The spatial planning framework for Canada’s national network of marine protected areas is 13 ecologically defined bioregions that cover Canada’s oceans and the Great Lakes.

The Northern Shelf encompasses approximately 101,000 km2 of marine area and occupies approximately two-thirds of B.C.’s coast. The boundary extends from the base of the continental shelf slope in the west to the coastal watershed in the east (adjacent terrestrial watersheds are not included). North to south, the Northern Shelf extends from the Canada–U.S. border of Alaska to Brooks Peninsula on northwest Vancouver Island and to Quadra Island in the south.

The Northern Shelf is located in a transition zone between two areas — the northern area dominated by Alaska Coastal Current down-welling and the southern area by California Current upwelling.

The Northern Shelf’s semi-enclosed basin, varied bottom topography and freshwater input set it apart from other areas of the North American west coast. Strong tidal mixing in the narrow passes and channels enhances productivity around the periphery.

The Pacific Ocean moderates the climate of the Northern Shelf, which results in warm, wet winters and cool summers. Very different air pressure patterns in the Gulf of Alaska in summer and winter also produce wet, windy winters and drier, relatively calmer summers. Frequent winter storms with strong southerly winds bring not only high waves but also warmer waters from the south and deep down-welling and mixing of surface waters. Relatively calmer weather in summer with periods of northerly winds brings calmer seas and allows nutrients from deep waters to reach the surface. Intense rainfall along the Coast Mountains in late autumn and winter produces large volumes of freshwater runoff on the eastern side of the Northern Shelf. Large rivers originating in the B.C. Interior snowfields and glaciers contribute most of the freshwater runoff in other seasons, especially in late spring. Although this summer-winter change in weather is typical in the Northern Shelf, there have been variations in the weather over past decades, which have affected the area.

Photo by Charles Short

Biodiversity & Ecosystems

The Northern Shelf  is ecologically unique for the diversity of ocean features it contains and the important habitat it provides for many species.

It provides essential spawning and rearing habitat for local salmon populations and is important as a marine migration corridor for more southerly populations. The region also provides important habitat for ancient colonies of corals and sponge reef communities.

Many species of marine mammals occur within the Northern Shelf for at least part of their life history. For example, three distinct eco-types of killer whales occur in the Northern Shelf: northern and southern resident killer whales, transient killer whales and offshore killer whales. Sea otters, Steller and California sea lions, northern fur seals, northern elephant seals, harbour seals and leatherback turtles are also found in the Northern Shelf. In addition, the Northern Shelf hosts a range of native invertebrates, as well as introduced shellfish and other invertebrate species, two non-indigenous sponges and two non-indigenous species of marine fish.

The marine ecosystem supports a variety of migratory species: stopover migrants, such as marine migratory birds; destination migrants, such as whales; and environmental migrants, such as pelagic zooplankton and fish that enter the Northern Shelf when water temperatures are unusually warm.

Photo by Jaka Visek

Human Use

Humans have lived in the Northern Shelf for thousands of years, sustained by its abundant marine and terrestrial resources, which also shaped the inhabitants’ social, economic and cultural values.

The inshore waters of the Northern Shelf support fishing, aquaculture, marine tourism and transportation. The offshore areas support numerous commercial fisheries and transportation, and the potential for major energy developments. The region’s ports are conduits of trade linking Canada’s businesses to markets in North America, Asia and Europe.

The lands within the Northern Shelf support 14 incorporated, 18 unincorporated and 32 First Nations communities. These communities support both terrestrial and marine activities, although the scope of the Northern Shelf Marine Protected Area Network is limited to the marine environment and its protection and sustainable use.

The ocean sector makes an important contribution to the B.C. economy and has a substantial potential for growth, both from existing sectors and from potential new energy sectors.

First Nations cultures and communities within the Northern Shelf are inextricably tied to the marine environment. For thousands of years, First Nations have used marine resources for a variety of purposes.

In the 19th and 20th century, First Nations integrated the industrial fishery into their economies and contributed significantly to the development of the B.C. fishery. They also actively participated in growing marine industries, such as commercial fishing, hunting and boat building. Today, First Nations value and prioritize participation in marine industries such as commercial fishing, tourism, as well as monitoring.

First Nations seek to ensure an ongoing sustainable relationship with marine resources, strengthened by such things as co-operative food gathering and a responsibility to maintain and protect important and sensitive marine ecosystems. They consider their historic and ongoing relationships with the ocean and marine resources to be critical foundations of their food, social, cultural and economic laws, customs, practices and traditions, including governance and management.

Non-First Nations settlement in the Northern Shelf is less than 200 years old. The growth and development of many of the earliest settlements was based on a number of factors, including alliances with First Nations and access to seafood. Hunting, fishing, and plant gathering supported coastal communities. The ability to move or switch to other resource activities through the year allowed coastal villages to remain relatively stable.

