12 marine areas as legally protected zones before a deadline of December 2012 -- a goal set by CPAWS in a 2011 Ocean Day declaration. The report noted "significant" progress on nine of the 12 areas, but stated that the lack of geographical scope and ambition of some of the plans will mean continued damage to ocean life and habitat.

That shortfall concerns CPAWS members, said the organization's national ocean program manager Sabine Jessen.

A key area for that concern is off B.C.'s coast, she said. Of the 12 areas, four cover B.C. waters. Most significant is a proposed protected area for glass sea sponge reefs within the Hecate Strait. The plan for the area is the farthest along of the 12 areas -- having just wrapped up consultations -- and could be approved by December, said Jessen.

However, she added, those reefs still risk further damage from fishing trawlers unless the plan is improved.

B.C.'s glass sea sponge reefs are unique, said Jessen, and four distinct reefs have grown for nearly 9,000 years to cover 1,000 square kilometres. But current plans to protect the reefs are inadequate, as they allow fishing trawlers too close, which would stir up sediment that can "clog and smother the sponges," she said.

Trawling destroyed half of the Hecate Strait's sea sponge reefs before the Department of Fisheries and Oceans placed restrictions on the practice in 2002, according to the report.

The other three B.C. areas under assessment include a conservation area for the Southern Strait of Georgia, a CPAWS proposal for a protected area off the West Coast of Vancouver Island, and a national wildlife area for bird life on Scott Island, off the northwest tip of Vancouver Island.

Currently federal law distinguishes between three separate types of protected marine areas: a National Marine Conservation Area, a Marine National Wildlife Areas, and Marine Protected Area.

But unlike national parks, marine areas remain "completely open to all human uses" while the government evaluates what to protect, said Jessen. "There is no kind of interim protection provided to these areas," she said, adding "it can take quite awhile from wrapping up a public consultation to actually drafting regulations and actually giving these areas formal protection."

Adam Pez is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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