Canada's Ocean Wild: An ecologists perspective on British Columbia's richly diverse coastlin

by Jennifer Lash/©1999 Cascadia Times

I first became involved in the establishment of marine protected areas in 1992. I was living in Nanaimo B.C., and began working with residents of nearby Gabriola Island to protect an area known as Gabriola Passage. Local divers had become concerned about the area when they noticed a decline in rockfish and lingcod populations. With local residents, we gathered support to stop all commercial and recreational harvesting in a 280 hectare area around Gabriola Passage. The support for this "no-take" marine protected area was overwhelming and the community, and local government were quick to sign on.

In 1998 the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans designated Gabriola passage as an Marine Protected Areas Pilot Project.

At present, DFO is in discussion with the Nanaimo, Halalt, Lyackson, Chemainus, and Pehelakut First Nations. It is our hope that they will develop a co-management agreement to ensure that any decisions made about this area do not compromise the First Nations' right to harvest fish for food and ceremonial purposes, and is without prejudice to the ongoing Treaty negotiations. We are encouraging the federal and the First Nations governments to develop an agreement that will ensure fish in Gabriola Passage for our grandchildren.

DFO is also reviewing the boundaries and "no-take" status of the proposed protected area to make sure they are scientifically defensible. Scientific research is critical for the design and establishment of effective marine protected areas. However, the quest for definitive information that will prove exactly how MPAs will work may be difficult. Worse yet, the requirement for such information in advance of protection could prevent us from establishing MPAs such as Gabriola Passage. Looking at the history of protected areas, both on land and in the ocean, we can see that some of the best research comes from establishing protected areas, watching the results, then adapting methods as we gain more insight.

On land, efforts originally focused on preserving habitat with the belief that conservation of habitat would lead to the preservation of biological diversity. Therefore minimum standards were adopted that prevented logging, mining, and hydro development within protected areas. Prohibiting these activities protected the designated habitat and, by default, was to protect the species that depended on it.

However, this proved to be only partially true. What resulted was a series of isolated parks that were too small to sustain all the species that once lived there. As a result, some key predators such as wolves became increasingly rare, disrupting the ecological integrity of the islands of wilderness. This decline in species diversity alarmed conservationists and scientists who, after much research, developed the following principles for terrestrial protected areas:

• Core: there must be core areas with high levels of protection

• Connectivity: there must be connectivity between the core areas to ensure migration routes are maintained.

• Focal Species: by preserving focal species (e.g. top carnivores) and their migratory routes, the biodiversity that supports the focal species is also protected.

Scientific research and experience led to the development of stronger minimum standards and effective principles of design, resulting in protected areas that stand a better chance of protecting terrestrial biological diversity.

The original marine protected areas in BC were marine components of terrestrial parks. The goal of these 104 MPAs was to protect access for recreational boaters. However there were no minimum standards for protection, and most of these MPAs permitted commercial and recreational harvesting. As fish stocks continued to decline and concern about the health of the ocean grew, conservationists and scientists began to focus on the design marine protected areas that would better protect biological diversity and ensure sustainable fisheries.

As on land, the design of MPAs began to focus on protecting habitat. In 1998, the federal and provincial government released a draft Marine Protected Areas Strategy which outlined minimum standards. By prohibiting dumping, dredging, the exploration for and extraction of non-renewable resources in all MPAs, the governments appear to be trying to conserve marine biological diversity by protecting habitat.

Yet the way we use the land and the ocean are very different, and therefore the minimum protection standards must also be different. In the Pacific Northwest we harvest mostly plants (trees) which create habitat, whereas in the ocean we harvest mostly predators (fish) which use habitat. Protecting terrestrial habitat for animals means reducing the impact of human use of an area. Yet most of the seabed habitat can be protected without minimizing the human impact on the areas, leaving it vulnerable to overfishing. For example, commercial and recreational fisheries can wipe out rockfish on a rocky reef without touching the habitat. Habitat conservation in the ocean is important but it is not enough.

In order to design an effective network of marine protected areas it is imperative that the minimum standards be based on the values, characteristics, and uses of the ocean. Four factors impact our marine environment: overfishing, pollution, habitat degradation, and climate change. MPAs have the potential to be the most effective in preventing overfishing and habitat degradation but less effective in preventing pollution and climate change. Therefore Living Oceans Society believes that a network of MPAs must include a core of "no-take" areas and prohibit aquaculture, dumping, dredging, extraction of non-renewable resources. It is imperative that a network of marine protected areas address both overfishing and habitat degradation.

There is no guarantee that we can apply the terrestrial principles of design to ocean. It is unclear what role connectivity and focal species will play in marine protected areas. Scientists are now conducting research on these subjects and we look forward to the results. As with the evolution of terrestrial protected areas, we cannot postpone the establishment of marine protected areas while we wait for the definitive way to design them. We cannot afford to wait for science to tell us exactly how to establish marine protected areas. It is imperative that we set up some protected areas, watch for the results, and apply that experience and research to future protected areas.

It has been 7 years since we began working to protect Gabriola Passage. Even as a Pilot Project this area remains open for commercial and recreational fishing, putting increased pressure on the marine life. If we designated Gabriola Passage as a no-take MPA now, we could monitor species such as rockfish, urchin, and lingcod, and gain a better understanding of the marine ecosystem and how it works.

Jennifer Lash is Executive Director of the Living Oceans Society, Box 166, Sointula , BC V0N 3E0. She can be reached by phone at 250-973-6580, fax at 250-973-6581, or email jenlash@livingoceans.org. The Web site is: http://www.livingoceans.org

Paul Koberstein