Coquina Rock Outcrop, BC. Photo by David Blevins


Neil Davis, M.Sc.

Conserving British Columbia’s Marine Biodiversity

What lies under the enormous Pacific Ocean off British Columbia’s long and convoluted coastline? Much like the remarkable diversity of landscapes that make up BC’s terrestrial environment, our marine spaces host a globally significant array of ecosystems and species. Deep fjords, inlets, and island groups like the Broughton Archipelago create sheltered waters and funnel tidal currents to create a wide variety of habitats. Rugged rocky shorelines and surf-swept bays line the exposed outer coasts of Haida Gwaii, the central coast, and the west side of Vancouver Island. Offshore, continental shelfs and seamounts force nutrient-rich water up from the depths, supporting dense concentrations of marine life. Species in these different habitats range from the very old, including 9000-year old glass sponge reefs in Hecate Strait, to the very small, like photosynthesising phytoplankters, to blue whales – the largest animals on earth. Other species, like Pacific salmon and orcas, are among our most powerful cultural icons.

The extent, beauty, diversity, and productivity of BC’s marine ecosystems also means they are the source of important resources and host to intensive human activity. The extraction, disturbance, and pollution associated with these activities and those in nearby coastal areas can have detrimental effects on marine biodiversity. To better conserve marine ecosystems and the biodiversity therein, scientists and others are increasingly suggesting the creation of marine protected areas (MPAs). MPAs are specific parts of the ocean set aside under legislation or other effective means to provide enduring protection for the species and habitats within their boundaries. Protective measures can vary; some MPAs may be ‘no take’ zones that prohibit most or all human activites, while others may be zoned to allow different types of use in different areas.

Lighthouse Marine Park, Point Roberts, Washington.  Photo by David Blevins

Benefits of Marine Protected Areas

MPAs can have numerous ecological benefits, including higher densities of plants and animals, higher species diversity, and greater numbers of large organisms than in adjacent unprotected areas. With respect to fisheries management, these benefits can decrease the chance of stock collapse, accelerate population recovery rates, decrease variability in annual catches, and provide fishery-independent stock data. As fish densities within MPAs increase in the absence of fishing, populations may ‘spill over’ into adjacent areas, which can contribute to local fisheries. Additionally, protected species populations within MPAs may act as stable sources of eggs and larvae that disperse via ocean currents to other areas, supporting species populations outside of the MPA. The extent to which these benefits are realised will depend in part on what protection an MPA offers, and how much protective measures are observed or enforced.

MPAs can also have other kinds of benefits. They have been credited with raising the profile of marine areas and increasing tourist visits, which nearby communities have counted as an economic benefit. Lastly, they can provide opportunities for scientific research, ecological monitoring, and education.


Ochre Sea Star (Pisaster ochraceus).  Photo by David Blevins.

Marine protected areas in BC – who is responsible?

Responsibility for BC’s marine environment is characterised by areas of overlapping and unresolved jurisdiction between provincial and federal governments. From a jurisdictional perspective, the marine environment can be divided into two components: the seabed and the overlying water column. While the federal government is responsible for managing most activities in the water column (e.g., fishing, shipping, navigation, pollution), the province is largely responsible for regulating others, such as aquaculture, kelp harvesting, and oyster harvesting. The federal government owns and regulates activities on the seabed (as well as any resources underneath it like oil and gas) in offshore areas and in designated ports, whereas the province owns the seabed and underlying resources in “inland waters”. It is on this point that jurisdiction is uncertain, as provincial and federal governments have not agreed on where to draw the boundary separating offshore from inland waters. The term “inland waters” originates in English Common Law which defines it as the waters lying landward of headlands. Thus, the definition of headlands lies at the centre of the disagreement. Agreement does exist for some areas. The provincial government is generally accepted as the seabed owner for the straits between Vancouver Island and the mainland as well as for the inlets and sounds on the west coasts of Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii. Areas where disagreement persists include Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait, and Queen Charlotte Sound.

