An environmental non-profit group is calling on the federal government to designate the St. Lawrence Estuary as a protected area.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society says the designation is essential in order to protect the estuary — which stretches from Métis-sur-Mer to Baie-Saint-Paul — and the threatened and endangered species like beluga whales, blue whales and fin whales that inhabit its waters.

With TransCanada Corporation proposing to build a port in the estuary for shipping more than a million barrels of Alberta oil east, that means the designation is needed now more than ever, says CPAWS Quebec Director, Patrick Nadeau.

“To build it in the first place there is some very heavy-footed operations that need to happen, then once the port is in place we're expecting these huge supertankers and in case of a spill in that area it would have some irreversible and really dire consequences,” Nadeau told CBC News.

'“Right now we’re only protecting 1.3 per cent of marine environment, which is quite pathetic... Countries such as China and Russia are doing better than us.”- CPAWS Quebec Director, Patrick Nadeau

However, Nadeau says Fisheries and Oceans Canada took a step in the opposite direction when it recently downgraded the estuary’s status on its website from a protected area project to an “area of interest.”

Nadeau said that’s a significant change.

“We’re a bit dumbfounded, to be honest, because this ministry for 15 years has been pushing the project, but now all of a sudden it’s a simple area of interest,” he said.

Canada currently has 10 Marine Protected Areas, which Nadeau said is only a fraction of the areas that need federal protection.

“Right now we’re only protecting 1.3 per cent of marine environment, which is quite pathetic,” he said. “Countries such as China and Russia are doing better than us,” he said.

A Marine Protected Area designation would not mean the end of the TransCanada project in the St. Lawrence Estuary, he said, but it would add an important measure for preserving its fragile ecosystem.      

Fisheries and Oceans Canada did not return a request for an interview with CBC News.