What is an MPA?

A marine protected area (MPA) is a “clearly defined geographical space recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.”
– International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Purpose of MPAs

Photo by Karen and Ralf Meyer, Greenfire Productions

Sustainability of the world’s oceans is increasingly becoming a critical concern and there is an urgent need to mitigate the impact of a multitude of stressors to our marine environments. Decades of scientific evidence documenting ecological, social and/or economic benefits of effectively managed MPAs demonstrates their importance in addressing these threats. Globally, not only have MPAs demonstrated positive ecological gains, they have also been shown to provide a venue for ocean users to have a voice in ocean management.

MPAs are similar to terrestrial protected areas in many ways. For example, they can vary in the degree of protection, in conservation objectives, and in size. MPAs can be used to protect critical habitat, help endangered species, enhance local and regional fishing stocks, maintain cultural values, or to create and preserve recreational opportunities, like kayak routes. These are just a few of the reasons to establish MPAs and their role is dependent on the environment in which they are placed.

MPAs on the North Pacific Coast of Canada

There are a number of different terms used to describe MPAs on the North Pacific Coast depending on the legislation used to establish them. These include Marine Protected Areas established under the Oceans Act, national marine conservation areas (NMCAs), national parks, marine wildlife areas, provincial parks, ecological reserves, conservancies and various First Nations designations.

The first MPA on the Pacific Coast of British Columbia was the marine component of the Strathcona Provincial Park, designated in 1911. There are now over 185 MPAs protecting 28% of the Pacific coastline of B.C. and 2.8% of the Pacific waters of Canada. Existing MPAs were designated to protect specific values using a variety of designation tools, including federal and provincial legislation and First Nations designations. These existing MPAs provide different levels of protection to a range of values, including ecological, social, cultural, spiritual and economic values.

What is an MPA Network?

Photo by Iain Robert Reid

An MPA network is “a collection of individual marine protected areas that operates co-operatively and synergistically, at various spatial scales, and with a range of protection levels, in order to fulfill ecological aims more effectively and comprehensively than individual sites could alone.”
– International Union for the Conservation of Nature

The Northern Shelf Marine Protected Area Network planning process recognizes the role that the range of marine conservation tools available to the federal, provincial and First Nations governments play in an MPA network.

Benefits of MPAs and MPA Networks

Photo by Doug Biffard
Ecological Benefits

Well-designed networks of MPAs contribute to the protection of the structure, function and integrity of ecosystems by:

  • Providing refuge for harvested species
  • Protecting habitats critical to life cycle stages such as spawning, juvenile rearing and feeding
  • Complementing adjacent terrestrial protected areas for species who use freshwater and marine ecosystems (e.g., salmon)
  • Protecting, enhancing, and maintaining spawning stocks and reproductive capacity
  • Contributing to the restoration and recovery of species, habitats and ecosystems
  • Enhancing local and regional fish stocks, providing spillover of adults and juveniles into adjacent areas
  • Assisting in conservation-based fisheries management
Photo by Catriona Day
Social, economic and cultural benefits
  • Encouraging expansion of our knowledge and understanding of marine systems
  • Ensuring a stable resource base for activities such as fishing, recreation and tourism
  • Contributing to the co-ordination of ecosystem-based management of marine activities that ensure long-term economic opportunities for sustainable use
  • Providing researchers, educators and policy makers with reference sites to serve as natural benchmarks
  • Increasing the quality of life in surrounding communities
  • Protecting culturally and spiritually significant sites

Canada-BC MPA Network Strategy

In 2011, the Canadian Council of Fisheries and Aquaculture Ministers approved the National Framework for Canada’s Network of Marine Protected Areas, which guides the national approach for marine protected area (MPA) network development. Building on this framework, Fisheries and Oceans Canada regions were directed to develop and implement regional strategies for designing MPA networks.

