Canada has the world’s longest shoreline, one that borders the Arctic, Atlantic, and Pacific oceans. The country also has a diverse population, many parts of which have centuries-old traditions centered around life by the sea. In part due to these factors, the country is creating a culturally inclusive approach to marine protection that could serve as a model for other nations that serve such a wide range of stakeholders.
This approach is evident off the Pacific coastline of British Columbia, where the nutrient-rich North Pacific Ocean current runs through rocky archipelagos, kelp forests, and deep fjords that are home to great temperate forests and the Coast Salish Indigenous peoples. Here the Canadian government, Pacific coast First Nations, and other stakeholders are working together to conserve unusually biodiverse marine habitats through the creation of:
- Marine protected areas, where development activities are restricted or prohibited.
- National wildlife areas, created and managed for wildlife conservation, research, and education.
- National marine conservation areas, which are intended to be ecologically representative for the benefit, education, and enjoyment of people in Canada and the world.
Marine protected areas
In the abyssal depths off the Vancouver Island coast, underwater mountains rise as high as 10,000 feet from the seafloor and a vast network of bubbling hydrothermal vents belch hot sulfur and nutrients from deep inside Earth, feeding an ecosystem that supports other-worldly life forms, including rare and slow-growing sponges and corals—some brilliantly colored and far more common to tropical waters.
British Columbia’s biologically diverse waters have supported the Coast Salish peoples for millennia, and today are the source of a USD$1.3 billion annual seafood harvest of salmon, halibut, crab, and shellfish, 60 percent of which is exported to the United States.
From its depths to its shallows, this 51,000-square-mile tract may soon be the largest permanent protected area in Canada—on land or sea—at nearly five times the size of Massachusetts. The Canadian government is working with stakeholders and Coast Salish Nations to create a marine protected area (MPA) that, if developed properly, would strengthen shipping and fishing protections and integrate new conservation standards Canada adopted in April 2019 that prohibit deep sea bed mining and oil and gas development within MPAs.
MPAs convey a range of benefits, including places for marine wildlife to feed, breed, and flourish to help sustain biodiversity, which in turn bolsters neighboring fisheries. Safeguarding this region stands as an example of how local people, the seafood industry, governments, and stakeholders can work together to conserve valuable resources to benefit both the environment and economy.
National wildlife areas
Hosting the highest concentration of breeding seabirds on Canada’s Pacific coast, the Scott Islands National Wildlife Area is an archipelago of five islands that extend from the northwestern tip of Vancouver Island. About the size of Maine, the wildlife area protects a vital area for millions of seabirds—including half of the world’s Cassin’s auklets and 90 percent of Canada’s tufted puffins— to feed, breed, and nest.
Work is underway on an ecosystem-based plan to conserve migratory bird habitat and species at risk; that plan would account for how wildlife and people interact with the land and sea, and would consider a range of management options to protect the marine ecosystem and sustain the socioeconomic and cultural values of present and future generations for the Quatsino and Tlatlasikwala First Nations.
National marine conservation areas
Larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, the Haida Gwaii archipelago is often referred to as the Canadian Galápagos for its remarkable marine biodiversity and rainforests that stand as sentinels between the Pacific Ocean and the Northern British Columbia coast.
The Haida Nation designated a large portion of its territorial waters as the Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve to extend protections over ancestral waters that include reefs, vast eelgrass and kelp beds, and bird and mammal feeding and rearing areas.
The area will be conserved under a “land-sea-people” management plan that integrates the Haida’s long-standing cultural imperative to manage the natural and cultural resources of the Gwaii Haanas. A single vision for management of these ocean, land, and heritage areas is based on Haida principles of yahguudang (respect), ‘laa guu ga kanhllns (responsibility), and giid tll’juus (balance).
The Haida Nation, Parks Canada, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada will co-manage this area to conserve the culturally and biologically rich ancestral waters of the Haida nation surrounding Gwaii Haanas. Haida input on marine zoning here—for example, assigning different protections in distinct parts of this conservation area—is vital to its continued success.
To manage and protect this diverse marine economy and ecologically vital environment, the Canadian government is creating leading-edge management tools to support the regional economy, while conserving the cultural heritage and way of life of people who have lived on these shores for thousands of years.
The Pew Charitable Trusts has been working to protect Canada’s Arctic waters for a decade and, to build on that, also supports strong ocean conservation policies in the Pacific and Atlantic. We will continue to work with the Canadian governmental and Indigenous organizations and diverse communities to safeguard the natural and cultural heritage of North America.
Steve Ganey directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ work on marine conservation and fisheries.