What we heard: The future of the Oceans Protection Plan

Since the Oceans Protection Plan launched in November 2016, the Government of Canada has been working with Canadians and Indigenous peoples to protect our coasts and waterways for future generations.

Thanks to the Oceans Protection Plan:

  • marine shipping is safer in Canada
  • Canada’s marine species are more protected
  • Canada has improved our ability to prevent and respond to marine incidents, and
  • Indigenous communities have more input on how their traditional coasts and waterways are managed

This progress is the result of working with Indigenous peoples, coastal communities, the marine industry, academia, non-government organizations (NGOs) and other levels of government. By working together, we will make sure that Canada’s marine safety and environmental protections are world-class and meet Canadians’ expectations.

Through various ongoing events over the past five years – dialogue forums, discussions with program leads, formal governance structures, and online consultations – partners and stakeholders have helped shape the Oceans Protection Plan.

As the plan’s first phase ends, we need to continue to keep marine transportation safe and protect the environment for future generations. Renewing the Oceans Protection Plan will let us build on past results and focus on new areas.

In June and July of 2021, the Government of Canada launched virtual consultations as part of our commitment to involve Indigenous peoples and other marine stakeholders in shaping the next phase of the Oceans Protection Plan.

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Our engagement approach

Prior to consulting with partners and stakeholders, we reviewed the collective feedback that was gathered through engagement conducted under the Oceans Protection Plan over the past four years, which helped us understand our Indigenous partners and marine stakeholders’ priorities for the next phase of the Oceans Protection Plan. After reviewing all the information collected, we found that feedback focused on three priority areas:

  1. prevention, response and recovery
  2. technology, evidence and protecting ecosystems
  3. inclusion and transparency

Virtual meetings were set up with various levels of government, Indigenous partners, groups, and marine stakeholders. Some of these meetings were hosted or led by Transport Canada, while others were hosted by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans or the Canadian Coast Guard.

Meetings were structured to collect feedback, and participants were asked to request follow-up meetings or submit written submissions if they wanted to provide more feedback.

Participants were asked:

  • Are the three priority areas that have been identified important to you? Please explain.
  • Would you like to add more information to any of these priority areas to make them more relevant for your region or circumstance?
  • Are there other priority areas that should be addressed under the respective theme?

Between June 1 and July 31, 2021, there were over 40 different conversations with partners and stakeholders across Canada. More than 450 unique comments and questions were captured and noted through the meetings or written submissions that followed.

More than 60 organizations participated in meetings or provided written submissions. Most (59%) were Indigenous organizations, communities or governments.

Fig 1 ENG - OPP

Priorities for the next phase of the Oceans Protection Plan

Prevention, Response and Recovery

Under the Oceans Protection Plan, we introduced measures to improve the marine safety system’s ability to prevent, prepare for and respond to marine incidents. Respondents were asked for feedback on this priority area. We were especially interested in feedback on:

  • improving communication during a marine safety incident
  • how local communities could be more involved in responding to marine safety incidents (like a vessel spill, monitoring, collision, etc.)
  • addressing the risks of interactions between large and small vessels

Key points raised

Most feedback focused on the effectiveness of current programs and systems at responding to spills or marine incidents, with a majority of comments suggesting that a well-funded, broad approach with clearer and quicker communication to respond in the event of a marine safety incident could minimize the associated damage and impact.

All respondents were concerned with the increasing volume of traffic, the changing nature of vessels (for example, the increase in recreational vessels operating in the North), and the challenge these changes create for preventing, responding to, and recovering from marine pollution incidents.

For Northern respondents, the lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities of the various actors involved in responding to a marine incident, and specifically how these actors work together during a marine incident, make Northern communities feel vulnerable. Other aspects of the marine safety system that sometimes exacerbate challenges in the North include reliance on outdated and ineffective communication systems, as well as inadequate access to fundamental tools, equipment and resources required for effective response.

In both the east and west coasts, respondents were worried about interactions between large and small vessels (like fishing vessels), especially how vessels communicate with each other and how traffic is managed.

