Letter Requesting that Human Impacts on Oceans be Included in Assessing Ecologically Significant Habitats

Publication Date: 
November 11, 2012

Sierra Club Atlantic's Dr. Fred Winsor is participating in consultations to identify areas that are important in terms of their contribution to biodiveristy, uniqueness, and productivity off Newfoundland and Labrador (what the Department of Fisheries and Oceans referes to as "Ecologically and Biologically Significant Areas" or EBSAs). Fred wrote this letter to ask that the process of identifying ESBAs include the impact of humans on the ecosystems being studied, since some areas now depleted - such as fishing grounds near the Grey Islands off the Great Northern Peninsula - were formerly hotspots for the fishery - and could be once again with efforts at ocean food web recovery. The letter also gives a great historical overview of the European and Canadian fishery over the past five hundred years.

Attn: Nadine Templeman, DFO St. John's, Newfoundland


Dear Nadine Templeman: 


We write as a follow-up to the meeting on Ecologically and Biologically SignificantAreas (EBSAs) held in St. John's, Newfoundland, October 23-25 2012. It was encouraging to view and hear the findings regarding Canada's ocean habitats off northern Newfoundland and the coast of Labrador. We view this as an ongoing process as we all strive to better understand the complex dynamics of our oceans.


One of the documents circulated set out criteria for identifying EBSAs. They included: uniqueness or rarity, aggregation, fitness consequences, resilience, and naturalness. These are fine and worked very well as a study frame work. The area which was not covered was discussion on the ocean's most powerful and often destructive predator - humans. While it was clear at the meetings that human effects would not be discussed – we think it should be the next subject for consideration. In that context we would expand on the statements on the bottom of page 7 of the NL Bioregion study.


“ The NL Shelf ecosystem has undergone major changes in the distribution and abundance of most species as a result of environmental changes and exploitation. Most drastic changes took place during the late 1980s and early 1990s including the declines and collapse of many important groundfish stocks.”


Continuous commercial fishing by European nations along the northeast coast of Newfoundland and the coast of Labrador can be traced back to 1501. The French operated fishing stations along Newfoundland's northeast coast until the settlement of the French shore question in 1904. Fishing families from other locations in Newfoundland moved to this area with their departure.  The English operated a migratory fishery on the coast of Labrador commencing with the end of the Seven Years War in 1763. That fishery expanded to a combined migratory-permanent settlement fishery with the commencment of sealing in the early 1800s and remained as such until the late 1960s.


The ongoing reliability of these inshore fisheries created aggregations of shore line communities – some permanent, some migratory. Their resilience was found in how and where they fished their resources . They concentrated mainly on fishing for cod and were usually limited to within three miles of land. The ocean beyond that - running out to the edge of the continental shelf – functioned as de facto marine protected areas or no-take zones because the great depths of water prevented fishing activities. 


Major disruptions in these formerly no take zones occurred commencing in the late 1950s early1960s.  The arrival of industrial offshore fishing fleets employing bottom trawls towing heavy steel plates or doors across the ocean floor for literally hundreds of miles on each fishing trip altered natural habitats in those areas. While the actual extent of the damage and disruption to the ocean floor remains unknown it resulted in a constant stream of demands for protection. The initial response was to expand the Territorial Sea boundary from three to twelve miles in 1964. This was followed by many countries declaring 200 mile economic zones in the 1970s. Canada did it in 1977. However Canada did not address the issue of using intrusive fishing technologies which cumulatively results in severe damage to the ocean floor, to vulnerable marine ecosystems, spawning grounds, and nursery areas and ultimately degrades the biodiversity of marine environments.


One of the outcomes of these technological advances in fishing technologies was the realization that the ocean, in this case the North-west Atlantic, requires protection. The response from the Canadian Government has been the Oceans Act. Its intention is to provide the tools which permit stewardship and sustainable exploitation of the ocean. However it should be noted that the EBSAs now being identified do not reflect pristine ocean habitats. Instead they represent marine environments affected by several decades of intensive, often destructive, human contact.  The challenge, now that these EBSAs have been identified,  is for steps to be taken to protect these biodiverse, productive habitats from further damage, thus permitting the ocean to recover its capacity for abundant sea life. We encourage co-operation from all groups to make this happen for present and future generations.



Fred Winsor PhD.( North-west Atlantic fisheries history) 

Conservation Chair, 

Sierra Club Canada, Atlantic 

St. John's, Newfoundland

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