Early market economies in British Columbia were based on ocean-related industries, such as canoe and ship building, fishing and coastal logging. Over the years, the growth of export-oriented sectors, from mining and forest products to agricultural goods and petroleum production, depended on ocean transportation for access to markets. Now, emerging industries like ocean tourism and marine technology development are helping drive the economy.

Summary of Current Marine Activities in the Northern Shelf

First Nations marine resource uses and activities: Harvest of marine resources by First Nations and non-harvest spiritual and ceremonial practices by First Nations

Recreational fisheries: Recreational angling,  finfish and invertebrates harvesting by residents and visitors for personal use

Commercial fisheries: Harvesting wild finfish and invertebrates for commercial purposes

Aquaculture: Culturing finfish, shellfish or plants in the aquatic environment or manufactured container

Marine plant harvest: Domestic harvesting of wild aquatic plants for personal use (under 100 kg) or harvesting for commercial purposes (over 100 kg)

Seafood processing: Transforming wild and cultured seafood into food products for sales to domestic and international markets

Ocean recreation/tourism: Cruise ship tourism, recreational boating, paddle sports (including kayaking), whale watching and diving by residents and visitors

Marine transportation: All vessels greater than 20m, beginning/ending voyage in the Northern Shelf or in transit

Marine energy and mining: Existing and potential extraction of energy and mineral resources

Tenure on aquatic lands: Granting of tenure on land below the high-water line; tenure is often ancillary to primary activity, such as aquaculture, log storage and moorage

Ocean disposal: Deliberate disposal of approved substances at approved marine sites

National defence and public safety: Activities countering threats to security and sovereignty, and resources used to address public safety

Research, monitoring and enforcement: Efforts to learn more about marine functions for better management, supported by monitoring and enforcement; compliance with policy and regulations


The Northern Shelf is comprised of four sub-regions, Haida Gwaii, Central Coast, North Coast and North Vancouver Island. Click on a sub-region to discover more about the people, activities, and biodiversity that make up the Northern Shelf.

Haida Gwaii

Haida Gwaii is an archipelago of approximately 150 islands located 100 kilometers west of the north coast of British Columbia. The chain of islands extends roughly 250 kilometres from its southern tip to northernmost point. It is surrounded by several large bodies of water – Hecate Strait separates Haida Gwaii from the mainland, Dixon Entrance is to the north, Queen Charlotte Sound to the south and the open Pacific Ocean is to the west.

Marine life thrives in the diverse habitats found in both nearshore and offshore areas. Thick kelp forests and lush eelgrass meadows, as well as coral and sponge reefs, support invertebrates and fish communities. Humpback and killer whales, Dungeness crabs, Pacific halibut, Pacific herring and all five species of Pacific salmon are just some of the marine species calling Haida Gwaii home.

The rich marine environment supports a population on Haida Gwaii of about 4,400 people, approximately half of whom are of Haida ancestry. Xaadaa Gwaay, Xaaydaga Gwaay.yaay, or Haida Gwaii means “Islands of the People.” Seven main communities are located on the islands: Old Masset, Masset, Port Clements, Tlell, Skidegate, Queen Charlotte and Sandspit.

Central Coast

The Central Coast is a region of profound beauty, significant ecological diversity and remarkable cultural richness. Hundreds of islands, exposed rocky headlands, nearshore kelp forests and the shelf waters of Queen Charlotte Sound characterize the Central Coast’s marine and coastal areas.

The exposed outer coast meets an intricate shoreline that is cut by narrow channels and steep-walled fjords and contains ecologically complex estuaries, calm inlets and pocket coves. Marine life thrives in the diverse habitats of the Central Coast. Kelp forests and eelgrass beds support invertebrate and fish communities including juvenile Pacific halibut, eulachon, salmon, crab, prawn and numerous rockfish species. Herring spawn in the intertidal zone and shallow waters on eelgrass, kelp, rock and other substrates.

The Central Coast is home to some of the largest salmon runs on the coast. The nearshore and inlets currently support geoduck, sea cucumber and sea urchin dive fisheries as well as Dungeness crab and prawn fisheries.

Marine birds rely on the rich marine feeding grounds of the Central Coast. Globally significant nesting populations of Fork-tailed storm-petrels, Cassin’s auklets, rhinoceros auklets, tufted puffins, marbled murrelet and black oystercatchers are found in the area, including approximately one-third of the world’s population of breeding Cassin’s auklets.

Numerous marine mammals are found in Central Coast waters. Grey and humpback whales migrate through the region, sometimes stopping to feed for prolonged periods. Pacific harbour seals are widely distributed throughout area and Steller sea lion haul-outs dot the outer coast. Killer whales, fur seals, porpoises, and Pacific white-sided dolphins are sighted on a regular basis throughout the Central Coast. Reintroduction of sea otters on the Central Coast has helped restore healthy kelp forest ecosystem dynamics.

