Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Southern Strait of Georgia National Marine Conservation Area Reserve

Environment Canada is about to hold yet another round of consultations regarding its proposed Southern Strait of Georgia National Marine Conservation Area Reserve. This is the third go round of a lengthy process to put forward some strategic ideas and garner public input and support for the plan. But is it realistic, or is it rather a misguided, overly-ambitious and thinly-disguided attempt at empire-building? Only time will tell, but in its present state the draft feasibility study is full of platitudes, pays lip service to every planning buzzword imaginable, and basically reinvents the wheel.

In a nutshell, the idea of creating a marine conservation area right smack in the middle of one of the world's busiest shipping lanes seems preposterous. What the Government of Canada should be doing instead is coming up with a comprehensive plan for the area - one which is built on consensus, shared values and visions, and mutual understanding. Instead, what we face is a needlessly complicated bureaucratic process which no one understands, which duplicates existing regulatory systems, and which merely adds to the existing planning approaches rather than building on them or replacing them. This is unfortunate, for it forces even those who believe in intelligent planning and sustainable development to reject an initiative that would otherwise be laudable, on the grounds that it is unworkable and impractical.

The officials responsible for the elaboration of this feasibility need to go back to basics, and to refrain from hopelessly raising public expectations as to what the process is to achieve. Commercial shipping is expected to expand by leaps and bounds in the years to come. A report issued May 9, 2005, for instance, by the Western Transportation Advisory Council, predicts that container shipping traffic in BC is expected to triple in the course of the next ten years. Although part of this growth will be taken up by a new container terminal in Prince Rupert, much of it will come from the Lower Mainland. In greater Vancouver, for instance, container capacity is expected to grow from the current 1.7 million TEUs to over 5 million. At Roberts Bank, a third berth is being built at the Deltaport terminal, and an entirely new second three berth terminal is also planned. Such expansion plans come on the heels of an already nmajor expansion of container handling capacity at the Centerm and Vanterm container terminals in Burrard Inlet. The Centerm terminal, recently bought by Dubai Ports World, has already been expanded from a capacity of 360,000 TEUs per year to 800,000, and is slated to grow even further to 1.2 million TEUs per year.

Can this kind of rapid growth ever be compatible with conservation values?; if so, how? Would one limit the size of the vessels, for instance, or the number of vessels in the area at any given time, or create zones that are off limit to cargo vessels, tankers and the like? These are all perfectly valid questions, because Boundary Pass, the principal shipping route through the area, is right smack in the middle of the proposed conservation area. This would seem to make a mockery of the idea of conservation, since an oil spill from one of these ships could cause enormous damage to the local marine ecosystem.

In addition, more emphasis needs to be placed on supporting the development of existing bodies, such as the Islands Trust, and existing initiatives such as the Southern Resident Killer Whale Conservation Strategy and Georgia Basin Action Plan, rather than creating new mechanisms, institutions and processes to deal with pressing issues involving conflicting use and values. Thus, instead of scrapping the current initiative, it should undergo a complete rethink as to what it should seek to achieve, and how it should try to get there.


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