A Conversation About Marine Conservation in Canada Through the Use of Parks and Protected Areas

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

The following is a series of Q and A with a Parks Canada representative concerning the various types of marine protected areas (MPAs) in a Canadian context. For more information on MPAs, please visit the “Federal Marine Protected Area Strategy”

 Q1: What is your professional background and what motivated you to pursue your career of choice?

A1: My undergraduate studies were in geography at Queen’s University, and then I moved into education and taught in the GIS realm for about 10 years. I went on to do my Master’s in Conservation Planning. My Master’s thesis examined zoning in the lower South Okanagan-Similkameen Region. At this time, I also became interested in modeling tools, and in particular, I worked with a tool that is used in systematic planning and zoning. From that, I was employed by an NGO called Living Oceans in British Columbia. Eventually, I ended up working with Parks Canada starting in 2007 and for the first 10 years of my career here, I largely focused on establishment projects, including zoning for subterrestrial national parks. I have also worked on the interim zoning plan for Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, and zoning for the proposed Southern Strait of Georgia National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA). I have also started to work in the consultation realm and have managed a proposal to examine the potential to establish national park lands on Bowen Island. I am now based in Revelstoke, British Columbia, and my current role is in Investment Planning with a two-year assignment in the Marine Conservation Group, Protected Areas Establishment and Conservation Directorate of Parks Canada. My tasks include developing policy and regulations to support NMCAs.

Q2: Could you please define what an MPA is in a Canadian context?  

A2: There are a number of different MPAs in Canada and three government departments that can establish and manage an MPA: 

NMCAs are Parks Canada’s instrument.  NMCAs are established and managed for the purpose of protecting representative marine areas for the benefit, education and enjoyment of the people of Canada and the world. One of the themes that are unique about the NMCA program is the focus on representativity – we have a system plan similar to our National Parks in which we divide Canada into 29 national marine regions and our goal is to represent each one with an NMCA. We also have a strong emphasis on education, outreach and promoting memorable visitor experiences. There are seven management goals of NMCAs that address the three pillars of sustainability:

  1. Protect marine biodiversity and ecosystems 
  2. Advance effective collaboration for management 
  3. Manage use in an ecologically sustainable manner 
  4. Conserve cultural heritage 
  5. Foster long-term wellbeing of coastal and Indigenous communities 
  6. Facilitate opportunities for meaningful visitor experience 
  7. Enhance awareness and understand of NMCAs 

Q3: What is the process of establishing an NMCA? 

A3: There is a five-step process: 

  1. Identifying representative marine areas 
  2. Select candidate NMCA from among the representative marine areas
    • Examine a range of factors, including ecological representation, collaboration with Indigenous organizations, other governments (provincial, territorial, municipal) or departments, and complementarity with regional and national MPA planning processes 
  3. Assess feasibility/desirability of establishing a candidate NMCA  
    • Work with Indigenous groups, other governments, stakeholders, etc, to compile background information and explore the opportunities and challenges that are presented which is then summarized in a feasibility report 
  4. Negotiating agreements and developing an interim management plan 
    • Agreements can be made with First Nations or other governments/departments. The interim plan will guide the management of the area for the first five years before an actual management plan is developed. The interim management plan contains topics such as a vision for the area, management goals and objectives, zoning, and any restrictions or limitations that have been agreed to through the negotiation process 
  5. Establish NMCA 

Q4: How are NMCAs governed in Canada? What is the primary legislation used to establish and govern them? 

A4: The primary legislation is the Canada National Marine Conservation Areas Act. Under this act, we have the authority to establish and manage NMCAs to the extent that other federal government departments do not already have authority in the region. For example, if we developed a management plan, we would not be able to manage fisheries without DFO approval. We would work collaboratively with DFO who would have to sign off on any decisions made with respect to fisheries management. There is a wide suite of other legislation that would apply in an NMCA, which can make its governance very complex.

Q5: What are some of the tools that Parks Canada uses to monitor and manage NMCAs?

A5: We use various tools to achieve our goals with respect to NMCAs, such as zoning, special management areas voluntary measures, monitoring and research (to assess the state of the existing environment), management planning processes, legislation and regulations, permitting processes, education and awareness, temporary closures, etc. 

Q6: In September 2019, the government announced new goals of protecting 25% of Canada’s oceans by 2025. Canada surpassed its previous goal of attaining 10% protection by 2020 with the establishment of larger MPAs in the north. Could you please speak to the importance of ocean targets such as these and how the government goes about achieving them? 

