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Research Document 2020/007

An assessment to support decisions on authorizing scientific surveys with bottom-contacting gears in protected areas in the Estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence

By Benoît, H.P., Asselin, N.C., Surette, T., and Juillet, C.

Abstract

Canada is rapidly increasing the number of protected areas in its coastal and marine waters to meet international conservation targets. This has created an urgent need for approaches to determine which human activities will be allowed within these areas in light of site-specific conservation objectives and monitoring requirements. Scientific activities contribute information that can support conservation-related management decision-making within protected areas and in the broader ecosystem (e.g., advice for sustainable fisheries, species recovery, and ecosystem status). However, these same scientific activities can harm organisms, populations, assemblages and habitats within protected areas and therefore can hinder the achievement of conservation objectives. Fisheries and Oceans Canada's (DFO) national Framework to support decisions on authorizing scientific surveys with bottom-contacting gears in protected areas with defined benthic conservation objectives guides the evaluation of ongoing recurrent scientific activities (surveys), within protected areas. The Framework evaluates four main elements: 1) the potential impact of recurring survey activities within protected areas, 2) potential mitigation measures to reduce their impact, 3) benefits of survey activities to the management of protected areas and 4) potential consequences to the scientific understanding and management of species and communities in the broader ecosystem caused by excluding sampling in protected areas. In this report we apply the Framework to the protected areas and recurring marine resource and ecosystem surveys of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Specifically we consider eight surveys employing bottom-contacting gear and 15 protected areas: the Banc-des-Américains Marine Protected Area (MPA), three Scallop Buffer Zone marine refuges (SBZMR) and eleven Coral and/or Sponge Conservation Areas. Fishing with bottom-contacting gear is prohibited in the most sensitive portion of the Banc-des-Américains MPA (Zone 1), where survey activities are infrequent and their removal inconsequential to broader scale scientific understanding and management. The evaluation indicates that recurring surveys are unlikely to hinder the achievement of benthic and demersal conservation objectives in the less sensitive portion of the Banc-des-Américains MPA (Zone 2), in the SBZMR and in the Coral Conservation Areas. The evaluation is less certain for survey activities in the Sponge Conservation Areas given gaps in the available information. A number of mitigation measures that could be applied are discussed, though some could take several years to implement to avoid compromising existing survey standardized time series. Exclusion of some surveys from either Zone 2 of the MPA, the SBZMR or the Coral/Sponge Conservation Areas would likely compromise the broader scale monitoring of certain taxa, including species of conservation concern. Meanwhile all multi-species surveys collect some information that could support scientific understanding and evidence-based decision making within the protected areas at least in the short term. This information is presented in support of a DFO Canadian Science Advisory Science Response process that took place on September 12, 2019. This report and the advisory process do not provide decisions on authorizing survey activities in the protected areas of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, only the background information necessary to support these decisions. These decisions will be made by DFO Oceans and Resource Management sectors, in consultation and collaboration with DFO's Science Branch.

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