DFO finalizes marine protected area off Cape Breton

The 4,364-square-kilometre area, equivalent to three-quarters the size of P.E.I., will now be off limits to oil and gas activities and bottom-trawling.

The marine protected area is equivalent to 3/4 of the size of Prince Edward Island

The leatherback sea turtle is an endangered species and part of its migratory route includes feeding in the St. Ann's Bank area. (John Dickinson/CBC)

A swath of ocean off the coast of Cape Breton that is home to many species of fish and is a feeding ground for endangered leatherback turtles is now a marine protected area.

The 4,364-square-kilometre area east of Scaterie Island, N.S., will now be off limits to oil and gas activities and bottom-trawling. It's roughly three-quarters the size of Prince Edward Island.

The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced the finalized boundaries for St. Anns Bank Marine Protected Area on Thursday, which is World Oceans Day. 

Seventy-five per cent of the area, known as Zone 1, will be off limits to commercial fishing. Research and science-related activity will still be permitted in that zone, as will Aboriginal fishing.

$160K in lost fishing income

The department said a cost-benefit analysis found there would be $160,000 in lost landings as a results of the measures.

"That's less than one per cent of the total activity that goes on on eastern Cape Breton," said Cory Large, a senior economist with DFO. 

Fisheries and Oceans says it changed the boundaries for Zone 2 after feedback from the public about fishing areas. (Department of Fisheries and Oceans)

He said about half the losses would come from less halibut longline fishing and another quarter would be felt in the snow crab fishery. The remaining $40,000 in lost income would be felt in the red fish, shrimp, rock crab and scallop industries, Large said.

Revised boundaries

The boundaries unveiled Thursday allow for more lobster and halibut fishing compared to the initial plan released in December, said Maxine Westhead, who heads DFO's protected areas and conservation planning group.

It will be allowed in Zone 2, which now encompass 720 square kilometres or 16.5 per cent of the total area. 

"That was expanded a little bit to allow for more fishing area," she said. 

The department received 900 pieces of public feedback to the plan. It included form support letters from environmental NGOs campaigns and 10-12 substantial written submissions, Westhead said. 

"There were a lot of letters of support for leaving the area as is, there was letters of support for changing it … we have to take that all into consideration," she said. 

Loss of fishing grounds

The Cape Breton Fish Harvesters Association had argued inshore fisheries — such as halibut, lobster and crab — use non-destructive gear, and should be allowed everywhere.

The Cape Breton Fish Harvesters Association had hoped the new boundaries wouldn't apply to inshore fishermen. (CBC)

Veronika Brzeski, the group's executive director, said the new boundaries will mean a loss of about 15 per cent of one of the region's groundfish harvesting areas.

"That's a huge chunk. It's going to be difficult for fishermen to find adequate grounds outside of it," she said. 

"It could be also a displacement of fishing grounds if we have bigger and more powerful boats fishing on the outskirts of the [Marine Protected Area] that would displace us." 

Small portion of overall targets

Westhead said the area has a rich habitat, ranging from 30 to 400 metres deep. It's home to 30 species of sea sponges, Atlantic wolffish, cod, red fish, witch flounder and white hake. 

The department plans to spend $280,000 a year managing and monitoring the area. People can apply to the department to use it for commercial tourism, educational or research.

Westhead said part of the reason St. Anns Bank was selected was that it was anticipated to have the lowest economic impact compared to other proposed sites along the Atlantic Coast. 

The federal government has committed to protecting five per cent of marine and coastal areas by 2017 and 10 cent by 2020. 

St. Anns Bank will make up 0.08 per cent of Canada's targets, Westhead said. 

About the Author

Elizabeth McMillan

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Over the past nine years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. She can be reached at elizabeth.mcmillan@cbc.ca

With files from Holly Connors