The marine environment of British Columbia has few parallels in the world when it comes to biodiversity, richness and abundance.
The ABC's of MPAs
Marine protected areas (MPAs) are area-based ocean management tools that are used to manage, protect and restore wildlife, habitats and culturally important areas. Marine protected areas (MPAs) are essentially parks for the ocean. However, unlike the way parks have been historically created and managed in North America, modern MPAs in British Columbia (B.C.) are co-created with First Nations governments and result from extensive consultation with communities, industries and other organizations. MPAs have a variety of special regulations or restrictions used to manage, protect and restore wildlife, habitats and culturally important areas.
There is no “one-size fits all” model for MPAs. The size, level of protection, and the human uses permitted within MPAs can vary from one to the next. Protection is most effective when MPAs are organized as a network of geographically distinct yet connected sites, functioning together. An MPA network (MPAN) thus comprises individual MPAs collaborating synergistically across various spatial scales and protection levels. This approach aims to achieve ecological goals more effectively and comprehensively than individual sites could on their own. MPANs are designed to protect and connect multiple habitats within a region allowing migratory species to easily move between protected areas. Thanks to their interconnected features, MPANs are able to protect foundation species like Pacific herring and salmon that move across different habitats during different life stages —affording these critical species a higher level of protection throughout their complex life histories.
THE IMPORTANCE OF MPAS
Marine Protected Areas are pivotal in the global endeavor to safeguard and sustainably manage marine ecosystems. By preserving critical habitats such as kelp forests, eelgrass meadows, and seamounts (to name a few), MPAs contribute substantially to the overall health and resilience of marine environments. MPAs serve as refuges for threatened or endangered species as well as function as a biodiversity bank for many fish and invertebrates. MPAs also enhance the resilience of marine ecosystems to the challenges posed by climate change, offering a buffer against rising temperatures and ocean acidification.
Beyond their ecological significance, MPAs contribute to the cultural, recreational, and economic well-being of coastal communities, offering opportunities for sustainable tourism and scientific research. MPAs play a crucial role in maintaining sustainable fisheries, acting as nurseries that support the replenishment of fish populations outside the boundaries of the protected area: this is called the spillover effect. In essence, the establishment and effective management of MPAs are imperative for the conservation of marine life, the sustainable use of marine resources, and the resilience of interconnected ecosystems across British Columbia.
Marine Protection in British Columbia
The marine environment of B.C. has few parallels in the world when it comes to biodiversity, richness and abundance. In many areas along the coast land and sea are intertwined as the temperate rainforest is fed by ocean-derived nutrients and the ocean is nourished by thousands of rivers and streams.
The Great Bear Rainforest alone is home to more than 2,000 runs of Pacific salmon, the key building block of the rainforest and sea. Pacific herring, an important forage species, eulachon, a small oily fish sustainably harvested for thousands of years by First Nations. Iconic marine mammals including a recovering populations of fin whales, Bigg’s (Transient) and Resident killer whales, humpback whales and sea otters also call the Great Bear Sea home. The establishment and maintenance of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in this region are crucial for the preservation of its unique biodiversity.
Energy flows between marine and terrestrial ecosystems which has allowed for a diverse host of life to evolve in the Great Bear Rainforest…
By regulating human activities and preserving key marine habitats, MPAs and MPA networks contribute significantly to the protection of marine life in the entire Great Bear Rainforest, ensuring the survival of the diverse species that call this region home.
Industrial shipping, fishing pressure, forest destruction, open-net salmon farms and climate change all threaten to destabilize this coastal ecosystem. Strong marine protection and Indigenous governance are needed to protect marine life from overexploitation and damage.
The Great Bear Sea: A Network of MPAs
For many years, coastal First Nations and the provincial government have been developing and are implementing marine use plans developed through the Marine Planning Partnership for the Pacific (MaPP) initiative. This will establish ecosystem-based management and a system of zoning for integrated marine planning on the B.C. coast.
First Nations and both the provincial and federal governments are also engaged in an ongoing process of designing a network of Marine Protected Areas for the region, called the Northern Shelf Bioregion Marine Protected Areas Network (NSB MPA). Pacific Wild has kept a close eye on this process for over a decade, holding a seat on both the MaPP Central Coast Marine Plan Implementation Advisory Committee and the Central Coast Oceans Advisory Committee as a stakeholder in the conservation sector for the region.
Pacific Wild supports marine plans that put ecosystem integrity and First Nations rights and title at the foundation of all resource use and economic development decisions.
On February 5, 2023 – after over a decade of negotiations and planning – 15 First Nations, federal and provincial partners announced the endorsement of the Marine Protected Area (MPA) Network Action Plan for the Northern Shelf Bioregion at the 5th International Marine Protected Area Congress. Once completed, the MPA Network will cover around 30,000 km2. This first-of-its-kind Indigenous-led plan weaves Indigenous knowledge systems and western science. It is expected to create a pathway for future MPA network processes in Canada and is set to become a globally recognized initiative.
The NSB MPA network will attempt to achieve conservation targets for a wide range of species and habitats and for First Nations cultural conservation priorities. First Nations are revitalizing traditional laws that govern resource management and their own stewardship capacity, working towards co-governance of the resources in their territories.
What does the NSB MPA Network Look like?
Experience the MPAs in this network first hand with Pacific Wild Expeditionists:
Explore MPAs stretching from San Juan to Sitka via Kayak with Susan Conrad
Explore MPAs stretching From The North Tip of Haida Gwaii across Hecate Strait to Kitkatla via Paddleboard with Norm Hann and Bruce Kirby
What’s New for MPA’s?
In 2023, we celebrated the official announcement of the federal government’s MPA Protection Standard to provide greater consistency and clarity on prohibited activities in federal MPA to help safeguard areas of our oceans that need protection from the potentially harmful effects of industrial activities.
Under the new Standard the following activities are banned from MPAs established after April 25, 2019:
- Oil and gas exploration, development and production
- Mineral exploration and exploitation
- Disposal of waste and other matter, dumping of fill, and deposit of deleterious drugs and pesticides
- Mobile, bottom contact, trawl or dredge gear
Pacific Wild is calling on the federal government to update their planning and make sure that all MPAs conform to the latest protection standards, even those created before 2019.
MPAs are only one tool for protecting oceans: enacting better fisheries management, reducing pollution, human-induced disturbances (like as underwater noise), as well as mitigating the impact of climate change through the reduction of fossil fuel emissions and the restoration of terrestrial habitats are complementary actions we must take to save ocean ecosystems.