The adjacent terrestrial area has become well-known as the Great Bear Rainforest. Here, many terrestrial animals, including black bears, the geographically unique spirit bears, grizzly bears and wolves, forage extensively in the intertidal zone of the area and create a vital link between marine and terrestrial ecosystems

For millenia, the well-being of the Heiltsuk, Kitasoo/Xai’Xais, Nuxalk, and Wuikinuxv has been linked to the health of the marine environment of the Central Coast. Today, approximately 3,500 people live in the area. Close to two-thirds of the residents are of Heiltsuk, Kitasoo/Xai’Xais, Nuxalk or Wuikinuxv ancestry. Bella Coola, Bella Bella, Ocean Falls, Wuikinuxv, Shearwater and Klemtu are the main communities.

North Coast

The North Coast region includes an impressive stretch of coastline that is indented with deep fjords and dotted with thousands of islands. It is a region of profound beauty, significant ecological diversity and remarkable cultural richness.

The North Coast is physically complex, with a range of ecosystem types, including important estuaries that support distinct marine ecosystems and species. The diverse ecosystems provide spawning and/or schooling areas for fish, including pelagic species such as salmon, eulachon and herring. The plan area is also important for a variety of seabirds, marine mammals and other marine fauna and flora. In addition, the North Coast provides important cetacean habitat, some of which has been identified as critical habitat for humpback whales and potential critical habitat for killer whales.

The coastal boundaries of two regional districts are within the North Coast sub-region: Kitimat-Stikine and Skeena-Queen Charlotte.

Prince Rupert, Terrace and Kitimat are the largest communities in the North Coast region, and support an overall population of approximately 42,000 people. Communities range in size from approximately 12,000 individuals in Prince Rupert to villages of several hundred to even smaller settlements. First Nations on the North Coast have distinct cultural and spiritual heritages that are intricately linked to the marine environment and the continued  sustainable use and management of marine resources. It includes the territories of the Gitga’at, Gitxaala, Haisla, Kitselas, Kitsumkalum,  Metlakatla and Lax Kw’alaams First Nations. The planning area also includes areas that are covered by the Nisga’a Treaty. These areas include parts of the Nass area (which includes the Nass Wildlife Area), which, in turn, includes Nisga’a Lands that are owned and governed by the Nisga’a Nation. The waters and submerged lands of these areas are subject to provisions of the Nisaga’a Treaty.

A wide range of economic activities occur within the North Coast. Commercial fisheries and associated processing facilities, and logging have supported communities along the coast since the early 1900s. These activities continue to be important to the well-being of coastal communities. Port activities centered around the communities of Prince Rupert, Kitimat and Stewart, and an active recreational fishing and tourism sector, continue to be strong economic drivers in the area.

North Vancouver Island

The North Vancouver Island sub-region lies between northern Vancouver Island and the mainland of B.C. There are many islands, inlets and fjords within the area, which is characterized by its natural beauty and biodiversity of species and ecosystems. Major water bodies include Queen Charlotte Sound, Queen Charlotte Strait, Johnstone Strait, Smith Inlet, Seymour Inlet, Knight Inlet and Bute Inlet.

North Vancouver Island includes the marine areas of the regional districts of Mount Waddington and Strathcona between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Population centres include Port Hardy, Port McNeill, Alert Bay, Sayward and Campbell River. Population is estimated at approximately 40,000.

This rich marine environment, with glaciated inlets and fjords, provides deep waters and unique habitats that support a diverse ecosystem of shellfish and crustaceans, fish species, mammals, marine and shoreline birds, and marine plants. The abundance of marine life includes: crabs, abalone and mussels; salmon, halibut and eulachon; whales, seals and sea lions; auklets, guillemots, and oystercatchers; and ocean plants such as seaweed, kelp and eelgrass. The area contains habitat that is important for the well-being of many threatened or endangered species.

The area is home to the Kwakw’ka’wakw First Nations and includes traditional territories of the current First Nations members of the Nanwakolas Council: Mamalilikulla, Tlowitsis, Da’naxda’xw-Awaetlatla, Wei Wai Kum and the K’ómoks First Nations. These and the previous member Nations who participated in the Marine Plan Partnership at various stages (Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw, ‘Namgis, Kwakiutl), as well as several neighbouring Nations, have a traditional and enduring relationship with the marine environment and its resources. The ocean has shaped these Nations’ culture and society, and continues to be the basis of food, social and ceremonial practices and economic wealth.

Marine employment in the region includes shellfish and finfish aquaculture, commercial fishing, seafood processing, log handling and storage, tourism (such as kayaking and sport-fishing charters) and transportation.

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