A6: The goals are essentially our marching orders and are part of the departmental plan, our budget and the minister’s mandate. We are working towards achieving 25% by 2025 and 30% by 2030 and have commitments made towards the establishment of various parks across Canada. Parks Canada has contributed a significant portion to the achievement of these goals. There are five proposed NMCAs, namely: 

  1. Îles-de-la-Madeleine – Quebec 
  2. Southern Strait of Georgia – British Columbia 
  3. Eastern James Bay – Ontario 
  4. Tallurutiup Imanga – Nunavut 
  5. Labrador Coast – Newfoundland and Labrador 

Q7: What is the value of having a network of NMCAs?  

A7: We are seeing a decline in marine biodiversity, abundance of species and other threats to the oceans with respect to industrial development, climate change and other stressors. There are also concerns regarding the rate of extractive usage. Canada’s oceans are extremely valuable and they provide a multitude of ecological services, so their preservation is very important. 

Q8: What role do local communities play in the establishment of NMCAs? 

A8: Local community support is very important to Parks Canada. For example, we did a feasibility study that I was involved with on Bowen Island, and the community decided to conduct a public vote which resulted in a rejection of the proposal, so we walked away. This is a component that is extremely important to us and we want to have the support of local communities, and in particular, the support of Indigenous Peoples. 

Q9: What are some of the bigger challenges in achieving marine sustainability and how can they be overcome?

A9: For me, it’s working around the complexity of the overlapping authoritative bodies. I am currently working on developing regulations, and this can only be done in the areas that we have the authority to do so. If there is an area concerning fisheries, we must collaborate with Fisheries and Ocean’s Canada. There are usually two components when it comes to protected areas – their establishment and effective management. We currently do not have regulations under the NMCA Act, and these are in development so that we can manage these areas more effectively. The collaborative component can get complicated because it tends to take up a lot of time and resources to do so and reach a consensus. 

Q10: What advice would you give to someone who is starting out in their career and wants to work in marine conservation?

A10: Follow your passion and interest because a lot of people who go into this field are extremely passionate about the work that they do. Cater to the areas that you excel in (i.e. communications, social media, marketing, research and analysis, science, policy, planning, GIS etc) and leverage your area of expertise and background. It is sometimes difficult to obtain government positions, so if you are early in your career, environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOS) are a really great place to start (i.e. CPAWS, WWF-Canada, David Suzuki Foundation, etc).

Q11: What are some resources one could consult if they wanted to know more about this topic? 

A11: I would recommend and consult the resources and documents that the International Union on the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has published on this topic. 

To Protect and Conserve – the Mission of Marine Protected Areas

The mangrove forests of the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve have been cited by community members as important to wellbeing due to the protection from hurricane impacts. Photo by Hameet Singh.

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.

Marine protected areas have long been heralded as an important area-based management tool to combat ecological change, conserve natural resources, biological diversity, and historical and cultural facets of the landscape. The purpose of an MPA is to provide protection for “any defined area within or adjacent to the marine environment, together with its overlying waters and associated flora, fauna and historical and cultural features.”[1] It strives to diminish the risk of degradation to marine and coastal ecosystems by reducing pressure on fisheries and other related marine activities. This is achieved by limiting interference from human activities to varying degrees, dependent on the IUCN categories.[2] MPAs may also sometimes be set up to safeguard unique ecosystems or species habitats such as sponge glass corals or mangrove forests.

The benefits of MPAs are vast and diverse. They are known to “protect delicate ecosystems so that they remain productive and healthy, maintain areas of biodiversity and genetic variation within the flora and fauna populations, ensure that endangered, threatened, or rare species are protected…”.[3] MPAs are used as a “well-established conservation strategy, employed around the world to protect important marine species and ecosystems and support the recovery of declining populations”.[4] Lesser known, but equally important benefits of MPA establishment are its economic and social facets. MPAs implemented with allowable sustainable use of human activity can help to bolster local economies through fisheries spillover effects and ecotourism ventures. In communities where MPAs have been established for a longer period, they have become embedded in the local culture and community identity.

Some of the avifauna present in the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve - Great blue heron, roseate spoonbill and American white ibis. Photo by Hameet Singh.
Some of the avifauna present in the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve - Great blue heron, roseate spoonbill and American white ibis. Photo by Hameet Singh.

Fostering Biodiversity

In the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, the MPA where I was based in while doing my graduate research, the local community members that I interviewed repeatedly advocated the significant value that the reserve has brought to their towns. The communities are situated in a lagoon ecosystem, which is host to mangrove forests, in addition to other vegetative biomes. In fact, mangroves surround the coasts of the entire peninsula with a total area of 423,751 ha.[5] Interviewees frequently described the MPA as conserving the mangroves, which in turn safeguards the inland communities from hurricane and storm surges. This is particularly significant for the area, as it is considered a high-risk hurricane zone and situated in the trajectory of hurricanes originating from the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.[6] This shows that the existence of the MPA has added to the physical resilience of the communities.

