Exploring the Laws That Protect the Coast and Ocean

Today, I’m pleased to share some reflections from my colleagues at West Coast Environmental Law, and in particular Staff Lawyer Stephanie Hewson, lead author of West Coast’s new resource, the Guide to Ocean and Coastal Protection Law in British Columbia.

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Maxine Matilpi, a member of the Kwakiutl and Ma’amtigila nations and our colleague at West Coast Environmental Law, spent much time in the 1960s in a small Kwakiutl village near Port Hardy called Tsakis. She remembers, “dried salmon stacked like cord wood behind my grandparents’ stove… our grannies and aunties sitting on lawn chairs beside the fires as everyone was jarring fish. Everyone in the village busy and happy, and working together, kids running around with cedar BBQ sticks caked with caramelized salmon juices.”

Europeans arriving on the coast in the 1800s described “the vast Pacific Ocean, completely alive with whales and porpoises,” and “such myriads of salmon, that a stone could not have reached the bottom without touching several individuals – their abundance surpassing imagination to conceive.”

Now, sixty years later, these accounts seem magical, almost fantastic. Reports of dying killer whales and historically low salmon runs appear weekly, reflecting global trends in the swift and recent decline in marine abundance. It is estimated that marine wildlife populations decreased by 49% between 1970 and 2012, and that many species have declined further since. These challenges are further compounded by the growing threats of climate change, pollution, marine plastics, and overfishing.

But despite the challenges, recovery is possible. By respecting the laws of Indigenous peoples, who have governed these coasts since time immemorial, and using a combination of legal tools and scientific expertise, we can dramatically reduce the ocean’s decline, and even restore it to its former health.

West Coast Environmental Law’s new Guide to Coastal and Ocean Protection Law in British Columbia takes a clear look at marine jurisdiction and the legal tools available to protect the coast and ocean in BC. The Guide comprehensively covers the wide array of laws that can be used by Indigenous, federal, provincial and local governments to protect areas of the coast and ocean from harmful human activities, allowing marine life to recover and thrive. It also centres Indigenous-led conservation, equitable governance of protected areas, and strong legal standards to ensure quality of protection.

According to a 2020 study published in Nature, if we undertake the right conservation initiatives now, we can rebuild marine life over the next 30 years to its former diversity and abundance. The creation of a vast network of legally protected marine protected areas (MPAs) is going to be essential to this rebuilding process, and we have the legal tools to make it happen.

What would have been different in the last half century if we had cared differently and better for the Pacific coast and ocean? We can’t know, but we can chart a different course for the future. We hope that this Guide assists all those working towards a future in which the rivers are thick with salmon, herring runs sound like rainfall, and the ocean’s abundance “surpasses imagination to conceive.”

You can find the complete Guide to Ocean and Coastal Protection Law in British Columbia on West Coast Environmental Law’s website here.

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