‘A huge achievement’: Vision for vast network of West Coast marine protected areas unveiled at last

·4 min read

The blueprint for a vast network of marine protected areas across the northern third of Canada’s West Coast is being unveiled after more than a decade of work.

A group of 17 coastal First Nations and the Canadian and B.C. governments have crafted a draft action plan for the BC Northern Shelf MPA Network — covering 100,000-square-kilometres of ocean — and released it for public input Thursday.

It’s a significant milestone in a complex process to protect and link biodiversity hot spots in the waters from Quadra Island in the south to the border with Alaska in the north, said Josie Osborne, B.C.’s land, water and resource stewardship minister.

“It’s such a huge achievement,” Osborne told Canada’s National Observer Friday.

“Everybody is really proud of the incredible work that's been done … that we were all able to work together — with the orders of the government and First Nations — to bring this forward.”

The B.C. MPA network aims to conserve key habitats, species and areas of cultural value to First Nations as well as preserving regions for sustainable economic activity, Osborne said.

“It’s incredibly important that we take a long-term approach to conservation, and to honour that connection between people and the ocean,” she said.

“Using tools like marine protected areas, and this draft network plan, helps build on the efforts that we've already made in marine conservation and improving the existing network of parks and protected areas.”

Coastal First Nations were absolutely foundational in developing the MPA network, she added.

“This (MPA network) really builds on our government's commitment to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and making that very strong commitment of co-creating legislation, policy and making decisions together.”

First Nations have looked to ocean waters in B.C. as a source of food and prosperity for countless generations, said Christine Smith-Martin, CEO of Coastal First Nations in a press statement.

“Unfortunately, our waters are increasingly threatened by new development, overfishing, pollution and climate change,” Smith-Martin said.

“Now more than ever, we need to work together on solutions that go beyond short-term measures and single species approaches.”

The MPA network is an important tool to keep coastal ecosystems and communities resilient for future generations, she added.

B.C.’s conservation groups also celebrated the release of the long-awaited MPA network.

“We’re thrilled that it's out,” said Jay Ritchlin, the director general of the David Suzuki Foundation in B.C.

“It’s more than about time we got this into the public sphere and started letting coastal residents look at a decade-plus of work to understand how humans and the ecosystem can thrive together and be resilient.”

The process to develop the complex plan has involved a range of voices backed by a great deal of traditional knowledge and science, he said, with the foundation taking part in advisory committees.

“There was really a very, very strong effort to understand the area deeply,” Ritchlin said.

“It’s a big commitment to take something like this out to public consultation because some people will love it and some people will hate it.

“But we really see it as a way for us to think about having long-term resilience, healthy communities, sustainable jobs and — underpinning all of it — a healthy environment that continues to support all this.”

“It’s a really exciting time to finally see the product of almost 10 years of work with strong leadership from First Nations,” said Kate MacMillan, ocean conservation manager with Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s B.C. chapter (CPAWS BC).

The society and members of the commercial and recreational fishing industries and the tourism, shipping, forestry and conservation sectors all played a role in the advisory process to shape the draft plan, she said.

Research shows that strong MPAs have benefits for both the environment and commercial sectors such as fisheries or tourism, MacMillan said.

“They can increase the amount, size and diversity of fish and other marine life in these areas and restore ecological relationships and also benefit other economies,” she said.

The MPA network will also play a significant role in the federal government’s ocean protection goals, said federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Joyce Murray in a press statement.

Community input and knowledge during the consultation process will help the federal government achieve its promise to protect 25 per cent of Canada’s oceans by 2025, Murray said.

The public can get information and provide input on the MPA network’s draft action plan through surveys, webinars and in-person open houses in October, while consultations with First Nations will be presented at a community’s request until the end of November.

The outcome of the public engagement will be released this winter, and the MPA network’s action plan is slated for completion in early 2023, after which an extended implementation phase begins with milestones set for 2025 and 2030.

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Rochelle Baker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer