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Missing the point

New paper says race to conserve marine biodiversity may backfire


By Kelly Foss

Canada’s race to meet biodiversity conservation targets could jeopardize the very goal it is trying to achieve.

That’s the message in a new paper co-authored by a Memorial researcher issued today.

Dr. Rodolphe Devillers is professor of geography, Faculty of Science, and an expert in marine protected areas (MPA) and their effectiveness.

He joined researchers from universities across the country, including Wilfrid Laurier University, University of Northern British Columbia, University of Victoria, University of Alberta and Dalhousie University, in reviewing Canada’s efforts to meet commitments made to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss around the world – an urgent matter considering a recent World Wildlife Fund report that found a 60 per cent decline in wildlife populations over four decades.

Primnoa gorgonians and Geodia sponges in the Hatton Basin marine refuge. These are two of the region’s long-lived coral and sponge species.
Photo: ArcticNet/CSSF/DFO

“In 2010, Canada signed on to a global effort to protect biological diversity by achieving 20 objectives known as the Aichi Targets,” said Dr. Devillers.

“This paper explores Canada’s work on Target 11, which intends to improve the status of biodiversity through protected areas and a new type of designation called “other effective area-based conservation measures” or OECMs.”

Exploiting a loophole

Target 11 specifically asked countries to increase the protected area coverage in terrestrial and inland water and coastal and marine ecosystems with high ecological integrity to 17 and 10 per cent, respectively, by 2020.

However, in a last-minute attempt to reach its Target 11 commitments by the deadline, the researchers say Canada is exploiting a loophole in the agreement.

Sea pens from the South West Grand Banks, a Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization fishery closure area that has now become a marine refuge.
Photo: CSSF/DFO.

“At the time the Aichi Biodiversity Targets were agreed to, nobody knew what OECMs really meant, so every country began to interpret it in their own way,” said Dr. Christopher Lemieux, the paper’s lead author and the Dr. John McMurry Research Chair in Environmental Geography at the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University.

“Our paper shows that Canada is doing this too, but their interpretation does not meet the spirit of the agreement.”

No benefit

Since signing on, Canada has increased its declared protected marine area from less than one per cent to about eight. However, the majority of those are OECMs, which can be established much quicker and with less consultation than the more arduous process of declaring an area an MPA.

“Our concern, as scientists, is that those areas are likely to provide lower levels of protection than marine protected areas,” said Dr. Devillers. “We believe these targets and time frames encourage countries to take shortcuts that are not necessarily to the benefit of nature.”

A wolffish in the coral habitat off northern Labrador. Wolffish are protected under the Species at Risk Act.
Photo: ArcticNet/CSSF/DFO

The researchers say government is focusing more on the quantity of coverage, and not on the ecological integrity of the areas they are selecting, which could have significant ramifications on the long-term success of biodiversity conservation in Canada.

“The official government position is that they are making a lot of progress and rapidly increased the number of protected areas in Canada, but that is not how you measure success in conservation,” said Dr. Lemieux. “It’s not about how many square kilometres you protect. It depends on where MPAs are placed and what habitats species are there.

“We want government to come forward with the burden of proof that what they are doing is going to work. However, we feel most of what is being created in Canada right now is unlikely to make any useful difference to biodiversity in the long-term.”

The paper, titled How The Race to Achieve Aichi Target 11 Could Jeopardize the Effective Conservation of Biodiversity in Canada and Beyond, appears in Elsevier’s Marine Policy, the leading journal of ocean policy studies.

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