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Winter 2015

Oceans Update | Winter 2015

Letter from the Executive Director

It’s been a long time coming, but just days ago, the federal government finally released the risk assessment on genetically modified salmon, meaning our lawsuit against them for approving the manufacture of GM salmon eggs can finally proceed. 

Read on to learn more about the risks of GM salmon; to find out how a Newfoundland community is struggling with safety measures for oil tanker traffic; to see how our Finding Coral Expedition led to a more sustainable groundfish fishery; and read our reports on Cassin’s auklet deaths and the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia.

I’d like to thank all of you who supported Living Oceans for your donations over the past year and remind everyone that our work depends on you! You can become a monthly donor with a couple of clicks, giving us the sustained income we need to keep on working for healthy oceans, healthy communities.

Donate Karen Wristen Best regards,
Karen Wristen

B.C. bottom trawlers get sustainability stamp from SeaChoice

Through SeaChoice, Living Oceans and other top North American seafood organizations have given a stamp of approval to several species of fish caught by British Columbia’s bottom trawl fleet. When you're shopping for seafood, B.C.-caught halibut, lingcod, sole, flounder, and Pacific cod are now good options as they receive either a green ‘best choice’ or yellow ‘some concerns’ ranking. This year’s quota for B.C.’s groundfish fisheries is 168,000 tonnes (a tonne of fish is approximately a standard pickup truck full).

Six years ago, we recommended avoiding most of the fish caught by the province’s largest fishery. The turnaround was in part initiated by our first-of-its kind agreement with the bottom trawlers. Adopted in 2012, the management measures limited incidental bycatch and froze the fleet’s footprint. Living Oceans and the David Suzuki Foundation worked closely with the trawl industry to develop the plan to protect fragile ocean habitats.

Verification is key to success

The fleet has been recognized as a global leader in monitoring fish caught at sea. Being able to verify exactly what is caught by all vessels, for all species, for all trips is the cornerstone of the management system. Longline and trawl vessels now have full monitoring, whether through an on-board observer or video coverage.

The assessment report released early in January also highlights several ongoing conservation concerns and a number of red ‘avoid’ recommendations still exist within this fishery. Outdated stock assessments and slow recovery of historically overfished species were identified as primary concerns. Fortunately, the current management system offers solutions to these remaining issues. We anticipate that Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) will provide updated stock assessments in the next year, which will bring additional species onto the ‘green’ or ‘yellow’ lists of sustainable seafood options.

Jenna Stoner wins fellowship award

Jenna Stoner, Sustainable Seafood Campaign Manager.

Jenna Stoner, our Sustainable Seafood Campaign Manager, has been awarded a fellowship by the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions. The fellowship program was launched this year to provide the next generation of leaders for the sustainable seafood sector with the skills they’ll need to protect the dwindling global supply of seafood while allowing fishermen to feed their families along with the rest of the world.

To make that happen on the water, in coastal communities and throughout the seafood supply chain, Living Oceans and other environmental groups will need people who can make progress through the complex web of scientific, regulatory and market forces that influence the industry.

“The fellowship will expand Living Oceans’ network among the sustainable seafood movement in North America,” Jenna said. “The sector has been going for over ten years now and it’s time for us to take it to the next level.”

One of the ways that Living Oceans and the Conservation Alliance are working to meet the global challenge is through community supported fisheries.

Move to lower safety requirements at Canada’s most at-risk port sparks concern for Northern Gateway commitments

Oil tankers taking on crude oil in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland.

As an intervenor in the Northern Gateway process, Living Oceans heard a lot of assurances from Enbridge about how the Great Bear Sea and its communities would be protected from oil tankers making upwards of 800 trips per year to and from Kitimat. Many of the most important promises—like speed restrictions to protect whales from being struck and killed—aren’t required by law and won’t be enforced by the National Energy Board. So we reached out to an East Coast community that has been dealing with oil tanker traffic for decades, to see how safety assurances played out there. What we found is truly alarming.

Marine pilots answer nearly a thousand duty calls each year in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. That port handles more oil tanker traffic than any other in Canada, as it serves Newfoundland’s offshore oil rigs as well as tankers from around the world. Home to an oil refinery, a major oil transshipment terminal and a nickel processing facililty, Placentia Bay also supports commercial and recreational fisheries and tourism. The bay has the largest spawning stock of cod in the northwest Atlantic and it’s an important feeding area for sea birds and mammals including humpback whales.

Transport Canada assessed the oil spill risk at Placentia Bay as the highest in the country: they said the port would see a major spill once in 27 to 33 years. Although the approach to the port is much less complicated than the approach to Kitimat, Placentia Bay is plagued by fog and North Atlantic storms. In 1990 safety measures were recommended to lower the risk. One of the most important of those measures was designating the area “restricted waters”, requiring pilots to board all ships before they enter the bay. Extensive public consultation and an expert review done from 2006 to 2010 recommended extending the boundary of the restricted waters even further, and leaving the pilot boarding station at its present location. Transport Canada concurred.

Map of Placentia Bay, Newfoundland.

