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Preserving British Columbia's Coast - A Regulatory Review

BC Near Shore Habitat Loss Work Group, Puget Sound/Georgia Basin International Task Force, Protect Coastal Habitat, Fish Protection Act, Integrated Coastal Management
Nowlan, Linda

Please Note: Preserving British Columbia's Coast - A Regulatory Review was originally published as a web-based HTML document.  It has been converted to a .pdf file, but in doing so some of the formatting and annotation functionality has been affected.

Like fish, birds and other wildlife, people concentrate in coastal areas. In British Columbia, over three-quarters of the population lives on or near the coast, which consists of 27,000 km of coastline and more than 6500 coastal islands. The province’s population is concentrated in the coastal cities of Vancouver and Victoria and in the rapidly growing communities on the east coast of Vancouver Island. The Georgia Basin has grown from 1.2 million to 2.7 million people in the last 25 years, and population growth is not slowing down. Loss or degradation of coastal habitat has been identified as the chief threat to the health of the shared marine waters of British Columbia and Washington because the impacts are irreversible, the potential harm to the environment is great, and habitat losses are highly preventable. Scientists have urged governments to take immediate action to prevent coastal and estuarine habitat losses.

Habitat is the “physical and biological setting in which organisms live and in which the other components of the environment are encountered … [and there is]…“ no disagreement in the ecological literature about one fundamental relationship: sufficient loss of habitat will lead to species extinction.” In BC, diminishing populations of some species shows the negative effects of habitat loss. A number of stocks of salmon are at risk, in part due to habitat loss. There are 26 species of endangered and threatened freshwater fish in the province, including the Nooksack Dace and the Salish Sucker, both of which are threatened by habitat loss from urban development. Virtually all the COSEWIC listed plants in the Georgia Basin are threatened by urban development. Coastal dependent birds such as the Marbled murrelet are affected by habitat loss. Three species of marine mammal: the Northern Sea Lion, Killer Whale and Harbor Porpoise are affected by human disturbances and have been added to the province’s list of species at risk.

Habitat can be lost and damaged in a number of ways, ranging from physical alteration of the shoreline itself to water quality degradation. Historically the primary causes of nearshore habitat loss were dyking and draining. A major review of coastal habitat loss in the Georgia Basin done in 1994 identified dredging, port and harbour development, log storage, and degradation from pollution such as dioxin contamination as prime causes of habitat loss.

Urban development has also been a major cause of wetland conversion in the Lower Mainland. About 30% of the natural lands that were developed from 1967 to 1982 were wetlands. Urban streams that enter into the Strait of Georgia are in sharp decline. About 120 streams in the Lower Fraser Valley have been lost due to paving, filling and culverting. A 1997 Department of Fisheries and Oceans report classified the remaining streams as follows: 61% are endangered, 24% are threatened and only 15% are listed as wild.

This report reviews the current regulatory system in place in BC to protect near shore habitat. It also describes the gaps in that system, and possible solutions to fill the regulatory gaps. It discusses the federal, provincial and municipal laws that apply to control activities that harm near shore habitat as well as the laws that protect habitat. It also discusses other approaches that can be used to promote habitat protection such as conservation covenants and other legal tools to protect privately owned land. Though commonly thought of as non-regulatory approaches, this group of tools requires a statutory base.

Improvements can be made to our current regulatory framework to protect near shore habitat. Four potential changes are:

  • A new provincial policy to protect wetlands. The province relies on the federal fisheries habitat protection policy based on the principle of “no net loss”, and has no policy of its own.
  • Strong new regulations under the Fish Protection Act. The province has passed a new Fish Protection Act to improve habitat protection in urban areas. Regulations developed under this Act could significantly increase coastal habitat protection in urban areas.
  • Creation of a Shoreline Reserve. Coastal development can alter the ecology of the coastal zone and functioning of coastal and ocean processes. Some ecologically sensitive estuaries and other areas of the coast should remain free from development. Creating a narrow exclusionary area adjacent to the ocean’s edge in the Georgia Basin area in which building and other development is prohibited would improve the current regulatory scheme. This reserve could be created under provincial legislation similar to the laws which created the Agricultural Land Reserve and the Forest Land Reserve, or under integrated coastal management plans developed pursuant to the federal Oceans Act.
  • Integrated Coastal Management administered by a Coastal Commission. As conflicts between coastal land and water uses increase, the need for integrated coastal management (ICM) is greater. Conflicts are on the rise, between fisheries and agriculture; aquaculture and protected areas; industrial development and environmental protection. Rather than creating a new process each time a coastal conflict arises, an integrated coastal management strategy administered by a multi-agency Coastal Commission would improve habitat protection in British Columbia. This Commission would also be the vehicle for the public process to determine how much estuarine and nearshore habitat should be preserved that the Marine Science Panel recommended.
Publication Date: 
July 1, 1999
Publication Pages: 
West Coast Environmental Law
Publication City: 
Vancouver, BC
Publication Format: