WWF-Canada Blog:

The strange case of the Bowie Seamount: The least-protected protected area in the sea

Fishes, corals, sponges and other sea life flourish on underwater mountains, or seamounts. Known by the Haida Nation as Sgaan Kinghlas (meaning, a supernatural being looking out), Bowie Seamount rises more than 3000 metres high from the seabed to just 25 metres below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. Bowie is particularly rich in marine life because  its peak is so close to the surface, offering  shallow and productive waters in the deep sea to unique and diverse marine  species.

Blogphoto© Neil McDaniel / WWF-Canada,  A juvenile yelloweye rockfish rests in a crevice on the Bowie Seamount.

WWF has been working to protect Bowie and two neighbouring seamounts for more than a decade. We celebrated Sgaan Kinghlas-Bowie Seamount’s formal establishment as a marine protected area back in 2008 – 10 years after it was recognized as an “Area of Interest” – and appreciated being recognized  for our role in the process. However, we also wanted to make sure the protection was meaningful. So for the past 5 years, we’ve been working with our colleagues on the Sgaan Kinghlas-Bowie Seamount Advisory Committee to produce a strong management plan— essential to the success of every protected area. These plans define which special ecological features need protection; set conservation objectives, lay out enforcement, monitoring and surveillance activities; and coordinate all the different ocean users, activities and legal requirements.

Federal rules call for this management plan to be complete within two years of the establishment of a marine protected area (MPA).  It’s now 2013, five years after Bowie was named – so the natural question to ask is “What’s the hold up?”  WWF asked this of the Environment Commissioner last year, on the 4th anniversary of Bowie’s designation.  Nothing in the responses pointed to what we now know is the reason for the delay: a complex legal puzzle that could undermine the promised protection we thought we’d won.

Let me explain.  Habitat degradation is the single greatest threat to the Seamount; activities like fishing and shipping have the potential to harm habitat. Key to Bowie’s protection was an agreement on how to manage fishing in the MPA. The Seamount was divided into three zones: Fishing was prohibited in two zones, and a limited sablefish fishery was allowed in a third.  We welcomed the sablefish association’s research into assessing the impacts of their traps on Bowie’s deepwater habitat and species. WWF also helped strengthen the habitat assessment required to put in place a sustainable MSC-certified sablefish fishery.

All the major players at the table agreed to this plan – including Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), the sablefish association and the Advisory Committee. So what’s the catch?

As it turns out, you can’t create zones to limit fishing in MPAs at the management planning stage – unless the zones have first been formally laid out when the MPA is being created. But for some reason, DFO did not formalize the zoning plan that we all agreed to in the 2008 Bowie regulations. In fact, those regulations permit fishing if it’s done in accordance with the federal Fisheries Act.  Knowing that technicality when we were putting the MPA agreement together five years ago, would have allowed for the development of effective protection for the Sgaan Kinghlas-Bowie Seamount marine area.

This key blockage was only revealed to the Bowie Advisory Committee in the final days of 2012.

But while WWF and other Advisory Committee members were in the dark, it turns out that the DFO was made aware of this issue right after the MPA was designated, and has been corresponding with federal lawyers ever since. For five years, we’ve pushed to get a strong management plan in place. We asked questions about its delay. Yet this fairly substantial issue never came to the surface until a few weeks ago.

Which leaves us wondering:

  • –Is the Sgaan Kinghlas-Bowie Seamount MPA less protected than other protected areas of the ocean?
  • –Have the past fifteen years spent to protect this seamount been in vain if the MPA regulations don’t do that much? Will fishing be allowed, just as before, in all parts of the MPA? Or should we rely on DFO’s promise that the fishing will be restricted as agreed, but using a more “flexible” approach?
  • –Why did it take five years to tell us that there was a major problem in finalizing the management plan – even after we tried to get answers using all the tools we knew, including a petition to the Commissioner of the Environment?
  • –And most importantly, when will we lessen the risk to this rare seamount by implementing full protection?

These are some of the questions we hope will be answered in tomorrow’s report. And if they’re not, we’ll keep asking.

More than ever before, DFO needs to roll up their sleeves and work with the Council of the Haida Nation (now a member of the cooperative MPA Management Board) and with the Advisory Committee to develop a management plan that puts the conservation and protection of Sgaan Kinghlas-Bowie Seamount MPA first.