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