Working in partnership, federal and provincial agencies completed the Canada-British Columbia Marine Protected Area Network Strategy in 2014. Consistent with the national framework, the strategy outlines network goals and principles for a coast-wide system of MPAs to help guide MPA establishment and regional planning initiatives. It identifies ecological, social, economic and cultural design principles for the creation of effective, functional networks in B.C.

Within the strategy, the approach to network planning aims to build collaboration and partnerships that help establish new MPAs for both near and offshore regions.

Guided by the Canada-B.C. Strategy, and with collaboration between Canada, B.C. and many First Nations, network planning in the Pacific Region will support efforts to create a national network of MPAs.

Photo by Iain Robert Reid

Commitments to Marine Conservation

First Nations, the Government of Canada, the Province of British Columbia, stakeholders and coastal communities share a broad commitment to marine conservation. In addition, MPA network planning for the Northern Shelf  will play an important role in fulfilling First Nations, federal and provincial government mandates that include: conservation and protection of natural, historical and cultural values; complementing and contributing to sustainable resource management; and enhancing economic and social well-being.

First Nations traditional territories cover significant portions of the Northern Shelf. First Nations assert Aboriginal Rights and Title to these territories, including rights related to ongoing First Nations stewardship over lands, waters and resources. The respective laws and traditions of partner First Nations hold them responsible for ensuring that their territories, including marine areas and the wildlife and resources within them, are sustainably managed and that their unique cultures, founded in healthy terrestrial and marine ecosystems, flourish. In support of these commitments, several First Nations in the Northern Shelf created their own marine plans and are engaged in a number of marine planning and integrated marine management initiatives with the provincial and/or federal governments.

The Government of Canada has made numerous international and national commitments to marine conservation, including commitments to the establishment of a national network of MPAs that will comprise a number of bioregional MPA networks. These commitments to marine conservation were reinforced in 2015 by the federal announcement that the Government of Canada would increase the proportion of Canada’s marine and coastal areas that are protected to 5% by 2017 and 10% by 2020, consistent with international obligations under the 2010 Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. As of August 28, 2018, the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard was also provided the mandate to include minimum protection standards for Canada’s marine protected areas and marine refuges.

The Province of British Columbia has a commitment to provide co-ordinated and sustainable management and stewardship of the natural values in B.C., including those in coastal and marine environments. B.C. has a mandate to conserve biodiversity and provide access to outdoor recreation and tourism opportunities within marine parks and protected areas and delivers on this mandate through a variety of legislative and other tools. For example, the Canada-B.C. MPA Strategy guides systematic conservation planning for coastal and marine areas and the marine plans developed under the Marine Plan Partnership provide a framework for the protection and sustainable use of marine values.

Marine stakeholders and coastal communities in the Northern Shelf also share a vital and long-standing relationship with the ocean. Historically, the growth and development of many coastal communities was based on access to seafood for commercial and subsistence purposes, including salmon, crab, halibut and other ocean resources. Today, the near-shore waters of the bioregion support aquaculture, fishing, marine tourism and transportation, while the offshore supports numerous commercial fisheries, transportation and the potential for renewable energy development. In support of the idea that productive marine ecosystems contribute significantly to healthy coastal communities, stakeholders and coastal residents continue to demonstrate a commitment to marine conservation through active stewardship and engagement in marine planning initiatives.

Commitments include, but are not limited to:

First Nations:

Constitution of the Haida Nation outlines the official mandate and responsibilities of the Council of the Haida Nation (CHN). The mandate of the CHN is Haida Gwaii and surrounding waters. The responsibilities of the CHN include the perpetuation of Haida heritage and cultural identity, and the establishment of land and resource policies consistent with nature’s ability to produce.

Laws of the Haida Nation, established through the passing of House of Assembly resolutions, are consistent with the responsibilities of the Haida Nation to Haida Gwaii and surrounding waters, as described in the Constitution of the Haida Nation.

Heiltsuk, Kitasoo/Xai’Xais, Nuxalk and Wuikinuxv Marine Use Plans: The Central Coast First Nations undertook extensive planning processes to develop territory-scale marine plans that address their Nations’ values and priorities. These marine plans commit the Nations to realizing these protected areas through joint-management agreements with other levels of government, partnerships with stakeholders and direct actions by the Nations.