So why is all this jurisdictional complexity important for MPAs in BC? There are two primary reasons. First, comprehensive protective measures like MPAs that typically restrict activity on the seabed and in the water column are unlikely in areas of provincial-federal disagreement. Second, where multiple jurisdictions exist (e.g., the province owns the seabed but the federal government regulates activity in the water column), MPAs still require the two orders of government to collaborate and agree upon the siting and design of the MPA. Some progress on the second point is being made. In 2003, the provincial Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection (now part of the Ministry of Environment) and the federal Ministry of Canadian Heritage (on behalf of Parks Canada) signed a memorandum of understanding regarding the establishment of National Marine Conservation Areas, a type of MPA described in more detail below. Also, in 2004 the provincial and federal governments signed a memorandum of understanding respecting the implementation of Canada’s Oceans Strategy, which addresses the establishment of MPAs. These memorandums represent an important first step towards building a common understanding and working cooperatively.

Pacific Red Hermit Crab (Elassochirus gillii).  Photo by Aaron Baldwin

Agencies and legislative mandates

The actual work of developing and implementing MPAs falls primarily within the jurisdiction of the provincial Ministry of Environment and three federal government agencies: Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), Parks Canada, and Environment Canada. These agencies have signed a Federal Marine Protected Areas Strategy that details each agency’s role in developing a national network of MPAs. Corresponding legislation has provided a mandate for each agency to execute their MPA responsibilities.

The Oceans Act, passed in 1997, outlines a new approach to oceans management in Canada based on the principles of sustainable development, integrated management, and the precautionary approach. Among other things, the act requires the implementation of MPAs. Under this mandate, DFO has focused on identifying sites requiring special protection, including those that host fisheries or non-fisheries resources (e.g., marine mammals), unique habitats, endangered species, or particularly high biodiversity or productivity.

Parks Canada plays an important role as a result of the National Marine Conservation Areas Act. Passed in 2002, this act gave Parks Canada the legislative mandate to create National Marine Conservation Areas (NMCAs), a type of MPA, in each of Canada’s 29 marine bioregions. Bioregions are areas of the ocean with similar biological and physical characteristics, such as temperature, salinity, depth profiles, and species complements (Figure 1). NMCAs have several purposes. They are intended to protect and conserve marine areas that are representative of these ocean bioregions, provide sustainable use opportunities for coastal communities, and encourage public understanding and appreciation for the marine environment. To achieve protection and conservation objectives, NMCAs emphasise zoning in a manner that permits renewable resource use (such as commercial or sport fishing) in some areas while restricting all extractive activities in others. The National Marine Conservation Areas Act focuses on an ecosystem-based approach, and thus, NMCAs are intended to be large enough to maintain healthy marine ecosystems.


Figure 1 – Parks Canada’s Pacific Ocean Bioregions off the BC coast.

Source: Parks Canada 2008.

Environment Canada’s MPA focus is on the protection of marine habitat for migratory birds. In 1994, the Canada Wildlife Act was amended to allow for the creation of Marine Wildlife Areas (MWAs) out to the 200 nautical mile limit of Canada’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the oceans bordering our country. Like their terrestrial counterparts, National Wildlife Areas, MWAs will be managed for the purposes of wildlife research, conservation, and interpretation.

First Nations and marine protected areas

In addition to provincial and federal governments, coastal First Nations are important parties in decisions about how to conserve marine biodiversity and resources in BC. As BC’s first peoples, coastal First Nations have a long-standing historical connection to the ocean and its resources. This history is the basis for their current constitutional right to fish for food, social, and ceremonial purposes. Many First Nations are also involved in a modern-day treaty process with the provincial and federal governments. The treaty process seeks to address First Nations’ aboriginal title over land and resources that was not extinguished with the establishment of a colonial government in BC. Outcomes of negotiating these treaties may affect ownership of marine resources and the seabed. One approach that governments and First Nations have explored for moving forward despite uncertainty about ownership is cooperative management, commonly shortened to co-management. In co-management arrangements, First Nations governments share decision-making authority and management responsibilities with federal or provincial governments. One example is the Gwaii Haanas Agreement, signed in 1993 between the Government of Canada and the Council of the Haida Nation. This agreement included arrangements to co-manage the proposed Gwaii Haanas NMCA (details below).

