Fisheries and Oceans Canada Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced changes to end old drilling permits in Hecate Strait. The announcement comes on a February announcement that created new protected areas to help save fragile glass sponge reefs in Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound. A map shows the protected glass sponge reefs in Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

Ottawa to step up marine protections

Proposed changes could cancel legacy drilling permits in Hecate Strait, speed up new MPAs.

Plans to better protect Canada’s most sensitive marine areas could spell the end for old drilling permits in Hecate Strait.

Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc said last week that changes to the Canada Petroleum Resources Act will allow Ottawa to cancel and compensate companies for old oil-and-gas drilling permits granted in what are now protected marine areas.

In February, the federal government created a new protected area to stop bottom-trawling and other activity that would damage the fragile glass sponge reefs in Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound.

Once believed to have died out about 40 million years ago, the three reefs are made of sea sponges with silica skeletons. Some of the glass structures are eight storeys tall, and up to 9,000 years old.

Last week, LeBlanc also announced changes to the Oceans Act that will speed up the process for creating new marine protected areas — changes that allow for temporary, five-year prohibitions on activities such as fishing, seabed mining, drilling, or seismic testing while environmental research is underway.

Linda Nowlan, staff counsel for the West Coast Environmental Law Association, said both changes are a welcome step.

“These proposed amendments are useful short-term additions to the federal Oceans Act and related oil and gas laws, but they could and should go much further,” she said, according to a press release.

But along with a group of 15 university marine scientists who wrote LeBlanc an open letter last week, Nowlan criticized the federal government for continuing to allow limited resource extraction even in marine protected areas.

“We don’t have these discussions for national parks on land, so why are they so common in the ocean arena?” said Nowlan who urged LeBlanc to also step up the minimum standard of protection in the Oceans Act.