Canada should lead the wave on ocean stewardship

Canada should lead the wave on ocean stewardship

Is it about fish?

That might be the guess of the common Canadian as the federal government announced on Friday the first tranche of funds to be issued under its much vaunted superclusters initiative. At a news conference in St. John’s, Newfoundlander and Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan announced $153 million in federal funds for the ocean supercluster, to be matched by corporate constituents. Navdeep Bains, minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, made a similar announcement in Dartmouth, N.S.

Seabed mining and offshore aquaculture are seen as growth opportunities.
Seabed mining and offshore aquaculture are seen as growth opportunities.  (Andrew Vaughan / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO)

Even those who tried to read in on the file when the winning clusters were announced — minus the money — in February might have floundered through the summary language of the objectives of the Oceans group. “The core strategic priorities for the Ocean Supercluster are to formulate a shared innovation map to guide technology leadership projects, and to undertake a program of cluster building to enhance the quality of collaborations, while also extending their benefits widely,” the overview reads.

So not about fish then. Or is it?

The patient reader might pluck such phrases as “develop world-class-talent” and “extend supply chains” and “scale companies.” Those are ambitious goals for what appears now to be a rather small amount of funds, a sum that seems even more modest when considering that the list of 122 partners includes such corporate heavyweights as Canada Steamship Lines, Irving Shipbuilding Inc. and Siemens. The investment of federal funds is to be spread across five years. So now we are looking at an annual investment of $30 million and change. Or a year’s compensation to a super-priced CEO.

The target: the government is gambling that the five superclusters combined will inject $50 billion into the Canadian economy across a 10-year span and create 50,000 middle-class jobs. The oceans supercluster specifically has set a $10-billion target, growing the ocean economy to $30 billion from $20 billion by 2050.

Here’s something about fish: The wild fishery sector will be transformed into a digitally driven, sustainable source of new economic and social value. So will such biggies as offshore oil and gas. Shipping, defence and tourism are in there too. Seabed mining and offshore aquaculture are seen as growth opportunities.

But hold on.

In its strategy report, the ocean supercluster draws heavily on the work of the OECD, specifically that organization’s 2016 projection of the future growth of the ocean economy, potentially doubling in size to more than $3 trillion (U.S.) by 2030. But the expansion of ocean-based activities will prove challenging, The ocean is already under stress from overexploitation, pollution, declining biodiversity and climate change. “Hence, realizing the full potential of the ocean will demand responsible, sustainable approaches to its economic development,” the OECD notes.

The feds, in contrast, give insufficient weight to the uncertainties and risks attached to future economic ocean development. Surely the words “seabed mining” are enough to set off alarms. Let’s put it in the context of OECD language: “Should global temperature increases exceed 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels, the business-as-usual scenario suggests that the ocean environment would experience far-reaching changes in terms of regional biodiversity patterns, trophic linkages, nutrient cycling and habitat provision, and pose considerable challenges for the future development of ocean-based industries.” Rising sea temperatures, decreasing oxygen levels and pollution would lead to global losses in fisheries and tourism revenues, for starters.

It’s curious that the ocean cluster appropriates the OECD language — “An important constraint on the development of the ocean economy is the current deterioration of its health” — as a launch pad to lament that Canada “has too small a piece of the proverbial growing pie.” Pie. Oceans. Fish. It’s getting confusing. But the bottom line, I take it, is we are not maximizing the ocean like, say, Norway.

If Canada wants to emerge as a world leader in this — and I’ve expressed skepticism in the past about the government picking winners — the heavy first emphasis should be on the country setting a new global standard as ocean steward. The OECD ponders the fluidity of water, the travel of marine species, the rapid shifting of species from one water column to another, the realization that nutrients and pollutants can be retained for several decades until they are returned by ocean circulation. Simply: “What happens in one place may affect what happens elsewhere.”

“The sustainable use of the ocean cannot be achieved unless the management of all sectors of human activities affecting the ocean is coherent,” the global body concludes.

Will Canada’s ocean supercluster produce a coherent, integrated strategy that puts ocean health first? Will Norway sit up and take notice? How much bang can you get for 30 million bucks? This whole cluster notion, advanced by Dominic Barton way back when, has been a key plank of the prime minister’s promise to advance the Canadian economy. The election is just less than a year away. That gives the government time to produce quartlery audits that tell Canadians precisely how well this promise is playing out.

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