One of Quebec's natural treasures, which holds ancient evidence of the first global mass extinction of animal life on Earth, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Anticosti Island was officially recognized worldwide for its exceptional fossil assemblage by UNESCO's World Heritage Committee in Saudi Arabia Tuesday morning.
The island is a massive stretch of rocky land that is located in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and is 17 times the size of the island of Montreal.
It is home to the most complete fossil record of marine life of Earth's history between 447 and 437 million years ago — a period that was not yet represented on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
There are currently more than 1,440 known fossil species on Anticosti Island from that time period. They demonstrate changes in global climate and sea level that caused the extinction of almost all ocean life on the planet.
The island's designation includes every fossil layer exposed along the coastline and some riverbeds.
"The site is protected from any development and industrial activity because it is entirely located within a network of strictly protected areas consisting of a proposed biodiversity reserve, a Quebec national park, and two ecological reserves," a Parks Canada statement of the decision reads.
Anticosti Island, despite its size, is home to only 200 residents. It boasts an abundance of deer, deep canyons, large waterfalls and numerous caves. Its new prestigious status was a long time coming.
Fossils like this one found on Anticosti island date back several hundred million years. (Peter Tardif/CBC)
Local officials had been pushing for the island to be recognized as a way to encourage tourists to visit and ensure its environmental protection in the face of a heated debate over oil and gas exploration, which began in 2013.
The Quebec government officially banned drilling on the island in 2017.
Anticosti Mayor Hélène Boulanger celebrated the designation in a statement Tuesday, saying it marks a new era for residents.
"This decision confirms that Anticosti Island is a unique place in the world, but above all, that it is essential to protect and showcase its exceptional jewels," she wrote.
Boulanger said the island's infrastructure now needs to be improved to accommodate an expected influx of visitors.
The island's designation includes all the fossil layers exposed along the coastline and some riverbeds. (Radio-Canada)
Anticosti Island is the third Quebec site to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage list, along with the historic district of Old Quebec and Miguasha National Park on the Gaspé Peninsula.
"This prestigious designation is the result of seven years of work and consultation with all our partners," said Environment Minister Benoit Charette in a statement.
"I would like to thank everyone for their sustained commitment."
Leaders from the Innu communities of Ekuanitshit and Nutashkuan, who in recent years have been greatly involved in the push to get the island recognized, were also happy with the news, noting it will raise the visibility of Innu culture in Quebec and internationally.
"It's been several years that we've been working with the people in the region... The oil industry was eyeing the island and they wanted to use fracking, which we contested," said Ekuanitshit Chief Jean-Charles Pietacho.
"It's one of the most beautiful islands... I was very touched, I'm very happy... We're protecting nature."
Pietacho said he's excited to see what other discoveries will be made on the island that his people have inhabited for millennia, now that it has this recognition.
"There is a spiritual link with the territory, it links us to the Earth and the island. That link is part of our culture, and to know it will protected by the world... It's not nothing!"
Anticosti Island is now one of nearly 1,200 heritage sites around the world and the 22nd Canadian site to be added to the list.
While it's ultimately up to Canada to ensure the conservation and management of Canadian sites inscribed on the list, UNESCO says independent international organizations will monitor the site to report on its management and protection.