Proposed areas of focus

Invest in communities

There was strong support for existing programs that help local communities be involved in the marine safety system, including:

Respondents noted that this additional capacity has facilitated a more direct role for local communities in preventing and responding to marine safety incidents on their local waters, contributing to better outcomes and results.

Use Indigenous expertise to inform policies

Many Indigenous respondents stated they want to be involved in setting priorities and developing policies for preventing, preparing for, and responding to marine pollution.

Indigenous communities’ understanding of local navigation hazards, marine areas of cultural or archeological importance, and other knowledge could help better understand and manage the impacts of marine activities and keep marine transportation safe.

Technology, evidence and protecting ecosystems

The Oceans Protection Plan has shown how important technology is to gather the evidence we need to protect ecosystems. This is key to effective marine safety measures, as well as preserving and restoring ecosystems.

Respondents were asked how important they felt these issues were to the next phase of the Oceans Protection Plan:

  • continuing research on cumulative effects of marine shipping activities
  • improving access to timely and reliable information to support meaningful input towards marine conservation and safe movement of vessels
  • incorporating Indigenous and local knowledge with scientific research to inform decisions on protecting ecosystems and areas of cultural importance

Key points raised

Most respondents agreed that protecting the oceans must look at the ocean as a whole to be effective. In other words, we should use an ecosystem approach. Approaches that focus on isolated issues aren’t very effective.

Respondents strongly supported using technologies to increase our awareness and understanding of how vessel traffic impacts the environment, especially the growing effects of marine shipping.

Many respondents supported programs that restore ecosystems to their original state, like the Coastal Restoration Fund and Abandoned and Wrecked Vessel Removal Program.

Proposed areas of focus

Close data gaps

Feedback showed there’s a need to improve the way we collect, share and analyze data – including historical and baseline data – that can help us protect and restore sensitive marine ecosystems.

A lot of this work started under Oceans Protection Plan projects like the Coastal Environmental Baseline Program and the Cumulative Effects of Marine Shipping. But much more is needed, and this work should be supported and expanded to other geographic areas in the future.

Use new technology

Using the latest communications technology could help us better understand and share real-time information with our marine partners. Areas that should be prioritized for development include:

  • working with our partners to manage vessel traffic
  • using technology that reduces the threat of underwater vessel noise to vulnerable marine mammals
  • creating an environment that supports effective de-carbonization and reduced pollution from the marine transportation system
Include Indigenous expertise to improve our evidence base

Many Indigenous respondents want Indigenous expertise and views to be used to improve the evidence base.

Indigenous knowledge is rooted in a deep understanding of oceans and waterways, and offers valuable evidence to support the programs and decisions protecting marine ecosystems.

Respondents flagged that any work to include Indigenous knowledge needs to consider the privacy and transparency issues associated with access, and make sure that Indigenous knowledge is carefully stored and managed.

Inclusion and transparency

The progress we’ve made under the Oceans Protection Plan is the direct result of working with Indigenous peoples, coastal communities, the marine industry, academia, NGOs and other levels of government. Although we’ve worked with these partners to support marine safety and protect coastal ecosystems, there’s much work left to do before we meet our goals.

Respondents were asked how relevant they found these topics, and what priorities they want addressed in the next phase of the Oceans Protection Plan. They brought up the following:

  • Supporting Indigenous Peoples and stakeholders’ capacity to participate
  • Building in more time and space for meaningful engagement, including between partners and stakeholders
  • Creating a better feedback loop to reflect information gathered through engagement and inform next steps
  • Creating more opportunities for collaborative approaches and consensus-based solutions (like Enhanced Maritime Situational Awareness, proactive vessel management etc.)

Key points

While many agreed that the Oceans Protection Plan has factored-in Indigenous expertise and experiences, most respondents agreed that more work needs to be done to make sure Indigenous partners are involved in shaping the way policies and programs are designed and delivered.

Of note, respondents felt that the current funding structure that supports Indigenous participation in Oceans Protection Plan programming isn’t enough. They felt the funding doesn’t meet the needs of the communities and won’t help them meet the plan’s goals. For example, the requirements to apply for, manage, and coordinate funding, places a heavy workload onto communities with fixed, limited resources. As a result, communities often need extra help to meet the workload related to securing federal funding.

The strain on administrative resources is made more difficult when communities are involved in multiple federal programs led by different departments or agencies. As well, the criteria for funding is often too strict and can lead communities to search for programs to fund an entire project. In turn, this complicates the reporting requirements and the community’s ability to make sure enough funding is secured.

Finally, respondents noted the disconnect between the short-term funding from the Oceans Protection Plan (3-5 years) and the long timelines (5+ years) for projects that communities and the plan are trying to establish. When funding isn’t secured for a project’s entire timeline, the community’s ability to plan, train, and manage resources is affected. This can then affect the success of long-term partnerships.

Industry stakeholders also flagged that their industry has limited capacity to help train and educate new people, and that they’ll need resources to train existing mariners ahead of expected labour shortages due to an aging workforce.

Indigenous participants highlighted the Enhanced Maritime Situational Awareness initiative as “reconciliation in action” due to its collaborative approach. Respondents stated they’d like to see similar approaches used in future Oceans Protection Plan programs.

Proposed areas of focus

Build capacity and offer other supports

Indigenous participants noted that the Oceans Protection Plan has created more opportunities for Indigenous Peoples to get involved in marine safety. But now, the plan needs stable long-term funding to continue this work over the long-term.

Our Indigenous partners’ ability to be actively involved in designing, developing and delivering marine safety and protecting ecosystems varies widely between regions and partners. Depending on the nature of their involvement, we need ongoing support to build our Indigenous partners’ ability to participate. This could include:

  • Securing the human and financial resources Indigenous partners need to actively participate in federal projects that directly affect their well-being or need their expertise
  • Making sure Indigenous partners have the information and skills they need to meet government requirements (like funding applications and reporting requirements)
  • Securing the tools and supplies they need to fulfill critical roles and responsibilities, and
  • Giving them access to decision-making structures and forums that influence and shape federal marine programming

Expand existing partnership models

Indigenous respondents noted that existing partnership models built under the Oceans Protection Plan could serve as models for other governance arrangements with the federal government. For instance, the reconciliation framework agreement between the Government of Canada and 14 North Coast First Nations has allowed partners to address critical marine related issues through a set governance structure.

Improve federal coordination

All regional respondents want federal departments involved in the Oceans Protection Plan to work together to create better and more consistent engagement. When many different agencies, departments and organizations all work on the same issue affecting a community, but from different perspectives, mandates, and requirements, it places considerable pressure on small communities with limited resources. They felt that improved, wide-spread coordination would reduce the workload involved in participating in these events and limit engagement fatigue.

Regional snapshots

This section offers insight into regional views on priority issues, marine shipping and protecting the ocean.

Atlantic region

In Atlantic Canada, feedback focused on these Oceans Protection Plan initiatives:

Key points

Partners and stakeholders felt that the Oceans Protection Plan wasn’t designed to address the needs of Atlantic Canada. Moving forward, they want the next phase of the plan to support stable and meaningful relationships, and for opportunities to engage Indigenous youth in protecting oceans and mariners.

Atlantic participants also felt that considering Indigenous knowledge and expertise is a critical next step to improve the way we protect the marine environment. The “Cumulative Effects of Marine Shipping initiative” was noted as a possible model that could be expanded on. There was also an interest in including fishing vessel and pleasure craft safety issues, as well as shipping safety issues.

St. Lawrence and Great Lakes region

Within the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes region, feedback focused on these Oceans Protection Plan initiatives:

Key points

Respondents were concerned over the increasing volume and size of vessels within this region, especially how they affect smaller local vessels. They also noted that navigating in-land waters have unique considerations and is much different than navigating the open ocean. Respondents want local communities to be more involved and have better resources (for example: equipment and training) so they can respond to marine safety incidents.

