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  • Writer's pictureEmma Gillies

Marine environmental protection measures in Canada

Marine environmental protection laws

Aside from regulations and laws specific to whale protection and species recovery, there are a number of Canadian regulations protecting the environment in which whales live. The Canadian Environmental Protection Act, for example, primarily aims to prevent pollution, while the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act prohibits the dumping of waste specifically in Arctic waters. The Canada Shipping Act governs marine transportation and the protection of the marine environment, including measures to prevent and reduce pollution. Meanwhile, the Impact Assessment Act outlines a regularized process for assessing the environmental and social impacts of major projects in Canada. Although not perfect, the existence of this process ensures that at the very least, projects such as coastal oil and gas developments are transparent about their plans to minimize and mitigate any effects on whales and their habitats.

The Oceans Act, which came into force in 1997, is regarded as the world’s first ecosystem-based law. The legislation created maritime zones, mandated the development of a national oceans strategy, and created programs on integrated ocean management, marine protected areas (MPAs), and marine environmental quality. MPAs are sites that are set aside for conservation, similar to the idea of a land-based national park. In Canada, there are 14 MPAs, covering roughly 6 percent of Canadian coastal and marine waters. The National Marine Conservation Act gives the federal government the power to create national marine conservation areas and reserves (NMCAs), which are specific types of MPAs specifically designed for the use and benefit of humans. However, oil and mineral exploration and waste disposal are strictly prohibited in these areas.

The Canada Wildlife Act also protects lands and coastal habitats that are important for ocean health. And finally, the Fisheries Act not only holds specific regulations for marine mammals; it also helps to protect their habitat by regulating both the fishing and aquaculture industries to protect the habitats and fish populations that whales rely on.

Photo Credit: Bertrand Charry

Government initiatives and regional actions

Hard laws and regulations are not the only methods to protect whales. In fact, there are also a number of initiatives and policies in place to conserve whale populations. For example, while there are no federal laws regulating ocean noise in Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Department of National Defence, have guidelines for mitigating the impacts of ocean noise from seismic surveys and sonar. Fisheries and Oceans Canada is the primary government department working on whale and ocean habitat protection. The department organizes teams across Canada to conduct marine mammal research, hosts the Marine Mammal Working Group, and even assists marine mammals in distress through the Marine Mammal Response Program.

Other government departments also have initiatives to protect whales and the marine environment. In 2016, Transport Canada launched the Oceans Protection Plan, the largest investment by the government to protect Canada’s coasts and waterways. In February 2020, the Canadian government unveiled new management measures to protect the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale, including restricting the areas where shipping vessels can go, implementing fishing closures in certain areas, and introducing gear modifications to prevent entanglements with fishing gear. The government also has several recovery strategies and plans for other whale species, such as the blue whale, and has specific measures for the most threatened populations: the North Atlantic right whale, the Southern Resident killer whale, and the St. Lawrence Estuary beluga whale.

Many initiatives at the federal and provincial levels revolve around marine protection, whether that is through educational programs, beach cleanups and pollution prevention, or marine conservation targets. Many initiatives occur at a local level but are part of a larger—even international—movement or set of regulations, like the Ocean Plastics Charter and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.


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