Vast, Deep and Troubled: Why the Time for Investment in Oceans is Now

By Sarah Margolius and Darcy Dobell

Canada is dominated by iconic terrestrial landscapes (think Banff’s towering Rockies, the coastal ancient rainforests of Clayquot Sound, or the fall colours of Ontario) and we are also a maritime nation. Three vast oceans surround us. Their shining, scenic surfaces hide a stark reality: they are in deep trouble. Collapsing fisheries and starving whales tell only part of the story. Around the world, steep declines in ocean productivity and biodiversity are terrifying, especially in the context of ocean acidification and rising temperatures.

WCEL staff with community members touring the waters around Hornby Island, BC. (Photo: Stephanie Hewson)

Enter CEGN’s newly established Oceans Collaborative, an opportunity to make a seismic leap forward on a file that is fundamental to our planet’s survival. Chair Meaghan Calcari Campbell says simply, “Our work in environmental conservation can be pretty depressing.  But oceans bring joy and hope. They are also a great place to invest to make a meaningful difference.”

Recently launched with seed funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the goal of the Collaborative’s work and shared grantmaking is to protect and restore abundant marine ecosystems, and to support those who care for them. As the Program Officer for the Moore Foundation’s Marine Conservation Initiative, Meaghan shares her perspective on what helped drive the pioneering philanthropists to fund oceans work almost two decades ago.

Photo Credit: Whale Point

“As avid fisherfolk, Gordon and Betty Moore have talked about the inspiration for conservation that they drew from vast intact ecosystems and beautiful coastal spots – places like the thriving watersheds of British Columbia that teem with salmon and people who need them. This fueled the foundation’s work to fund areas that reflect the future we want and that is still possible – Hope Spots, if you will. These areas can also deliver the biggest bang for their buck. I hope other funders come to see the oceans as Hope Spots, connected to things that they care about. When it comes to climate change, food security, wildlife protection, Indigenous rights and stewardship and return on investment for the next generation, the oceans cover them all.”

There is also a window of opportunity.  The current government is living up to Canada’s international commitments to protect at least 10% of our oceans and coastal areas by 2020.  The global community is looking beyond next year, with scientists uniting around a call for protection of 30% of the planet’s surface by 2030. The Honourable Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, recently announced new standards for ocean protection that prohibit certain damaging industrial activities from taking place in Marine Protected Areas (MPA). He also designated the largest MPA to date, bringing Canada’s protected ocean spaces to just over 8%.

Steller sea lions near Hornby Island, BC. (Photo: Maryann Watson)

Beyond these successes, the oceans offer a meaningful opportunity for reconciliation by supporting the work of Indigenous communities who are leading the work on oceans and coastal spaces.

“We need to maintain a healthy ocean for the health of all people, including Indigenous communities who rely on food from the sea,” says Linda Nowlan, Staff Lawyer who heads the Marine Program at West Coast Environmental Law. Ms. Nowlan has been advocating to ensure the Government of Canada lives up to its commitments, and that pending legislation gets passed before the writ drops before the next federal election. “If Canada and other governments recognize Indigenous authority, respect their rights and law-making processes, then we are on the right path. But there is more work to be done.”

Plastic pollution is a growing threat to our oceans. Photo credit: Samuel Zeller/Unsplash

“Currently, a small fraction of Canadian environmental grantmaking is directed at oceans,” notes Darcy Dobell, Program Advisor to the Oceans Collaborative.  “Many grantmakers don’t think of themselves as ocean funders, even when their priority programs – climate, food security, biodiversity, reconciliation, community development – absolutely depend on healthy oceans. We have created an artificial divide between land and sea, and this limits our thinking at a time when we need to go all in to rebuild the abundance of natural systems.”

CEGN members are invited to share and coordinate efforts as part of the Oceans Collaborative. Join participants like Coast Opportunity Funds, The Donner Canadian Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Oak Foundation, Sitka Foundation, Tides Canada, and Vancity Community Foundation. Working together, we can help ensure that the federal Government continues to deliver on Canada’s marine conservation commitments, that Indigenous and community voices are amplified, and that the stage is set for further action to protect and restore marine biodiversity and productivity.

West Coast Environmental Law staff and Indigenous partners gather to discuss Indigenous environmental laws at the Kvai River Lodge in the Great Bear Rainforest, in the heart of Heiltsuk Nation territory. Part of the RELAW (Revitalizing Indigenous Law for Land, Air and Water) project. (Photo: Georgia Lloyd-Smith)