Status of Marine Protected areas in BC

Some forms of MPAs have existed off BC’s coast for decades. These include fisheries closures, provincial marine parks, ecological reserves, and wildlife management areas. However, approximately half of these are small in extent (less than 1 km2) and focus on recreation values rather than species or ecosystem conservation. They also constitute a very small percentage (between 1-2%) of the total oceanic area within Canada’s Exclusive Economic Zone on the Pacific Coast. MPAs as conservation-oriented designations from the dedicated legislation described above remain predominantly in planning stages in BC. The only such MPA that has been completed (under the Oceans Act in 2003) is the Endeavour Hydrothermal Vents MPA located 250 km southwest of Vancouver Island. A number of other MPA initiatives are under way with each of the three federal government agencies, though progress has been slow. DFO hopes to designate the Bowie Seamount, west of Haida Gwaii, as an MPA in the near future following 10 years of assessment and stakeholder consultations. They also designated Race Rocks, (also known as XwaYeN) near Victoria, in 2000, although it remains a candidate site due to issues that have arisen during implementation. The last candidate site that DFO has identified is Gabriola Passage between Vancouver Island and the mainland (Figure 2).


Figure 2 – DFO areas of interest for marine protected area designation.

Source: DFO 2008.

Parks Canada has identified two NMCA sites that represent four of the Pacific bioregions. The first surrounds the southern tip of Haida Gwaii, extending the border of Gwaii Haanas National Park 10 km into the ocean to the east, south, and west (Figure 3). A general commitment by Parks Canada and the Council of the Haida Nation to protect this area was reached in the 1980s. The two parties have since established a co-management agreement and, following many years of discussions, are finally moving forward with creating an NMCA. The NMCA, like the National Park, is referred to as a reserve in recognition that the Haida may become the eventual land owners. The two parties are currently preparing to undertake public consultations about the NMCA. The second site, in the southern Strait of Georgia, is currently the subject of a feasibility study being conducted by Parks Canada. Based on the results of extensive public consultations, negotiations with several First Nations in the area, and Parks Canada’s related assessments, an NMCA may or may not be established.

Gwaii Haanas

Figure 3 – Proposed area (in blue) of Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve. Dark green represents the already-established Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve. Source: Parks Canada 2007.

Environment Canada has identified the Scott Islands as a candidate for protection as a Marine Wildlife Area. These islands, located north of Vancouver Island, host over 2 million nesting seabirds. Like XwaYeN, this site is already designated by the province as an ecological reserve. However, the area covered by the ecological reserve designation is too small to protect seabird foraging grounds and does not restrict extractive activities like fishing.

Challenges and Prospects Ahead

In addition to the jurisdictional complexities outlined earlier, MPAs in BC face several signficant challenges to successful implementation. Stakeholders, including some commercial and recreational fishers, coastal community residents, and others are hesitant to support restrictions on their use of the marine environment, particularly given the various measures already in place that regulate their activities. Similarly, many First Nations are not inclined to endorse any permanent restrictions on what they perceive to be resources and marine spaces that they have the right to govern. These doubts have dampened the political will of relevant agencies to take action, while First Nations title claims have complicated the governing environment. On top of all this, MPAs require significant financial and human resources to establish and manage – especially for remote sites far from coastal settlements where monitoring is more difficult and costly. Nonetheless, there is a growing public awareness about the declining health of our oceans. Marine conservation initiatives like MPAs are receiving more support in the scientific community and among many British Columbians as a means of conserving and restoring marine resources and biodiversity. Though MPA initiatives in BC are moving slowly, many are making progress towards implementation.


Further information:

BC Seafood Alliance 

Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society 

DFO Marine Protected Areas 

Environment Canada Marine Wildlife Areas 

Living Oceans Society--Marine Protected Areas

Marine Protected Areas of the United States 

Marine Protected Areas in Canada:  implications for both conservation and fisheries management.

MPA Global (a searchable database of MPAs)

Parks Canada National Marine Conservation Areas


Race Rock Ecological Reserve

The Undersea Gardens of Barkely Sound (Marine Medicines) (RBCM)

Conserving Marine Ecosystems (Michael Hawkes)

Pacific Region Marine Protected Areas home page (DFO)

Living Oceans Society--Marine Protected Areas


Please cite these pages as:

Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2017. Biodiversity of British Columbia []. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

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