Fisheries and Oceans Canada says its decision to protect more than 9,000 square kilometres of ocean bottom off Nova Scotia will have a minimal impact on the province's fishing industry and a major impact in saving ancient cold water corals.

Canada is banning all forms of bottom fishing in two areas: 

  • Forty-nine square kilometres in the Jordan Basin 100 kilometres west of Nova Scotia
  • Nine thousand square kilometres in two underwater canyons — Corsair and Georges canyons farther from the coast, by Georges Bank

The corals can live for 1,000 years. The protections are part of the federal government commitment to protect 10 per cent of Canada's oceans by 2020. 

"We try to draw these areas as small as we can, but also protect the feature, which in this case is the corals," said Carl MacDonald, the acting regional manager for resource management at Fisheries and Oceans.

'Very small' catch area

The change bans people from lobster and crab-trap fishing on the bottom, trawl dragging, using a gill net, and hook-and-line fishing that uses anchors.

MacDonald said only seven lobster fishermen had catches in the Jordan Basin area closer to shore.

"In southwest Nova there are a thousand licences, so in terms of catch in the areas, it's very small and fishermen could move to adjacent areas," MacDonald said.

Carl MacDonald said only seven fishermen had catches in the Jordan Basin area closer to shore.

Carl MacDonald said only seven fishermen had catches in the Jordan Basin area closer to shore. (CBC)

Fisheries and Oceans said from 2011 to 2015, the value of commercial landings by bottom-contact fisheries within the two areas was below $300,000 per year. "This represented a small portion [less than 0.1 per cent] of the total annual landed value of all commercial fisheries in Maritimes region," a department spokesperson said. 

Some fishermen will have to move

Bernie Berry, president of the Coldwater Lobster Association, said the ban will force some long-time fishermen out of Jordan Basin. 

"We wish we could have avoided a closure, but it's not just happening in our waters. It's an initiative that started in the UN and I guess Canada is playing its part. The thing I guess is to be part of the designing of these protected areas and make sure they are not really harmful to the fishing industry, especially with huge exclusion zones and stuff like that," Berry told CBC News.

"Maybe at the end of the day we can work together and maybe some of these marine protected areas can be helpful in rebuilding stocks, like groundfish."

Accidental strikes kill 800-year-old colonies

Scientists say the coral colonies, which attach to hard rock on boulders or on the walls of canyons, can be hurt when bottom-contact fishing gear strikes them. "Once you hit it, they don't reattach and you have lost a colony or an animal that can be 800 years old," said Anna Metaxas, an oceanographer at Dalhousie University.

"These are very slow to reproduce, very slow to recruit. They have been designated a vulnerable marine ecosystem, so we are obligated to protect them," she said.

The federal government protected the corals using the federal Fisheries Act rather than a marine protected area (MPA) designation under the Oceans Act which offers more sweeping protections. Those can include banning offshore oil and gas activity. In a media briefing Monday, DFO officials downplayed the likelihood of either area as a potential target of oil and gas activity.

They said energy exploration in the underwater canyons is prevented under a George's Bank moratorium.

"Fishing activity was the primary threat," said Derek Fenton, an ocean planner with the department. "[The Fisheries Act] was the best tool for the job."

Effective method to protecting corals

Metaxas said the department opted for speed.

"The problem with the Fisheries Act closures is they are not as permanent and as long term as an MPA," she said. "It's easy to close and it's easier to open than an MPA. It was easier and quicker to do it this way."

The federal government has used the Fisheries Act for conservation protection at several other locations offshore Nova Scotia. Metaxas points to the first closure, the northeast channel conservation area, on the eastern Scotia shelf.

"It has been effective. We have been going there since 2001 and we were back in 2014. The corals are there, they are doing well and no corals damaged. It seems that it has worked," Metaxas said.

She predicted that meeting Ottawa's 10 per cent protection target will become more difficult if the government bans fishing in areas closer to shore, where there is more activity.