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Federal changes to Oceans Act to help protect one-tenth of marine areas by 2020

OTTAWA — The federal government is trying to make it easier to provide interim protection to marine areas, part of a campaign promise to more than double the amount of protected marine areas by the end of this year.

Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc has proposed changes to the Oceans Act to allow temporary protection of marine areas or coastlines for up to five years while the government works towards establishing permanent protection.

LeBlanc also wants to amend the Canada Petroleum Resources Act to prevent oil and gas activities in areas with interim protection, including cancelling existing oil and gas interests and compensating affected companies.

During the 2015 election, the Liberals promised to increase the portion of protected marine areas and coastlines from 1.3 per cent to 5 per cent by the end of 2017, and then to 10 per cent by 2020.

The pledge became the first item on the to-do list for the fisheries minister after the Liberals formed government. LeBlanc took on the chore when he became the minister in 2016.

Oceans experts for World Wildlife Fund Canada and the David Suzuki Foundation both say the Liberals have done enough work to meet the five per cent target by the end of this year — largely by completing work already underway on previously identified marine conservation areas, including three in the last seven months.

In November, the Anguniaqvia niqiqyuam Marine Protected Area was officially established in Darnley Bay in the Northwest Territories, followed by the Hecate Strait Queen Charlotte Sound Glass Sponge Reefs in B.C. in February.

A week ago, LeBlanc announced the final designation of the St. Anns Bank east of Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island as a marine protected area.

The legislation will still be necessary to get to the 10 per cent target, however, because it can take an average of seven years to fully protect a marine area in Canada.

"It's quite a large, arduous process," said Sigrid Kuehnemund, the lead specialist for WWF Canada's Oceans Program.

Kuehnemund called the changes a positive step forward.

However, she said, there is still work to be done to limit more of the activities within protected areas. Often, development, fishing and oil and gas exploration are not entirely banned from protected marine areas, she noted.

Finding a way to protect marine areas faster was one of the bullet points in the government's five-point plan to meet its 10 per cent goal, first announced in June 2016.

Kuehnemund said Canada lags behind the international community when it comes to protecting marine areas.

— follow @mrabson on Twitter

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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