An Introduction to Marine Protected Areas

What are Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), why are they helpful and how much of Canada’s oceans are protected?

Cover Photo by Ryan Tidman

The marine environment of the Great Bear Rainforest has few parallels in the world when it comes to biodiversity, richness and abundance. Industrial shipping, fishing pressure, forest destruction, open net-pen salmon farms and climate change all threaten to destabilize this coastal ecosystem. Marine protected areas (MPAs) are put in place in areas that need established protection for long term conservation of marine species, habitats and ecosystems. 

In total, 13.8% of Canada’s ocean estate is protected. Federal MPAs account for 8.3% and other area-based protection covers 5.3% of Canada’s oceans (CPAWS, 2021). In 2019, Canada announced their commitment to protect 25% by 2025 and 30% by 2030, which more than double the current protected area.

Pacific Wild, in collaboration with a coalition of other ENGOs, including CPAWS, West Coast Environmental Law, World Wildlife Foundation, and David Suzuki Foundation, are participating in the Marine Protected Area Network (MPAN) planning process. The MPAN draft network scenario covers 32% (32,558 km2) of the Northern Shelf Bioregion. There are 90 proposed sites and 371 zones. Stronger marine protection and Indigenous governance are needed to protect marine life from overexploitation and damage.

Scott Islands

The most recent Pacific MPA to be designated is the Scott Islands Marine National Wildlife Area, implemented by First Nations and Environment and Climate Change Canada. This area is the first MPA to be established under the Canadian Wildlife Act. The Scott Islands is a chain of five islands that is home to nearly two million seabirds every year. Populations of seabirds migrate from Japan, Chile, Hawaii and Australia to breed on these islands and to feed in the surrounding waters. The site includes over 11,000 km2 of marine protected area, contributing about 2.5% to Canada’s total marine protected area.

The site was officially designated in 2018 but still has yet to have a public management plan. The Scott Islands MPA still allows trawling, future oil and gas exploration and mining. According to the CPAWS MPA Monitoring report published in 2021, the Scott Islands does not meet minimum protection standards and its area should not be counted towards protected percentages while trawling is still permitted.

Species that Benefit from MPAs

Marine Protected Areas can be implemented to protect particular species or entire ecosystems. In the implementation of the Scott Islands Marine Protected Area, protection of seabirds was the priority in implementation. The Scott Islands and the surrounding marine areas provide ecological colonies for nearly 40% of B.C.’s seabirds — 90% of Tufted Puffins, 95% of Common Murres, 50% of Cassin’s Auklets, and 7% of Rhinoceros Auklet.

Regardless, Ecosystem-Based Management and co-management with First Nations should be at the forefront of MPA management and implementation. While the goal of the Scott Islands MPA is to protect seabirds, there are benefits for the entire surrounding ecosystem. Birds fly to the Scott Islands for the food availability – the area would not be home to seabirds without the productive plankton and fish populations. By protecting the seabirds, the foraging habitat for other wildlife benefits as a result. If protection only extends to the target species of the MPA, other species in the ecosystem will suffer from continued threats and the target species will also suffer in turn.

MPA Management & Enforcement

Successful MPAs have strong enforcement, high levels of protection, community support and are Indigenous led or co-managed. Indigenous peoples have strong traditional cultural knowledge and integrity that is linked to the health of ecosystems where they’ve historically harvested resources. Ensuring that Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), stewardship and monitoring is part of  the MPA process allows for biodiversity conservation through Indigenous forms of governance. 

Creation of MPAs in First Nations requires the collaboration for management and co-governance arrangements that support Nations in asserting authority in their territories. Monitoring and enforcement will be a shared responsibility, with roles between provincial, federal and First Nations assigned with respect to network and site level knowledge and capacity. It is ideal to have Indigenous individuals in monitoring and enforcement positions where possible, due to lower turnover rates and the local knowledge that they bring to their positions.

Many MPAs occur in remote areas or far offshore, making constant human monitoring near impossible. The use of remote sensing technology, satellites, acoustic buoys, and drones will be imperative in monitoring a large marine network. Additionally, public education will be necessary for successful MPA enforcement. There are many groups with stake in marine resources — both their conservation and extraction. Stakeholders involved in the network planning process have acknowledged the need for ongoing enforcement and surveillance within sites.