The Tide Needs Turning: Investing in Ocean Protection Will Pay Immense Dividends

June 17, 2019 - 7 minutes read

By Sarah Margolius and Darcy Dobell

Canada is a marine nation, with more coastline than any other country in the world. Our ocean estate includes deep fjords, offshore seamounts, dynamic ice floes, and expansive underwater plateaus. It also has immense potential to protect and rebuild rich and abundant marine resources.

As a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Canada has committed to protecting at least ten percent of its marine ecosystems by 2020. The growing scientific consensus is that at least 30 percent of the oceans must be protected by 2030 to maintain the web of life on Earth. Canada’s leadership is urgent.

Sea lions. Photo credit: Neil Shearar

“Not since the 1980s has there been such a good opportunity to build on strong political will and policy direction in the areas of biological diversity and marine protection,” says Linda Nowlan of West Coast Environmental Law. “But we need to shift the way we think about the oceans in order to effectively protect them. It is not just about the quantity of marine ecosystems that we protect, but also the quality of the protections. And Canada’s commitment to improve marine protection can be a stepping stone for other types of marine action, like ensuring Indigenous peoples play a role in deciding what goes on in the ocean.”

Great strides have been made on designating Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). These legal tools safeguard and rebuild important ocean ecosystems. The marine equivalent to terrestrial areas like Banff National Park, MPAs work when they are established in the right places, consider Indigenous and local knowledge and science, prohibit harmful industrial activities, and their rules are monitored and enforced. Policy and legislation like the new minimum protection standards and updates to the Oceans Act strengthen MPAs.

Killer whale. Photo credit: Whale Point

“Much of Canada’s coastline is sparsely populated and is the traditional territory of Indigenous peoples. They have their own systems of law,” Linda says. “By appropriately recognizing Indigenous legal traditions that reflect their worldview of the indivisibility of nature and humans, we can maintain the health of the oceans and the people who rely on them. Revitalization of Indigenous law is an exciting development in British Columbia, and has been a major influence in marine protected area management and marine planning.”

That’s why Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) may well be one of the most promising avenues to meet ambitious conservation goals. IPA models will vary depending on the visions of the First Nations leading their creation, but they generally include ecological principles that value ocean health, community wellness, employment and prosperity.

“First Nations are an indicator species on the health of the ecosystem,” says Dallas Smith, President and Chairman of Nanwakolas Council in an interview at CEGNs recent conference. “You can have all the protection and management you want around a specific ocean area, but if we aren’t healthy, then the ecosystem isn’t healthy.”

Meaghan Calcari Campbell of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation says, “All across Canada, Indigenous People as First Nations are weighing the needs of the current generation and future generations. This kind of consideration around inter-generational equity presents an opportunity that is aligned with ocean conservation.”

The Foundation was an early funder of the pioneering Marine Planning Partnership for the North Pacific Coast (MaPP) which has become a model of collaborative and integrated planning. First Nations and the provincial government worked together to plan for ecosystem health, community uses, and marine economic development in the Great Bear region of northwestern B.C.

For Dallas, this is an example of true sustainable development. “In the Great Bear, we are at a point where things are starting to harmonize. Wealth and opportunity are making our communities stronger. The power of employment and meaningful engagement make our communities that much more resilient.”

West Coast Environmental Law staff on the water near Hornby Island, B.C. Photo credit: Stephanie Hewson

The Oceans Collaborative was established to help funders protect and restore healthy and abundant oceans. Its members recognize that, when First Nations play meaningful roles in ecosystem conservation and management, all Canadians benefit from growth in natural capital and economic, social and cultural returns. With this in mind, the Collaborative supports Indigenous Protected Areas and new models of collaborative governance and management. Funders also aim to amplify Indigenous voices and invest in the development of new tools for Indigenous governance and stewardship capacity.

Says Dallas, “Canadians aren’t in the way of First Nations economic progress anymore. Profits are important. But if we don’t have balance, those profits will be short lived. The Great Bear is a great example of what happens when the usual fear mongering disappears. Balance and change are part of our reality now. We need everyone to be accountable to each other. We really want everyone to be in the canoe with us.”

The state of our oceans can be discouraging. Images of whales starving to death on our coasts, or community volunteers racing to save juvenile salmon from drying riverbeds are further evidence of declining biodiversity and ecosystem health around the world. In Canada, we still have an opportunity to turn this tide. Join us and build momentum toward collaborative, effective, forward-looking stewardship of our precious oceans and all the life they support.

If you are a CEGN member interested in joining the Oceans Collaborative, please email Thea Silver at

Oceans Collaborative’s Program Manager Darcy Dobell and Chair Meaghan Calcari Campbell flank Dallas Smith, President of Nanwakolas Council after a session at the recent CEGN conference. Photo credit: Sarah Margolius