A New Wave of Innovators Can Clean Up Canada’s Oceans While Growing the Economy

Canadian start-ups have the solutions that can help incumbent industries reduce their environmental footprint. The challenge now is to deploy these technologies more widely.
Illustration: Kelvin Li

Canada has the world’s longest coastline, and with that comes a keen interest in building a sustainable ocean economy. Our biggest ocean industries—fishing and aquaculture, transportation and energy—are key drivers of our provincial and territorial economies. The health of our oceans, however, is rapidly declining. Climate change is causing the warming and acidification of ocean waters. Over-harvesting is threatening important fish stocks. And pollution from plastics, effluents and vessel noise is damaging the entire ecosystem.

Cleaning up these areas is an ecological necessity. But it’s also a growing commercial opportunity for companies bringing innovative technologies to the marketplace. A new Innovation Economy Council report (IEC), Ocean of Opportunity: How Canadian Innovators Can Reduce Maritime Waste, takes a close look at the opportunity for more than 50 Canadian technology companies working in this space, such as Planetary Technologies, the Nova Scotia company that recently won a $1-million XPRIZE for its efforts to extract alkaline material from mine waste and seed the ocean to capture more carbon dioxide.

Canada wants to pursue inclusive economic growth while restoring ocean health. Fisheries and Oceans Minister Joyce Murray is working on a Blue Economy Strategy that aims to “enhance the economic, environmental and social benefits of healthy oceans” and use innovation to “add value to Canada’s fish and seafood sector.” She is working with Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault on the government’s plastics policy to dramatically reduce the amount of plastics waste that ends up in our landfills and water and collaborating with Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson on reducing pollution in offshore oil projects.

But even the best-intended federal strategy will face the same kinds of hurdles—industrial inertia, political resistance—that have slowed our efforts to address climate change. We can’t innovate on every front, so we need to focus on the places where good research and early-stage innovators meet.

One key element would be a dramatic increase in our use of data: studying, monitoring and analyzing the ocean and our human impact upon it. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that just five per cent of the world’s ocean has been explored, and the IEC report points out that in addition to the tech companies focused directly on ocean waste issues, Canada has dozens more doing data work that could be harnessed for the effort.

One clear need is a single Canadian database that maps companies and research and communicates the efforts more widely. The IEC research attempted to map companies and research projects, and where there was overlap, it dug deeper. But this was just a first pass—professional-grade efforts to map companies and research would identify areas of focus and allow marketing and communication teams to amplify the best work.

Meanwhile, action cannot be the responsibility of just one federal department, with others playing small support roles. We need a whole-of-government approach and strong co-operation among federal, provincial, territorial and Indigenous governments.

The country also has a vibrant network of research institutes, technology clusters and accelerators that house groundbreaking ocean technologies. Their challenge is to get these innovative solutions more broadly deployed. Success would mean a new cohort of commercially successful Canadian firms helping incumbent industries to reduce their environmental footprint.

Companies like Carbon UpCycling Technologies of Calgary and the non-profit Ocean Legacy Foundation of Richmond, B.C., are recycling discarded plastics into useful products, in the latter case from material collected from beaches. Graphite Innovation and Technologies of Dartmouth, N.S., is using nanotechnology to coat vessels to improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions and peeling paint.

Ocean waste is an issue that will require determined collaboration from governments, investors, industry players and the research community. We could start by redoubling our efforts to build research capacity, clusters, networks and accelerators and working to create more flexible regulations aimed at incentivizing innovation. 

Start-ups in these uncharted waters also face unique financing challenges. The federal government should mandate Sustainable Development Technology Canada to establish an “ocean economy” funding stream. Banks, pension funds and other institutional investors pledging a net-zero transition need to invest in blue economy innovations through dedicated funds. One of the greatest threats to ocean health is the amount of plastic waste being dumped each year. Here, we need a cradle-to-grave response, including a ban on single-use plastics but also tougher regulations on micro plastics.

A 2020 report by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, endorsed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, provided a blueprint that would allow Canada to increase its reliance on ocean resources while also restoring ocean health. “We can produce more by protecting more,” the co-chairs wrote. That prescription should underpin all of Canada’s blue-economy efforts. To clean up waste and eliminate pollution while providing jobs and sustenance in the regions that rely on these waters, innovation is the key.

Shawn McCarthy is the former global energy correspondent for The Globe and Mail and author of the Innovation Economy Council’s new report, Ocean of Opportunity: How Canadian Innovators Can Reduce Maritime Waste.

Shawn McCarthy
Shawn McCarthy