Hameet Singh is part of a team of CPCIL Research and Knowledge Gatherers producing content and compiling resources on themes such as inclusion, ecosocial justice, partnerships, conservation, organizational sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, connection to nature, conservation financing, and ecotourism, to support effective and equitable leadership and inclusion in parks and protected areas across Canada. These positions are funded by Canada’s Green Jobs Program and supported by Project Learning Tree.
Canada’s extensive system of parks and protected areas across the country is world renowned and well-traversed by Canadians and global-trotters alike, from all walks of life. But did you know that the territory of the Canadian parks system also extends to underwater? Known as “Marine Protected Areas,” MPAs are the ocean’s refuges for biodiversity and host a myriad of habitats. They allow the ocean to rejuvenate, serving as replenishment zones for fisheries, and provide safe havens for entire ecosystems.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) officially defines an MPA as “any area of intertidal or sub-tidal terrain, together with its overlying water and associated flora, fauna, historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by law or other effective means to protect part or all of the enclosed environment” . When implemented correctly, MPAs provide the ocean’s fortified defense against deteriorating species diversity, ecosystem health and resilience.
The Importance of MPAs
MPAs are useful in the implementation of the ecosystem approach and the precautionary principle, as “their design involves managing pressures from human uses by adopting a degree of protection, which can range from strict protection, where all use activities are barred, to less stringent measures like sanctioning areas where multiple uses are allowed and regulated” . The ecosystem approach is based on the premise that natural resource management should be conducted based on the best available scientific knowledge in order to uphold marine ecosystem help, achieve sustainable use ecosystem services maintain overall ecosystem integrity . The precautionary principle advocates that in cases where there is potential harm to ecological or human health due to proposed activity, preventative measures should be enacted even when some cause and effect relationships remain scientifically uncertain . As a protective measure, MPAs encompass the ecosystem approach and precautionary principle by ensuring that the best scientific knowledge is integrated in their implementation and that ecosystems remain protected in cases of uncertainty.
MPAs are also an important instrument in the achievement of United Nations sustainable development goal (SDG) 14, which strives to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development” . Governments around the world apply the IUCN categories to their MPAs, ranging from strict no-take reserves, to ones allowing the sustainable use of natural resources and extractive, recreational and commercial activity. This provides a globally recognized standard to compare MPA governance across jurisdictions .
Socioeconomic Impacts are Unchartered Waters
While there is extensive literature applauding the ecological benefits of MPAs, their social and economic implications are less known. An ineffectively managed MPA with an exclusive focus on biophysical indicators while neglecting to consider “a community’s perceived benefits, impacts and general satisfaction with a protected area” can be construed simultaneously as a “biological success” and a “social failure” .
In the MPA I was based in while doing my graduate research, failure to inform and engage some local communities has led to increased instances of incompliance with respect to the reserve’s regulations. I pursued my Master of Environmental Studies at the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment in 2017, based in the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development and under the supervision of Dr. Prateep Nayak. I was fortunate enough to be sent to collect my research data overseas and did my work in the Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO biosphere reserve and a category VI protected area, i.e., a protected area with sustainable use of natural resources . It is located on the eastern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, within the Gulf of Mexico. The reserve is home to important wetlands and unique mangrove forest ecosystems that are designated under the Ramsar Wetlands Convention , which are critical habitats for nesting sea bird species and a protective zone for nesting hawksbill and green sea turtles. In addition to its biodiversity, the reserve is also an important source of food and livelihood for the residents that live in its buffer zone and directly depend on the wetlands .
The reserve is growing to be a popular tourism spot for those taking advantage of the natural coastal communities and the rich biodiversity of the region . In Ría Lagartos, locals have leveraged the presence of the reserve by promoting ecotourism ventures such as boat tours, fly fishing and birdwatching and a laidback, seaside village ambience to its visitors.
However, during its establishment in the 1980s, initial reactions to the reserve from community members were of animosity and resentment, largely due to ineffective dissemination of park regulations, lack of communication between community members and management personnel, and the inexistence of community consultation in planning. Local peoples gradually became accustomed to the reserve as community-relations improved, and some are now its stewards, welcoming both the ecological and economic benefits that it brings.
MPAs in a Canadian Context
MPAs in Canada bring forth similar benefits. There are 14 established Canadian MPAs spread across the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific Oceans, comprising over 350,000 km2 or roughly 6% of Canada’s marine and coastal areas .
- Arctic Ocean
- Anguniaqvia niqiqyuam (2,358 km2, 2010)
- Tarium Niryutait (1,750 km2, 2010)
- Tuvaijuittuq (319,411 km2, 2019)
- Atlantic Ocean
- Banc-des-Américains (1000 km2, 2019)
- Basin Head (9 km2, 2005)
- Eastport (2 km2, 2005)
- Gilbert Bay (60 km2, 2005)
- The Gully (2,363 km2, 2004)
- Laurentian Channel (11,580 km2, 2019)
- Musquash Estuary (7 km2, 2006)
- St. Anns Bank (4,364 km2, 2017)
- Pacific Ocean
- Endeavour Hydrothermal Vents (97 km2, 2003)
- Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound Glass Sponge Reefs (2,410 km2, 2017)
- SGaan Kinghlas-Bowie Seamount (6,103 km2, 2008) 
With the longest coastline of any nation in the world, Canada has a vested interest in protecting its surrounding waterways. Canadian MPAs are home to a rich diversity of both species and ecosystems, such as American lobster, ringed and bearded seals, deepwater canyons, leatherback sea turtles, saltwater estuaries, Northern bottlenose whales, hydrothermal vents, glass sponge reefs and coastal grasslands . In addition to their ecological significance to a great diversity of marine life, its oceans are also important to Canada’s heritage, culture, and economy. In 2015, fisheries generated over $1 billion in GDP, and close to $3 billion in total economic activity. About 72,000 Canadians make their livelihood directly from fishing and related activities.
When designed effectively, MPAs have the potential to conserve the marine environment and protect biodiversity, while simultaneously contributing to social and economic development. Fortifying our country’s waterways, MPAs are Canada’s aquatic parks, providing sanctuary for life underwater.
This was a beautifully written and well-informed article! I really enjoyed reading the section about the socio-economic impacts of MPA’s and your experience at the Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve. I found it quite interesting how local peoples gradually became accustomed to the reserve as community-relations improved with time. It made me think of how conservation efforts could start approaching the creation of bio reserves through building that social relationship with the local communities first and what that would potentially look like in a Canadian context.
Thanks so much Ebany! I agree, I think when done effectively, biosphere reserves have great potential to build better social relations with local communities, in Canada and around the world. One of the pretexts of a biosphere reserve is to “encourage diverse local economies to revitalize rural areas.” – https://www.watertonbiosphere.com/biosphere-reserves/benefits-biosphere-reserve/#:~:text=Biosphere%20reserves%20help%20ensure%20the,and%20to%20protect%20biological%20diversity.