Now, the Crown corporation responsible for pilotage, the Atlantic Pilotage Authority, wants to move the pilot boarding station inside the restricted waters of Placentia Bay and Transport Canada appears to be going along with it. The reason? Cost. It takes time to board a pilot and time is money to a busy oil company. This move would exempt an estimated 70 percent of the shipping traffic from bringing a pilot onboard at the current boarding station. These ships would board a pilot 20 km further in the bay.

The pilots say it’s too dangerous. The busy shipping lane is only a half-mile wide inside the bay. There would be no maneuvering room, especially in bad weather; and the proposed location for the boarding station is too near rocky shores. There is, in short, no safety argument in favour of the move, and many arguments against it.

“If the federal government is willing to axe protection for the country’s most at-risk port so oil companies can save a buck, will it be equally lax with Enbridge’s safety commitments for the proposed Northern Gateway tanker route?” asked Karen Wristen, Executive Director of Living Oceans. “They can’t keep saying ‘world class tanker safety’ while reducing the actual, on-the-water protection measures for the convenience of the shipping industry and think we won’t notice.”

Death on the beaches - The mystery of the Cassin’s auklets

A researcher measures a Cassin's auklet chick on Triangle Island.

Late fall and early winter have seen tens of thousands of Cassin’s auklets washed up dead on West Coast beaches from California to British Columbia. This is especially sad news after the highest fledgling success rate for the birds was recorded on Triangle Island in 2014.

Cassin’s auklets are a small oceanic bird that feeds on zooplankton such as krill and come to shore to nest in burrows. The world’s largest colony of them is on Triangle Island, one of the Scott Islands located off the northern tip of Vancouver Island. Living Oceans is helping to shape a management plan for the Scott Islands to protect feeding grounds for sea birds through our place on the advisory board for the proposed Scott Island Marine National Wildlife Area. This unfortunate die-off highlights the need for the federal government to create more protection for the waters around the islands where sea birds gather food during the breeding season.

Scott Islands

Early indications are that the cause of the deaths is starvation, which suggests a disturbance in the food web. This could be linked to the record warm ocean temperatures and a developing El Nino which changes the Pacific Ocean currents. The Cassin’s auklet may be like a “canary in a coal mine” warning us about environmental changes that may affect other species. Although other species have been found dead this year, such as common murres, their numbers are not anywhere near the magnitude of dead Cassin’s Auklets. Troubling, but this tough little bird has our attention.

Genetically modified salmon review ducks toxicity question

Salmon eggs and helix.

Fully one year after Living Oceans sued the Ministers of Health and Environment for approving the manufacture of the world’s first genetically modified (GM) food animal with no public debate whatsoever, the federal government has finally produced the risk assessment on which the November, 2013 decision was purportedly based.

The risk assessment, still marked “Draft – in Review”, appears to be a thorough review of a proposal by Aquabounty Canada to manufacture 100,000 GM salmon eggs per year in a facility in Prince Edward Island for export to a grow-out facility in Panama. One of the problems is that what the Ministers permitted is unlimited production at these as well as other, unnamed facilities that weren’t reviewed.

The two specific facilities covered in the risk assessment rely on mechanical and chemical barriers to prevent the release of GM tissues into the wild. It assumes that those barriers will be effective. What the risk assessment does make clear it that there is high risk to endangered native Atlantic salmon populations in P.E.I., should the GM fish ever escape. But they won’t, because mechanical systems never fail, people never forget to check them and regulators always inspect and follow up in a timely manner. This finding allowed the Ministers to dispense with an analysis of the central question for Living Oceans: are these manufactured fish “toxic or capable of becoming toxic” in the environment, as those terms are used in the Canadian Environmental Protection Act?

The risk assessment has only now been made public, but it has been so heavily redacted that we don’t know if the reviewer made appropriate judgments based on the material presented by Aquabounty, or if Aquabounty delivered accurate descriptions of the GM fish and facilities to the government for review.

Our lawsuit will explore whether the government was within its rights to use this risk assessment to permit unlimited production at unspecified locations, without ever having answered the toxicity question.

Living Oceans at the World Parks Conference

Cook Islanders sailed 11,000 km to Sydney in Polynesian vessels called ‘vaka’ to deliver their message of ocean protection to the 2014 World Parks Congress.

Karin Bodtker, our Director of Mapping and Analysis, took a trip down under last November to give a presentation at the IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia. These global forums have been held every 10 years since 1962. The Marine Theme blossomed this year with arguably the most active community of the meeting. Focusing on how to design and manage Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and networks, the theme hosted lively debates and discussions. Karin presented in a session on reconciling development challenges, sharing insights from Living Oceans’ ongoing work to set up MPAs in the Great Bear Sea.

Download a pdf of the presentation.

“This was a terrific opportunity to share our success stories and to learn from world-wide experience with MPAs,” Karin said. “It was very inspirational to see the effort that other countries are putting into ocean health.”

Karin Bodtker, Director of Mapping and Analysis

The conference drew 6,000 participants from 170 countries, closing with the The Promise of Sydney where governments, organizations, industry and indigenous leaders pledged to safeguard the planet’s natural assets. Two of the most outstanding pledges were from South Africa and Madagascar who both pledged to triple ocean protection in their waters over the next 10 years. Also, President Bongo of Gabon committed to protecting 23 percent of the country’s EEZ with a network of no-take MPAs. The Government of Canada made no such pledge and had no significant presence at this landmark forum.