To many people around the world, our oceans are no more than massive expanses of endless water. Although Canada boasts three oceans, those living in land-locked areas, like us in Ottawa, may not have as deep a connection with these waters as others do.

View of icebergs in the Atlantic Ocean, near the Bonavista Peninsula, Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Atlantic Ocean off Newfoundland and Labrador. Even though ocean conservation is a complex issue, the experts and participants in recent Café scientifiques concentrated on steps toward solutions. Image: Duncan de Young/ © Duncan de Young

Over the past few months, the museum’s Café scientifiques have discussed various aspects of marine ecology and conservation. As our participants learned more about the constant challenges that our oceans face, the complexity of solutions was extremely overwhelming and, at times, discouraging.

However, during the past two cafés, our experts and participants discussed more solution-driven ways that the average individual can help our oceans, as well as how to work in cooperation with industries that have the necessary resources and drive to take reactive conservation measures.

On one evening in April 2012, café participants discussed the question “Are marine protected areas (MPAs) a solution for protecting Canada’s marine life?” Three experts were invited to share their opinions on the effectiveness of MPAs on the conservation and stewardship of marine life.

Shane Gero, Andrew Dumbrille and Nicholas Irving.
Shane Gero, Andrew Dumbrille and Nicholas Irving all shared their views on marine protected areas during April’s Café scientifique. Image: Toolika Rastogi © Canadian Museum of Nature

Andrew Dumbrille, a manager at the World Wildlife Fund Canada, Shane Gero, a whale biologist and Ph.D. candidate at Dalhousie University, and Nicholas Irving, a coordinator for establishing Marine Protected Areas at Parks Canada, were all in favour of these designated areas of protection. They revealed that while Canada still has a long way to go to honour the government’s pledge to protect 10% of our oceans by 2020, the establishment of the MPAs has made definite improvements in the lives of many marine species.

Act Now, and Together

As Shane stated, MPAs do work, but certain marine species will take a long time to respond to this protection, as he has observed during his studies of the bottlenose whale. “Long-lived species will not suddenly jump in population,” Shane states, “however, since the establishment of many MPAs, populations have remained stable, or have begun to climb slowly.” He emphasized the necessity of establishing MPAs early enough so that species have time to respond to this protection before they reach the brink of extinction.

Nicholas shared Shane’s views and also emphasized the importance of not only protecting endangered and threatened species, but also protecting the entire ecosystem, because each creature plays a key role.

Nicolas also stressed the importance of working in cooperation with local communities, such as during the establishment of the Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area, off the coast of British Columbia. “People will often come together and work cohesively because they genuinely care,” Nicolas emphasized.

Involvement of Private Enterprise

Quite appropriately, our subsequent Café scientifique, on May 25, focused on a Canadian success story about science, industry and government partners working together to assist in conserving marine species. Café participants discussed the question “Can different industries take responsibility for the stewardship of marine life?”

To facilitate this discussion, the museum invited Steve Cumbaa, Ph.D., a palaeontologist at the Canadian Museum of Nature, Moira Brown, Ph.D., a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium in Boston, U.S.A., and John Logan, a project manager at Irving Oil in Saint John, New Brunswick.

The head of a North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) above the surface.
A North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis). Image: Moira Brown © Moira Brown

Moira’s work and the partnership established with Irving Oil is truly a feel-good story and an inspiration to the possible leadership role that industries could play in marine conservation.

For more than 25 years, Moira has studied the distribution, population biology and genetics of the North Atlantic right whale. Having a population around 450, it is one of the most endangered whale species on the planet. The history of its declining population, as Steve explained, is closely aligned with an ever-present, yet incorrect, perception that marine resources are inexhaustible.

Moira’s endeavour began in 1992 after the body of a female right whale she had been studying quite closely was found washed ashore—the cause of death very evidently a ship collision. Shortly thereafter, Moira and her team established a partnership with Irving Oil to help promote right-whale species recovery in Canadian Atlantic waters.

They decided to move the shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy. The bay is a popular spot for right-whale sightings. After assessing the cost options of simply slowing vessels down within this area, and also after much discussion with the International Maritimes Organization (IMO), the shipping lanes were officially moved in 2003.

This action would also be mutually beneficial: while reducing whale collisions by 90%, it also would be safer for ship passage. Those collective efforts translated to an increase of the right-whales’ population by 2% annually.

“Our partnership shows that it is possible to find the kind of balance needed in society to continue to make progress, while being responsible for the protection of the environment,” stated John Logan of Irving Oil.

The head of a North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) above the surface, alongside the back of another whale.
North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis). Image: Moira Brown © Moira Brown

The next venture for Moira Brown was to help decrease collisions in Roseway Basin, off the coast of Nova Scotia. The biggest challenge was that shipping lanes had not already been established there. However, after a lot of discussion and additional trips to the IMO, Transport Canada finally adopted an Area to be Avoided (ATBA) in Roseway Basin by 2008.

And happily, most ships are obeying this ATBA: 88% of vessels were avoiding the area within the first year. As a particular surly ship captain said during an IMO meeting, “It is the right time to do the right thing for the right whale!”

It has become clear that keys to getting solutions implemented are people who care, partnerships that matter, and the establishment of realistic and effective solutions. As John concluded, “This is a model of working together and something that can be applied to conserve and protect our environment, and yet not impede progress.”

So, our oceans’ plight is not necessarily filled with doom and gloom. There are actions that we can take as individuals, as well as in working with larger scale organizations or industries that can make change happen. As all the café speakers noted, this will take time and a lot of work. But it can be done because it must be done.

Follow-Up Questions

  • How can governing agencies monitor species outside of MPAs and ensure their conservation beyond the protected area?
  • Moira’s next endeavour is tackling the major problem of whale entanglements in fishing lines. How can the average individual help this cause? What are some valid solutions that would suit both sides in this issue?