The federal government says it will be 2024 before it can produce the final version of its plan to create more marine conservation sites on the Scotian Shelf and in the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
The Scotia Fundy Marine Conservation Network Plan is a map of existing marine protected areas (MPAs), two proposed candidate MPAs, a proposed marine refuge, and another 31 potential sites.
It's part of Canada's commitment to conserve 25 per cent of its oceans by 2025 and 30 per cent by 2030.
The plan is being closely watched by the fishing industry and environmentalists because when completed, the sites may be used by Canada to preserve marine biodiversity in the region with the potential to restrict some — but not all — commercial activity inside protected areas.
Concerns 'nothing new,' says DFO
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has just completed consultations on the draft plan with "selected stakeholders," including the two provinces, industry, Indigenous leaders, academics and NGOs.
"There are concerns over the potential economic impacts of new conservation areas — that's nothing new," said project lead Marty King of DFO.
"Any time you're talking about putting new marine protected areas or other conservation areas in place, there's always concerns about the impact on human activities, commercial fisheries, and other marine industries.
"But at the same time, a lot of positive feedback, a lot of encouragement, a lot of support for this process. And a lot of encouragement to actually speed up the process if we can."
Gathering public input
DFO will consider revisions to its draft based on feedback that could result in changing boundaries to either better protect species and habitat or minimize impact on human activities.
An updated plan will be presented to the public next year before it is finalized in 2024.
King said the department will hold open houses in coastal communities from southwest New Brunswick to Cape Breton "and everywhere in between."
"So that'll really be the opportunity for the public to weigh in," he said.
Eastern Shore Islands
The fate of one of the candidate MPAs illustrates the challenges involved in creating a marine protected area under the Oceans Act.
Eastern Shore Islands, a coastal archipelago east of Halifax was declared an area of interest in 2018.
It triggered an organized campaign in opposition led by lobster fishermen who feared it would prevent them from harvesting in the area.
They did not buy DFO assurances the fishery would not be affected. The opposition was so loud in a federal Liberal riding, then fisheries minister Jonathan Wilkinson suspended the MPA process ahead of the 2019 election.
DFO has since restarted the process with Eastern Shore Island. But King said the department is in no rush.
"We're still evaluating the best way to move forward," he said.
The two other priority candidates are the Fundian Channel, a proposed MPA off southern Nova Scotia that is home to fishing grounds known as the "hell hole," and Eastern Canyons, a proposed marine refuge 60 kilometres east of Sable Island.
DFO said new regional contributions to the national marine conservation targets will be selected based on the final conservation network plan.
"We don't currently have any direction on any new sites that would be selected on top of those," said King.
Nova Scotia's fisheries and aquaculture minister said the government will ensure conservation measures take the province's interests into account.
"We encourage the federal government ... to continue to work with our fishing industry and our coastal communities to ensure area-based conservation measures are employed for the right place, time and purpose," Steve Craig said in a statement.
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