Canada Made a Splash With Legal and Policy Announcements at Marine Protected Areas Congress

Recently, delegates from around the world visited xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations’ territory in Vancouver to attend the fifth International Marine Protected Areas Congress (“IMPAC5”). Three thousand attendees took part in the week-long event after it was postponed for over two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Canada is committed to protecting 30% of land and ocean by 2030 (known as “30 by 30”) – a goal reaffirmed through the Kunming-Montreal Biodiversity Agreement, which Canada signed in December 2022. Currently though, only about 14% of marine areas have been protected under Canadian law. To meet that goal and Canada’s interim goal of protecting 25% by 2025 (or “25 by 25”), Crown governments need to pick up the pace.

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are widely recognized as one of the most effective tools to conserve and restore biodiversity in the ocean. They also carry with them a host of other benefits, including:

  • buffering against the climate crisis and acting as refuges for species;
  • benefiting fisheries by allowing for spillover of adult fish into waters adjacent to protected areas;
  • creating spaces to recognize Indigenous governance;
  • protecting culturally important areas and species;
  • acting as “living laboratories” and providing opportunities to research; and
  • increasing tourism, associated economic opportunities and revenues.

Under Canadian law, there are several legal tools available to designate MPAs, each with its own criteria and designation process. These laws include the Oceans Act, the Canada National Marine Conservation Areas Act, the Canada National Parks Act and the Canada Wildlife Act. Indigenous nations have their own laws under which they may declare Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs). In advance of IMPAC5, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) released a report on marine conservation and reconciliation, which describes how the federal government can support the establishment of marine IPCAs.

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At the Congress, Indigenous, federal and provincial governments in Canada made a number of important conservation-related law and policy announcements. A significant thread running through these announcements is that they are in partnership with, and in most cases led by, Indigenous nations:

De facto moratorium on Deep Seabed Mining in Canadian waters

A long-awaited announcement at the Congress was Canada’s position on deep seabed mining. Though a “minimum standards” policy described below makes clear that mining is not permitted within the boundaries of MPAs, it was unclear what would be permitted outside MPAs. At IMPAC5 the federal government announced that it will not authorize seabed mining in areas under its jurisdiction in absence of a “rigorous regulatory structure” (which does not currently exist). The Minister of Natural Resources later told reporters that this position is “effectively a moratorium.”

Marine Protected Area network plan announced for the Great Bear Sea

The first significant announcement at IMPAC5 was the endorsement of an action plan to protect a vast network of marine areas from North Vancouver Island to the Alaskan border. The “Great Bear Sea,” or Northern Shelf Bioregion, is a stunning, ecologically and culturally invaluable area that currently has a patchwork of protection – but will benefit from a strong, high-level plan to ensure connectedness between strategically-placed MPAs. The Great Bear Sea MPA Network will cover over 30,000 square kilometres (or 30% of the region) and is a partnership between coastal Indigenous nations, the federal and provincial Crown governments. It will be the largest Indigenous-led MPA network in the world.

[Click image to see a larger version of this chart.]

Sixty-two percent of the Network area is comprised of existing MPA sites, and the remainder will be made up of new sites, designated under federal legislation – including the one described next.

Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala IPCA recognized by Crown as Marine Refuge

One site that will be a part of the new Great Bear Sea MPA Network was recognized as an IPCA by the Mamalilikulla First Nation in 2021. Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala (also known as Lull Bay and Hoeya Sound in Knight Inlet) is home to rare sponge reefs and corals that provide habitat to 240 marine species. The IPCA is a significant cultural area for the Mamalilikulla First Nation and is governed according to their law of Aweenak’ola (we are one with the land, sea and sky and supernatural Ones).

At IMPAC5, the federal government announced that it will recognize Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala as a marine refuge by closing the site to all fishing activities using its powers under the Fisheries Act. This includes commercial, recreational and Indigenous Food, Social and Ceremonial (FSC) fishing, with the goal of providing long-term protection for the area.

Huge new Offshore Pacific Marine Protected Area in the works

The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, the Council of the Haida Nation, Pacheedaht First Nation and Quatsino First Nation, along with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU). The MOU lays out how the parties will work together to plan and manage the proposed Tang.ɢwan – ḥačxwiqak – Tsig̱is MPA, to be designated under the federal Oceans Act. The proposed MPA contains over 70% of all known seamounts and all of the known hydrothermal vents in Canada.

Already recognized as an IPCA by the Council of the Haida Nation last fall, and in the process of being recognized by the other partner nations, the area is 150 kilometres off the west coast of Vancouver Island and spans over 133,000 square kilometres – which would make it the largest MPA ever designated under the Oceans Act, and a significant contributor to Canada meeting its conservation goals.

MPA Protection Standards clarify prohibited activities in new MPAs

MPA designations are meaningless if they don’t prohibit the most harmful activities. A 2021 assessment by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society found that Canadian laws do not clearly protect MPAs from the most harmful activities.

Though first announced in a news release in 2019, at IMPAC5, DFO announced the operationalization of a set of minimum standards in all new federal MPAs. In a nutshell, it means there will be a prohibition on the following activities in all new MPAs:

  • oil and gas exploration and exploitation;
  • mining;
  • dumping from ships; and
  • bottom trawl fishing.

For the first time, the standards define dumping and bottom trawling, and clarify parameters around each activity. However, the standards leave regulations around vessel discharge to a future process. It is important that this process include all stakeholders, including the conservation sector.

Notably these standards do not apply to MPAs established before April 25, 2019, nor do they apply to designations under provincial law.

It is heartening to see the progress made towards the 25 by 25 and 30 by 30 conservation goals; and it seems as if momentum is building. But if Canada is to meet these targets, it must heed the recommendations set out in the AFN report and continue to recognize and support Indigenous leadership – as well as reduce the barriers to recognizing IPCAs under Crown law.

On the last day of the congress, the sun came out and – in a fortuitous display – orcas entered the harbour outside Vancouver Convention Centre and breached the surface, providing a reminder of what attendees were seeking to protect. As Dr. Judith Sayers said at the announcement of the proposed Tang.ɢwan – ḥačxwiqak – Tsig̱is MPA: “We’re not the only ones celebrating; our relatives in the ocean are celebrating.”

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