Gitga’at, Gitxaała, Haisla, Kitselas, Kitsumkalum, and Metlakatla First Nations have completed and approved regional and community-level marine use plans. These plans provide strategic direction regarding the management, use and protection of each Nation’s territories and include a shared commitment to the collaborative protection and sustainable use of North Coast areas and resources.

Nanwakolas Council Society has a mandate to collectively pursue land and marine resource planning and management and resource-based economic development activities, outside of formal treaty negotiations processes. The Council operates with the objectives of maintaining cultural connection with its member First Nation traditional territories, enhancing ecological integrity of the territories and promoting community well-being. Each member First Nation developed its own marine plan, all of which were aggregated into a First Nation plan for member territories in North Vancouver Island. This plan served as a basis for developing a joint plan for North Vancouver Island with the Province of British Columbia, which includes and reflects First Nations’ interests in marine protection for ecological and cultural values.


2010 Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity includes a commitment to “improve the status of biodiversity by safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity.” As a signatory to the agreement, Canada has agreed to Target 11, which commits parties to conserve by 2020, “at least…10% of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services…through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures….”


Canada’s Oceans Act directs multi-agency collaboration and co-ordination on broad oceans management, including MPAs.

Canada’s Oceans Strategy provides the overall strategic framework for Canada’s oceans-related programs and policies, including the establishment of MPAs to contribute to maintenance of biological diversity and productivity of the marine environment.

The National Framework for Canada’s Network of Marine Protected Areas (National Framework) provides strategic direction for the development of a national network of MPAs that will be composed of a number of bioregional networks. The National Framework outlines the proposed overarching vision and goals of the national network; establishes the network components, design properties and eligibility criteria for which areas will contribute to the network; describes the proposed network governance structure; and provides the direction necessary to promote national consistency in bioregional network planning.

Federal government commitment to increase the proportion of Canada’s marine and coastal areas that are protected to  5% by 2017 and 10% by 2020. This commitment is in response to the 2010 Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Aichi Target 11.


Memorandum of Understanding between Canada and British Columbia Respecting the Implementation of Canada’s Oceans Strategy on the Pacific Coast of Canada (2004) provides for “further collaboration among the parties to advance the implementation of specific activities and objectives identified in Canada’s Oceans Strategy aimed at understanding and protecting the marine environment and supporting sustainable economic opportunities on the Pacific Coast of Canada.”

Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area Collaborative Oceans Governance Memorandum of Understanding (2008) signed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, on behalf of the Government of Canada, the Coastal First Nations and the North Coast-Skeena First Nations Stewardship Society in 2008, by the Province of B.C. in 2010, and Nanwakolas  Council in 2011, established a new governance mechanism through which these groups could work together to support integrated management in the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area. The memorandum of understanding engages federal, provincial and First Nations governments in marine use planning in the region and is an example of a proactive approach to collaborative governance on the west coast of Canada.

Canada-British Columbia Marine Protected Area Network Strategy (2014) outlines network goals and principles for a coast-wide system of MPAs to help guide MPA establishment and regional planning initiatives. It identifies ecological, social, economic and cultural design principles for the creation of effective, functional networks in B.C.

MPA Network of the Northern Shelf Bioregion is a collaborative partnership between the Government of Canada, the Province of BC and many First Nations

MPA Network Government of Canada Province of BC Haida-Nation Coastal First Nations Central Coast Indigenous Resource Alliance Nanwakolas Counsil North Coast-Skeena First Nations Stewardship Society

Signatory First Nations

Gitxaala Nation, Metlakatla First Nation, Gitga’at First Nation, Kitasoo/Xaixais First Nation, Heiltsuk Nation, Nuxalk First Nation, Wuikinuxv First Nation, Mamalilikulla Nation, Tlowitsis Nation, Da'naxda'xw Awetlala First Nation, Wei Wai Kum First Nation, and K'ómoks First Nation