Cultivating growth in Canada's ocean economy: Smart planning would lead to jobs and safeguards for the environment

(This op-ed ran in The Hill Times this week. Co-authored with Nicole Schaefer, Director of Sustainable Ocean Solutions Inc.)
Basically, Marine Spatial Planning gathers together all the industries, indigenous groups, governments, NGOs, local communities and other ocean users to develop a management regime for the future use of any given ocean space. It’s a process that involves the visualization of ocean uses and potential conflicts of interest in the form of marine spatial plans and eventually results in management decisions for ocean space. In that sense marine spatial plans are like community plans for our oceans. On land, community plans help make sure that our cities and towns remain livable and prosperous as they grow. In the same way, marine spatial plans provide for economic activity, environmental protection and sustainable development in the ocean.
So how does this cultivate economic growth? Simply put if we don’t proactively engage in managing our oceans resources we’re going to be mired in conflicts and inefficient processes. Nobody wants to invest in a climate like that.
What policy makers have to realize now is that in some respects the writing is on the wall. The economic drivers for a comprehensive planning process like Marine Spatial Planning are gradually beginning to appear. As Canada struggles to transform its energy economy, there is renewed interest in offshore oil and gas extraction, as well as emerging opportunities for ocean renewable energy resource development. At the same time, the environmental damage that our dependence on fossil fuels is causing to marine ecosystems has become more apparent. There is no better example than the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Windmill, close-up. Wind Farm at Castilla-La Mancha, Central Spain (c) Carlos G. Vallecillo/WWF-Canon
In Europe offshore wind power was and continues to be one of the biggest drivers for forward looking marine planning.  Due to European legislation that supports the development of renewable ocean energy and seeks to achieve a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, offshore wind farm development is catching up. Several countries, including Germany, The Netherlands, Denmark, and the UK have announced national political goals regarding the amount of offshore wind power they intend to install until 2020. Offshore wind farms need ocean space, space that might already be occupied by other, traditional marine uses like marine transport, shipping or fishing. These uses are not necessarily compatible with each other. In fact, fisheries activities are usually banned from offshore wind farm sites for security reasons. Consequently, different marine uses are increasingly competing for limited ocean space.
Here in Canada, just this past month the federal government announced $20 million in funding for a tidal project in the Bay of Fundy and the purchase of four subsea cables. The province has also started a consultation process to help create legislation for renewable marine resources.
Competition for marine space is in general more likely to happen in densely used ocean regions. But it is not limited to these areas. On our Pacific coast, a large offshore wind development has been proposed for an area in Hecate Strait that is also the site of BC’s largest commercial crab fishery. Representatives of both industries point to the value of marine spatial planning as a vehicle for moving from conflict to productive conversations about how these two activities could co-exist.
In the mid nineties, Canada established a leadership position by recognizing the need for an integrated approach to oceans management by passing the Oceans Act. The Oceans Act mandates DFO to implement marine planning and the current government has made progress in different regions in different ways on this. What we don’t have is a comprehensive approach similar to the U.S. They’ve taken a nationally coordinated, but regional approach to federal waters to deal with conservation, conflicts, science and making decisions that will benefit local economies and ensure sustainability.
As our governments grapple with ballooning debt and an economy that looks more and more like a calm ocean sunset it may be worthwhile to be proactive when it comes to our ‘blue’ economy and job creation by cultivating growth. Smart oceans planning now means increased economic growth in modern, future oriented industries, less debt, livable, sustainable communities and an ecosystem that’s healthy well into the future.