Quebec and Canada agree to first joint protected marine area

Quebec and Canada are working together to designate and protect 10 per cent of marine areas in the St. Lawrence Gulf and estuary by 2020, to safeguard the environment, protect the whales and make the fishery sustainable.

Oil and gas exploration to be banned in the American Bank underwater zone

Lobster fishermen haul in their catch in L'Anse-à-Beaufils, one of the landings affected by the closures announced by DFO on Monday. (Claude Côté/Radio-Canada)

Quebec and Canada have agreed to the first joint designation by the two governments of a marine protected area in Quebec waters off the Gaspé coast.

The protected area, known as the American Bank, covers a 1,000-square-kilometre area between Percé and Bonaventure Island.

"This is good news for the Gaspé and good news for the planet," said Isabelle Melançon, Quebec's environment minister.

Federal Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier, left, and Quebec Environment Minister Isabelle Melançon sign an agreement to designate the American Bank, off the Gaspé coast, as the first joint protected marine area in Quebec waters. (CBC)

Federal Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier, who is also MP for Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine Lebouthillier, noted the American Bank is in her riding, which she called "the most beautiful in Canada."

Melançon and Lebouthillier made the joint announcement in Gaspé on Thursday.

Lebouthillier said the joint process took three years to negotiate and will allow the re-establishment of the right whale and seals in the region.

The move won praise from Lynne Morissette, who heads the marine science consultancy Expertise Marine, and is a member of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium.

Morisette said the new designation is "just one step of many" toward the goal the two governments have set of 10 per cent protected marine areas, where no exploration for oil or gas or other industrial activity is allowed.

A loss for fishers, some say

But Quebec's fishing industry considers the new protected marine area a new constraint, on top of restrictions on fishing lobsters and crabs, to save the whales.

Bill Sheheen, vice president of Gagnon et Fils Ltée, a Ste-Thérèse-de-Gaspé seafood processing plant, said restrictions on lobster and snow crab fishing to protect the whales, mean fishers and fish-plant workers have lost a good portion of their income.

A 1,000-square-kilometre area off the Gaspé coast has been designated a protected marine area.

"The whales were already gone," Sheheen told CBC, suggesting the marine mammals have left fishing zones. "So it's nonsense that that zone is shut down [to the fishery] for 15 days."

Federal Fisheries Minister Dominic Leblanc took exception to Sheheen's classification of the fishing ban as nonsense, noting that elected officials in the United States are watching what Canada does to protect the whales.

"These are tough measures and it's disruptive and aggravating for the industry," LeBlanc said. "But people have to be responsible with the way they express and use words like nonsensical."

LeBlanc said there is a consensus among American and Canadian scientists with expertise in the protection of whales that shutting down the fishery at times "is the best way to protect them."

And it is also protection to ensure continued access for Canadian seafood in the U.S. market.

"The consequence of getting it wrong is that the processors who worry about these measures would be selling their product for 50 cents a pound, because we'd lose 80 per cent of our export market overnight," the minister said.

"I would rather have some disruption and some adjustments this year then suddenly find that we're barred and closed from access to markets that have been very lucrative to Canada."

The two governments now have designated 1.3 per cent of the marine areas of the St. Lawrence Estuary and the Gulf of St. Lawrence as protected areas.

Quebec and Ottawa plan to have 10 per cent protected marine areas, preserving 14,500 square kilometres, by 2020.

Lebouthillier noted that the intent is also to protect the fisheries, which account for 33 per cent of the Gaspé economy.

"We want a sustainable fishery," Melançon said, adding that some fishing could be allowed in this designated area and different species, such as plankton, could be protected elsewhere.

But Réginald Cotton, a Gaspé fisherman and town councillor for the town of Gaspé, said those who earn their living from fishing do believe in sustainable development, but they have been forgotten.

"Yes, we must protect the whales," Cotton said in a telephone interview. "But for whom? And why?"

Cotton called the designation of the new protected  area, in a zone that is also a favoured fishing spot, "a disaster."

"Who is going to see the sea feathers and sea cucumbers?" Cotton said, referring to exotic species found in the American Bank area.

"No one is going to see that."

For Cotton, making the designated areas a priority ignores people in the Gaspé who earn their living from the sea.