The biosphere and mangroves also provide ecological protection to its myriad of species residing in its core and buffer zones, including hawksbill and green sea turtles, Morelett’s crocodile and American crocodile, jaguar, bare-throated tiger heron, Caribbean spiny lobster, and Atlantic horseshoe crab. Avifauna in particular are of special concern in the ecosystem. The reserve is known as an “Important Bird Area” an internationally recognized standard for the conservation of bird populations.[7] Its strategic location and varied vegetative environments make it a key migratory stop for wintering waterfowl.[8]

Protection of species and habitat has also stabilized some of the previously declining fisheries in the region, which is significant as over 60% of the communities’ population relies on small-scale fishing as its primary source of income.[9] Literature repeatedly indicates that well-managed MPAs build the resilience of coastal communities through the spillover of fish, leading to benefits via increased catch.[10] Fishing is a way of life and comprises self-identity for many living in the communities of the reserve. Increases in the health of local fisheries is embedded in and contributes to the community’s culture and identity.

Supporting Local Communities​

In addition, the implementation of the MPA has brought significant revenue generation through investments in ecotourism. In Ria Lagartos, locals have leveraged the presence of the reserve by promoting ecotourism ventures. It has been used increasingly as a mechanism for alternative income generation and diversification of livelihoods. This has allowed locals to benefit and improve their wellbeing and socio-economic conditions through new employment opportunities and increased revenue. Fishers are doubling as tour guides, escorting sightseers to the mangrove forests, beaches, sinkholes and birdwatching areas.[11] There is a tourist cooperative established in all the communities of Ría Lagartos by cooperative fishers and other community members, including the women’s cooperative. The main attraction of the reserve are the species that inhabit it, particularly the American flamingo and Morelet’s crocodile. Animals such as these attract a multitude of tourists annually, who come to see the species in their natural habitat via birdwatching tours or night excursions.

The American flamingo in the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve. Photo by Hameet Singh.
The American flamingo in the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve. Photo by Hameet Singh.

Finally, majority of the interviewees attributed the reserve as enhancing their community’s wellbeing, stating that its presence added to local pride and awareness of the marine environment. This in turn created a greater sense and encouragement to care and protect the local environment and a psychological feeling of comfort.

The establishment of an MPA can have a multitude of benefits for the local areas in which it exists, as well the overall global marine ecosystem as a whole. They are known as “biological successes” and safeguard marine species all throughout the food web, and also provide a slew of both economic and social benefits. When designed effectively, MPAs have the potential to conserve the marine environment and protect biodiversity, while simultaneously contributing positively to social and economic development.

What other benefits and success stories are supported by MPAs? Let us know in the comments below!

[1] CBD. (2003, March 3). MARINE AND COASTAL BIODIVERSITY: REVIEW, FURTHER ELABORATION AND REFINEMENT OF THE PROGRAMME OF WORK. Retrieved from CBD website: https://www.cbd.int/doc/meetings/sbstta/sbstta-08/information/sbstta-08-inf-12-en.pdf

[2] IUCN (2020). Protected Area Categories. Retrieved from IUCN: https://www.iucn.org/theme/protected-areas/about/protected-area-categories

[3] Ginsburg, D. (2013). Effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas in Mexico – the Actam Chuleb Example. Retrieved from Scientific American Blog Network website: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/expeditions/investigating-the-effectiveness-of-marine-protected-areas-in-mexico-using-actam-chuleb-as-a-primary-example

[4] Jessen, S., Morgan, L. E., Bezaury-Creel, J. E., Barron, A., Govender, R., Pike, E. P., … Moffitt, R. A. (2017). Measuring MPAs in Continental North America: How Well Protected Are the Ocean Estates of Canada, Mexico, and the USA? Frontiers in Marine Science, 4. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2017.00279

[5] Adame, M. F., Zaldívar‐Jimenez, A., Teutli, C., Caamal, J. P., Andueza, M. T., López‐Adame, H., … Herrera‐Silveira, J. A. (2013). Drivers of Mangrove Litterfall within a Karstic Region Affected by Frequent Hurricanes. Biotropica, 45(2), 147–154. https://doi.org/10.1111/btp.12000

[6] Audefroy, J. F., & Sánchez, B. N. C. (2017). Integrating local knowledge for climate change adaptation in Yucatán, Mexico. International Journal of Sustainable Built Environment, 6(1), 228–237. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijsbe.2017.03.007

[7] BirdLife International. (2019). BirdLife Data Zone. Retrieved from http://datazone.birdlife.org/country/mexico

[8] SEMARNAT. (2016). Humedales de Ría Lagartos de gran importancia internacional. Retrieved from gob.mx website: http://www.gob.mx/semarnat/articulos/humedales-de-ria-lagartos-de-gran-importancia-internacional