From February 3-9, ocean experts from around the world came together in Vancouver for the 5th International Marine Protected Areas Congress (IMPAC5), to connect, share knowledge and make progress on global marine protection goals.
West Coast Environmental Law’s marine team was excited to take part in this unique international forum dedicated to marine protected areas (MPAs). Throughout the Congress we met with colleagues and decision-makers, led discussions, hosted / co-hosted events, and pressed for bold policy commitments from Canada to advance ocean protection here at home.
As the host of IMPAC5, all eyes were on Canada to deliver strong commitments to safeguard ocean health, and to set a positive example for other coastal nations as the world strives to reach our shared goal of protecting 30% of the global ocean by 2030.
IMPAC5 presented an incredible opportunity for global collaboration on MPAs – highlighting the work and diverse perspectives of international ocean conservation professionals, Indigenous leaders and knowledge holders, scientists, legal experts, innovators, community groups, public officials and others who care about the seas. And we are excited to report that the hard work being done by all these ocean champions is starting to pay off.
During the Congress, we celebrated several welcome announcements that will lead to stronger protection for the ocean, in Canada and beyond. Read on to learn about eight positive marine protection developments that demonstrate the impact of IMPAC5!
Great Bear Sea (Northern Shelf Bioregion) MPA Network Action Plan
An MPA network in the Great Bear Sea – spanning from Northern Vancouver Island to the Alaskan border – has been in the planning stages for many years. It would be the largest Indigenous-led, collaboratively developed MPA Network in the world. At IMPAC5, the partners in this process (coastal Indigenous nations, the provincial and federal governments) announced their endorsement of the Network Action Plan, which is a blueprint for the MPA Network going forward.
This is a huge step forward for the Network, and it will see the unique and ecologically diverse region, which is home to an abundance of marine life, protected from the most harmful human activities. The next steps in the process are implementing legal designations for individual sites within the larger Network, with most sites to be in place by 2030.
Canada’s National Marine Conservation Areas Policy Framework
Parks Canada released a new Policy Framework and Directive on the Establishment and Management of National Marine Conservation Areas (NMCAs), and also identified its goal of establishing 10 new NMCAs under this policy direction. The Policy Framework makes the protection of marine ecosystems and biodiversity the primary goal of NMCAs, commits Parks Canada to placing the majority of each NMCA under full protection, and foregrounds reconciliation and Indigenous leadership in conservation.
New MPA: Tang.ɢwan — ḥačxwiqak — Tsig̱is
Canada, the Council of the Haida Nation, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, Pacheedaht First Nation and Quatsino First Nation announced the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding, agreeing to co-manage Tang.ɢwan — ḥačxwiqak — Tsig̱is. This is a proposed MPA under the federal Oceans Act, and – once implemented – will be the largest MPA ever designated under the Act. It has been, or is in the process of being, designated as an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA) by the partner Indigenous Nations.
Tang.ɢwan — ḥačxwiqak — Tsig̱is is located off the West Coast of Vancouver Island and is home to unique deepwater species, 46 sea mounts and all of the known hydrothermal vents in Canada. Designation under the Oceans Act would include a prohibition on the most harmful human activities, including oil and gas activities, deep sea mining, bottom trawl fishing and dumping (per the Policy implementing Minimum Protection Standards in MPAs, discussed below). Draft regulations for the MPA will be out for a 30-day public comment period as of February 18.
Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala Indigenous Protected & Conserved Area (IPCA) - Marine Refuge
In 2021, Mamalilikulla First Nation declared the Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala IPCA under its own laws in order to protect the area. The IPCA includes the Hoeya Sill, an area of fragile and slow-growing corals and sponges that are home to many marine species, as well as the Lull and Hoeya estuaries, which are critical for salmon and grizzly bear.
At IMPAC5, Canada announced fisheries closures and the establishment of a marine refuge that will help preserve Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala. The new fisheries closures and marine refuge designation under Crown law will further protect the area by prohibiting any fishing activities from taking place within it. Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala is also the first marine refuge to be designated as part of the MPA network in the Great Bear Sea.
Canada’s pathway to protecting 25% of the ocean by 2025
Canada announced its pathway towards protecting 25% of the ocean by 2025, on the way to 30% by 2030. The federal government identified 17 sites that will be protected towards this goal, including the MPA network in the Northern Shelf Bioregion/Great Bear Sea, national marine conservation area reserves on the Central Coast and in the Southern Strait of Georgia, and the Tang.ɢwan — ḥačxwiqak — Tsig̱is MPA in the offshore Pacific.
Policy mechanism for implementing minimum protection standards in MPAs
At IMPAC5, the Government of Canada announced its minimum protection standards framework for marine protected areas (MPAs). Canada first committed to this policy in April 2019 – after extensive advocacy by West Coast and our allies – to prohibit four key industrial activities within federally-protected MPAs: bottom trawl fishing, dumping, oil and gas activities, and mining.
The new framework provides clarity on exactly what these prohibitions mean, and in particular it now clearly defines dumping and bottom trawl fishing. The framework also recognizes operational discharges from vessels as an area of concern, although prohibitions on these discharges are still under development. This is a strong step towards ensuring quality marine protection in Canada as well as quantity, and we hope to eventually see these standards implemented into law.
De-facto moratorium on deep-sea mining in Canadian waters
The potential of opening up the seabed to mining has a been looming threat, not just in Canada but also around the world. On the last day of IMPAC5, Canada issued a statement that, given the absence of adequate scientific knowledge and a legal framework for seabed mining in Canada, the government would not be authorizing seabed mining in waters under federal jurisdiction. This is a welcome statement, but we would like to see this position implemented in Canadian law.
International commitment to finalize and ratify a strong High Seas Treaty
In their closing statement, Canadian officials called for the timely conclusion of negotiations on the High Seas Treaty, which are scheduled to take place from February 20 to March 3, 2023. This treaty will be established under the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea, to protect and sustainably use biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction, known as the high seas.
As a result of IMPAC5, we now have a pathway to getting 25% of ocean protected by 2025, strong protection standards for new MPAs, and a commitment to implementing the largest Indigenous-led, co-developed MPA Network in the world. These government commitments were the result of Indigenous leadership and years of advocacy and hard work from so many people who care about the ocean.
We know there is still lots of work to be done to implement these commitments, and West Coast’s marine team will do everything we can to support that work. At IMPAC6, which will take place in Senegal in 2026, we’re looking forward to reconnecting with fellow coastal and ocean people, and seeing all the progress being made to protect marine ecosystems around the world.