As with other regions, participants emphasized that federal marine programs need to:

  • better coordinate existing federal marine programs outside of the Oceans Protection Plan
  • better coordinate data collection
  • improve work with the provinces and territories
  • make better use of existing platforms for existing projects

Finally, the cumulative effects of marine shipping along the St. Lawrence was a top concern. Many participants felt there is a need for more support for projects that are looking at how this shipping effects ecosystems and how these effects can be managed.

Arctic region - Inuit Nunangat

Across the Inuit Nunangat region (the traditional territory of the Inuit, made up of Nunavut, northern Quebec, northern Labrador and the northern Northwest territories), feedback focused on these Oceans Protection Plan initiatives:

Key points

Respondents stressed the importance of a “distinctions-based” approach when working with Indigenous peoples. A distinctions-based approach highlights the unique needs and challenges of people living in the North compared to southern Canada.

Any priorities, policies or programs that affect the North should be rooted by the Inuit’s experiences, expertise, and knowledge.

Respondents also noted a need to improve the region’s ability to:

  • search for and rescue people
  • respond to marine incidents (by funding vessels, equipment, training, etc.)
  • coordination across the region

Participants felt that outcomes for the Inuit could be improved with better coordination and communication between governments and stakeholders regarding any policy or regulatory changes being considered, and how these changes could impact local communities.

Better access to traffic management tools will improve local communities’ awareness of nearby marine traffic and will inform local decision-making on marine issues.

Respondents from Nunavik (the traditional territory of the Inuit in northern Quebec) were concerned that they weren’t properly involved in consultations and plans for Oceans Protection Plan initiatives. They want more chances to exchange ideas on marine issues with representatives from government, the marine industry, and other users.

Pacific region

Across the Pacific region, partners and stakeholders were involved in a wider range of Oceans Protection Plan initiatives compared to other regions.

Frequently referenced initiatives include:

Key issues

Respondents noted that it’s important to understand cultural protocols, local needs and interests to successfully implement a program and achieve desired results. The ability for Indigenous peoples to be involved in the marine safety system is a top priority.

This includes:

  • Building and maintaining institutional capacity over the long term
  • Offering access to sustained funding with a small workload
  • Managing potential losses due to personnel changes
  • Supporting more co-development or co-management with partners across more projects and initiatives

Ongoing work is needed to reduce barriers to entry in the marine industry.

Respondents felt that we need a better understanding of the cumulative impacts of marine shipping, one that includes the expertise and experiences of Indigenous peoples, to better inform decisions. This includes understanding the impacts of shipping on marine ecosystems and other nearby ecosystems as well (like land, air, inland waters, etc.).

They also want the Government of Canada to work more with Indigenous communities and leaders to determine how to weave their expertise and experiences into decision-making processes. Respondents want access to more timely information and data, particularly baseline data since it relates to both marine safety and protection of ecosystems.

Many respondents felt there is a need for more projects that focus on preventing and recovering from marine accidents, not just responding to them. They want incidents to be better communicated and reported to partners and they want help building their communities’ ability to respond to incidents and enforce marine safety regulations.

When it came to the next phase of the Oceans Protection Plan, respondents felt that the structures in place under existing agreements need to be better used to allow Indigenous partners to directly contribute to future programs.

Indigenous and coastal communities also want federal departments to work together more. Better collaboration between federal departments will help these communities participate more effectively and achieve better outcomes.

Conclusion and next steps

The key findings from this engagement, both regionally and nationally, have been valuable in providing further clarity on the overall priorities of Indigenous partners and stakeholders across Canada on oceans protection going forward.

As the federal government considers the next phase of the Oceans Protection Plan, these findings will be used to shape potential policy, program, legislative and regulatory changes.

Furthermore, as more becomes known about what a next phase might look like, the federal government will continue to engage with Oceans Protection Plan Indigenous partners and stakeholders to work together on the prioritization, design and implementation of initiatives and projects in the future.

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