Anne Murray: Swift action needed on Strait of Georgia national marine conservation area

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Have you taken the ferry through Active Pass to Victoria, fished off Galiano Island, or kayaked around the Penders? The southern Gulf Islands are the perfect holiday destination, right on Vancouver’s doorstep. Their timeless beauty is one of B.C.’s most underrated assets. Yet every year brings changes, as shipping lanes become busier and competing developments put pressure on shorelines. A significant portion of the Gulf Islands is a national park reserve. Now it is time to protect the ocean waters around them with a marine conservation area.

The Gulf Islands have some of the most picturesque scenery in British Columbia. The climate is mild and rainfall half that of Vancouver. The shorelines are carved into myriad bays and islets, covered with windswept trees, grassy bluffs, and rocky cliffs. The waters around them visibly teem with life—orcas, sea lions, porpoises, otters, seabirds, and fish. The archipelago provides habitat for almost 40 rare and endangered species and is home to glass sponge reefs, colourful rockfish, huge lingcod, and giant Pacific octopus. Kelp forests and eelgrass beds act as the ocean’s nurseries. Garry oaks and russet-trunked arbutus trees, much beloved by Gulf Island artists, cling to the cliff sides.

Since 2003, 36 square kilometres of land on 16 islands, and 26 square kilometres of coastal waters, have been designated as the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. Now Parks Canada is finalizing the boundaries for a 1,400-square-kilometre national marine conservation area (NMCA) and they are seeking public input. The goal is for a harmonization of conservation practices with human activities, to maintain a healthy, sustainable ecosystem.

With such an enormous land area, we do not always think of “our home and native land” as being a maritime country, yet Canada has the world’s longest coastline, stretching for 243,000 kilometres along the Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic oceans. Perhaps because of our inherent bias toward terra firma, much effort has gone into creating parks to protect the landward side of our country, while the oceans have been largely ignored. Worse than that, many whales, sharks, and fish have been over-exploited to the state of extinction, coastal waters are dumping grounds for waste, and marshes, deltas, estuaries, and other shorelines have been drained, polluted, or built over. Now, at last, oceans are making it to the top of the environmental agenda. It’s about time. The proposal to create the NMCA promises proactive, coordinated management for this important part of the Strait of Georgia.

So what exactly is a marine conservation area? Canada’s complexity of federal agencies with responsibility for lands, oceans, and wildlife has led to different methods and terminology when it comes to marine protection. “Marine protected areas” are under Fisheries and Oceans Canada while “marine wildlife areas” are Environment Canada’s jurisdiction. Both ministries have been slow to designate these protective mechanisms, perhaps fearing backlash from the resource industries. B.C.’s only federal marine protected areas are two offshore seamounts, renowned for their unique geological and ecological properties. The only national marine wildlife area in B.C., proposed for the water surrounding the Scott Islands, is still in the planning stage. As well as managing coastal waters within national parks, Parks Canada is able to designate national marine conservation areas. The southern Strait of Georgia will be only the second NMCA in B.C, after Gwaii Haanas.

Conservation initiatives and thoughtful planning sound like a no-brainer for such a scenic part of the B.C. coast, yet Parks Canada and the B.C. government seem strangely hesitant. Consultations have been going on for nearly eight years. Decisive action is slow. The agencies are currently proposing a phased-in approach, starting with only one small part of the marine conservation area, and moving to gradually expand it. Using this approach, significant ecological areas might not be protected for decades.

It seems needlessly cautious since most activities will continue to be allowed. First Nations’ traditional harvesting is not affected. There is no outright ban on commercial or recreational fishing, shipping, transportation, tourism, or recreational uses, provided they are managed in a conservation-oriented manner. Only ocean dumping, undersea mining, and oil and gas development are prohibited. One might even ask, what purpose will then be served by the NMCA designation? The answer is that it provides the legislative ability to create conservation zoning. This could include designating areas as carefully chosen, no-take zones to enhance and protect fish and wildlife populations in perpetuity. Other zones could be created to protect ecological or cultural features, such as spawning beds, bird nesting areas, or clam gardens.

Marine conservation areas have proved successful elsewhere, such as in Australia and New Zealand, and should work well in the Gulf Islands. Australia recently announced the creation of the world’s largest network of marine reserves, expanding their existing areas to cover 2.3 million square kilometres of ocean, and protecting animals such as the endangered blue and southern right whales, green turtles, and whale sharks. To help fishing interests to transition, $100 million in funding has been allocated. The initiative has strong public support.

Parks Canada and the provincial government need to hear that going ahead with the NMCA is a good idea, and that implementation should move swiftly. There is an easy way to engage in the process. The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, together with other nature and conservation organizations, is helping to facilitate your input to Parks Canada. Just visit www.takeactionsouthernstrait.ca to learn more and give your feedback. Please write in favour of the marine conservation area: it’s the right step for the future!

Anne Murray is a writer and naturalist, and the author of two books on the natural history of Boundary Bay—Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay and A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay—both available at bookstores and from Nature Guides B.C. She blogs at natureguidesbc.wordpress.com.

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