Canada is part of a global effort to ensure that at least 10% of our oceans are in marine protected areas (MPAs) by 2020, but we currently only protect 1.3% of our total ocean estate. MPAs are management areas that are put in place to protect species, habitat, and heritage sites—like the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in Australia. They are a designated place in the ocean where human activities are regulated and restricted to reduce our impact on the ocean and coastline.
MPAs can have different designs, protection levels and management structures. The most effective ocean conservation areas around the world have high human use restrictions but the level of use in them can vary. For example, one MPA may not allow any human entry at all, while another may allow ecotourism activities like kayaking and diving, but no extractive activities such as fishing. In order for these regulations to work, there must be effective enforcement of the rules by authority figures like park wardens or fisheries officers. MPAs should ideally be large in size, but sizes may vary depending on which habitat or animal is in need of protection. Research has shown that the most successful MPAs have been established for a long time, since it can take decades for animals and habitats to reproduce and thrive. They also tend to do best when set in an isolated place away from human pressures and conflicts. Understandably, some MPAs can’t have all of these features but we must aim for as many as possible in order to effectively protect the marine environment. When successful MPAs are put in place, they conserve our oceans and help maintain and improve the coastal economies that rely on them.
A couple of great examples of MPAs in British Columbia are the Endeavour Hydrothermal Vents Marine Protected Area and the Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve & Haida Heritage Site. It’s wonderful that B.C. has some marine protected areas but it’s not enough. Currently less than 3% of B.C.’s marine environment is protected. We need more parks. In fact, we need an entire network of MPAs.
Recently, the federal government released the Canada – British Columbia Marine Protected Area Network Strategy which provides guidance for the design of marine protected areas along the Pacific coast, and is a step towards increasing Canada’s current level of marine protection. A network of MPAs is a collection of different sized parks with various levels of protection that are spaced close enough to one another to allow marine species to move between them. Studies from around the world have shown that networks of ocean parks can provide benefits to entire marine ecosystems while also balancing important social, economic and cultural human needs.
Not only would the entire Pacific marine ecosystem off the coast of B.C. benefit from a network of MPAs but so would the coastal communities that rely on the ocean. Benefits would include more local and sustainable jobs on the coast, better food security, protection of recreational, heritage and traditional sites, as well as increased ocean conservation and education about the marine environment.
Although the federal government has released an MPA network strategy for B.C., we need to see movement towards establishing these parks. The province and participating First Nations are already on their way to releasing and implementing marine plans for part of the B.C. coast, through the co-lead Marine Planning Partnership for the North Pacific Coast (MaPP) planning process. Set to be released later this spring, these marine plans are a solid basis for the Canadian government to work off of to begin establishing a network of federal MPAs in B.C. Taking the research and recommended marine protection areas from the MaPP plans and enhancing them to the federal level will ensure that MPAs are established to maintain and improve what is needed for healthy oceans and coastal communities and begin building a better future for our coast.