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New Protections Will Prevent Fossil Fuel Activity in Canada's Marine Protected Areas

Meanwhile, a proposal to expand offshore drilling in U.S. waters has been halted indefinitely.
Walrus coming to the surface for air.

Some marine protected areas are designated to protect a single species.

Canada released new standards for marine protected areas on Thursday, prohibiting fossil fuel activity, mining, waste-dumping, and bottom-trawling.

The new standards extend protection to larger swaths of Canadian marine areas, including the new Laurentian Channel Marine Protected Area off the south coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. In 2017, proposed regulations would have permitted such fossil fuel activities in 80 percent of the channel, but the proposal was met with significant public outcry.

The change also incorporates the recommendations of an advisory panel set up by the government last year, and will align Canada with international standards set by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Impacts and Limitations

Until now, there have been no overarching protections, so industrial activities were permitted on a case-by-case basis.

Canada had previously committed to protecting 10 percent of the country's marine and coastal areas by 2020. Now, with the newly protected 11,600-square-kilometer Laurentian area under protection, Canada is protecting 8.27 percent of its marine and coastal areas, according to the Canadian Press.

There are some limitations to the new standards, however. According to fisheries minister Jonathan Wilkinson, the two existing marine protected areas where exploration companies currently hold licenses will still be allowed to pursue fossil fuel activities (although neither is actively exploring), though the agreements may be re-evaluated when they come up for review. And in some marine refuges—often created to protect a single species—Canada still allows fossil fuel activities.

Despite these limitations, environmentalists are praising the increased marine protections.

How Do Canada's Marine Protected Areas Compare to Their U.S. Counterparts?

Like in Canada, the United States' marine protected areas are established and managed by all levels of government. What they intend to protect also varies: Some are open to commercial use (fishery management areas), while others are designed for recreation (such as national parks that encompass MPAs). As a result, levels of protection vary widely.

According to the National Marine Protected Areas Center (a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of the Interior), about 8 percent of all U.S. waters are in MPAs focused on conserving natural or cultural resources. But "no take" MPAs (where no extractive activity is allowed) comprise only 3 percent of U.S. waters.

Threats to MPAs in the U.S.

MPAs in the U.S. have faced increasing threats under the Trump administration. Earlier this year, the administration proposed the expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling, which would have affected every coastal state, even those that have prohibited such activities for decades. The plan would have opened up 90 percent of offshore areas for drilling, reversing an Obama-era plan that allowed only 6 percent of the same areas to be opened for fossil fuel activity, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Last month, a federal judge ruled that protections against drilling in the Arctic Ocean off of Alaska will remain in place unless Congress passes legislation to overturn the Obama-era regulations. These protections were aimed at protecting animals in the region including polar bears, walruses, and ice seals—local wildlife that Alaska Native villages depend on.

As a result of the ruling, however, the proposal has been halted indefinitely, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said on Thursday.