An area off Nova Scotia’s coast nearly four times the size of Cape Breton was declared a marine refuge by Canada on Wednesday — World Oceans Day.
Eastern Canyons Marine Refuge is a 44,000 square kilometre swath of ocean running from the edge of the continental shelf near Sable Island to Canada’s exclusive economic zone more than 300 kilometres offshore.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) says Eastern Canyons is home to rare bottlenose whales and cold-water corals .
“One of the largest known [coral] aggregates in Atlantic Canada. You can think of it as akin to an old-growth forest in the sea,” says Kristian Curran, DFO regional manager of sustainable harvests for the Maritimes Region.
All bottom-contact fisheries — including trawls, traps, and longlines — will be prohibited inside the marine refuge, with the exception of one fishing zone for smaller vessels that use longlines. It covers about 0.2 per cent of the overall refuge area. All vessels operating in it will be required to have federal at-sea observers on board.
Creation of the marine refuge will shut down fishing with an average landed value of $700,000 per year in the area, says Curran.
“As a number 700,000 of course is quite large. But when we put it as a percentage of the total landings in landed value from the broader management area [eastern Scotian Shelf] it’s quite small on average, maybe five per cent of the total rather comes from Eastern Canyons,’ he said.
Environmentalists welcomed one of the largest fisheries closures in eastern Canada.
Fred Whoriskey, a scientist and the executive director of the Ocean Tracking Network in Halifax, says Eastern Canyons is a critical habitat for many deep-water species.
“These deep-water areas are probably extremely important for the function of the ocean ecosystems and we don’t understand them very well. So to have one that’s protected, that’s intact [and] can serve as a natural laboratory is a very, very powerful tool and something that’s going to be very good for the ecology of Canada,” Whoriskey said.
The area is adjacent to the Gully Marine Protected Area, the first of its kind in Atlantic Canada. Eastern Canyons was proposed for conservation under the Fisheries Act in 2018.
It was criticized by some in Nova Scotia’s lucrative halibut fishery which will be blocked from most of the area.
“I don’t think too much of it,” says Andy Henneberry, of ALS Fisheries in Sambro, N.S. “We’re closing a productive area for the fishing fleet, the halibut fishing fleet. The hook and line does very little damage to corals.”
Henneberry says the impact of the closure goes beyond the Eastern Canyons Marine Refuge — where catches represent five to eight per cent of the fishery on Easern Scotian Shelf.
“When you close a spot, the effort moves somewhere else and then you have conflict with other fisheries and it just makes it a hardship all over for the industry. When they close these areas, they don’t look at the whole impact, what it does to the industry. They just look at and say, ‘Look at what we have done for the environment. Look what we done for the ecosystem,” Henneberry said.
The Conservative’s federal fisheries critic Rick Perkins blasted the designation as “artificial virtue signalling.”
“Fish swim and currents move. This government does not understand that there are no borders in the ocean that fish follow. In meetings with DFO they were unable to show me any science that shows fishing in this area was harmful to the corals. Their only reference was to science in general. It is hard to see how a halibut line has had any impact.”
In making the announcement, DFO Minister Joyce Murray said the move will help preserve Atlantic fisheries.
“Our government is committed to working together with Indigenous and local communities and with all levels of government to conserve shared waters and protect the livelihoods of coastal communities for future generations,” Murray said in a news release.
Susanna Fuller, vice-president of operations and projects at Oceans North, says the establishment of Eastern Canyons “actually starts to get to the end point of some of the conservation we’ve needed on the continental shelf.”
Despite Henneberry’s objections, she says industry was extensively consulted.
“We need to have some insurance policies for the future and protecting areas for fish to continue to reproduce. And I think fishermen should feel good about this one. They were at the table the whole time, not always agreeing on everything, but really it was quite a good process of going back and forth on boundaries, lots of give and take. And I generally, when the process was finished, people felt fairly good about it,” Fuller said.
The Atlantic Groundfish Council, representing larger fish companies, was one of the industry groups consulted.
Spokesperson Kris Vascotto said the council was disappointed there isn’t recognition of the halibut fishery because it’s possible fishing gear used near the refuge could drift inside.
Eastern Canyons is part of the Government of Canada’s commitment to conserve 25 per cent of Canada’s oceans by 2025 and 30 per cent by 2030.
DFO is working on finalizing a plan to create more marine conservation sites on the Scotian Shelf and in the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.