North American governments aren't living up to promises to protect their oceans and Canada is performing worst of all, says a new survey.

"We've been concerned about just how slow the progress has been in protecting our marine environment," Sabine Jessen, who did the study for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said Wednesday.

Canada, Mexico and the United States have all pledged to protect at least 10 per cent of their waters. For Mexico and Canada, that commitment dates back to international agreements ratified in the early 1990s.

Jessen's analysis found that less than one per cent of the oceans off the continent are in fully functioning protected areas with permanent legal status and a management plan. Commercial or industrial activity is banned from only 0.04 per cent.

Canada, with the largest coastline of the three, has protected 0.11 per cent of it. The U.S. figure is 1.29 per cent. Mexico is the best of a bad lot at 1.62 per cent.

And just 0.02 per cent of Canadian oceans are in strictly protected reserves that ban all commercial fishing, shipping, and industry.

Canada has 14 marine protected areas under consideration, which could bring the total up to three per cent.

It's the word "consideration" that is the problem, said Jessen. Consideration has lasted for decades.

The Lancaster Sound area at the eastern gate of the Northwest Passage was first proposed for protection by the Inuit in 1987.

Jessen recalls marine conservation icon Jacques Cousteau joining local advocates in calling for a marine park in B.C.'s southern Georgia Strait in the late 1960s.

"We're still working on it," she sighs. "I just don't think it's been a high enough priority for government to do."

The report urges Canada to streamline what's required to create new protected areas and that waters that come under such management should be larger.

It suggests the three countries work together to establish jointly managed areas such as in the Beaufort Sea, which is shared by Yukon and Alaska.

Nor should 10 per cent be a final goal, said Jessen. The latest science suggests that 30 per cent -- similar to what has been proposed for Canada's boreal forest -- is a more scientifically defensible threshold.

Jessen said marine protected areas are important not only to protect beautiful and biodiverse waters, but also to preserve the health of commercial fishing grounds.

"The science is very clear that they in fact have wider benefits. Fish do move, larvae of fish move, and so providing refuges from our use will actually benefit those uses outside -- especially things like fishing."

Modern fishing technology leaves fish few places to hide, said Jessen. Marine protected areas could give them safe water to reproduce and replenish stocks elsewhere.

"We have to make sure there are some places where Nature can thrive."