© WWF-Canada / Gerald Butts Sea lions (Otariidae sp), relaxing on rocks, Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada

Great Bear Sea

Protecting the future of one of Canada’s richest biodiversity hotspots, home to people, humpback whales, sea otters, seabirds, salmon, ancient reefs, kelp forests and more.

The north coast of B.C. is a place unlike any other on the planet, incomparably rich in ocean life and integral to the people who live, work and play there.

It’s a place where fin whales, humpback whales and orcas swim. It spans deep fjords, rocky islands, glass sponge reefs and the rocky shorelines of the Great Bear Rainforest, where sea birds forage in coastal estuaries, and wolves and the pale spirit bear roam.

Here, nature and people have coexisted for millennia. The abundance of the region provides jobs, transportation, food security and recreation for First Nations communities, and they in turn steward the land and waters.

© Natalie Bowes / WWF-Canada Close up of the face of a Kermode bear (Ursus americanus kermodei), Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada

Spirit bear

The ghostly white spirit bear is an icon of the Great Bear Rainforest and figures prominently in the traditions of local Indigenous communities. These pale bears are not albinos, as is commonly thought, but are the result of a recessive gene that occurs in approximately 10 per cent of black bears on the north and central coast of B.C.

Abundance under threat

More than a century of commercial fishing, shipping, forestry, infrastructure development and climate change has degraded habitats, leading to declines in the abundance of many species. The web of life in this region is falling out of balance, affecting wildlife and impacting communities who depend on healthy ocean ecosystems for employment, sustenance and wellbeing.

© Andrew S. Wright  / WWF-Canada The flukes of a Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) breaching at sunset in the waters south west of Gil Island in the Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada

Moving from piecemeal solutions to ecosystem-wide protections

There is currently a patchwork of protection that stretches across the Great Bear Sea, leaving too many habitats and species unprotected. Existing protected areas weren’t selected to work cohesively; as a result they don’t do enough to ensure a representative sample of the biodiversity in the region is protected.

To truly protect the Great Bear Sea, we need a smarter approach, one that looks at the area as a whole, rather than isolated and disconnected regions. We need to create a network of protected areas that collectively protect biodiversity while minimizing economic impacts. Luckily, we know what this approach needs to look like, and important steps have already been taken towards making it happen.

Federal, provincial and First Nations governments have been working together for years to plan a network of marine protected areas that protect far more species and habitats, while considering the potential impact on people’s lives and livelihoods.

A network action plan for what is also known as the Northern Shelf Bioregion went through a final public consultation in 2022, and was formally adopted earlier this year.

This Indigenous-led and collaboratively developed effort will double coverage of MPAs in this 100,000-square-kilometre region to 30 per cent and guide the creation of what will become Canada’s first-ever planned MPA network. Between now and 2025 a number of these areas will be formalized and implemented.

© Andrew S. Wright  / WWF-Canada Sea stars (Asteroidea sp) clinging to rocks at the tide line in Douglas Channel in the Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada

How will the new network of marine protected areas help habitats and species?

The proposed network would ensure that all habitat types in the Great Bear Sea are protected. Currently about 20 per cent of habitat types in the region are not adequately captured in existing marine protected areas. These include habitats like lush kelp forests, eelgrass meadows, sponge reefs, sandy bottoms, rocky intertidal shores and everything in between.

Additionally, under the proposed network 74 per cent of species in the region would be adequately protected, up significantly from the 42 per cent that are currently protected.

What's next?

Now that the action plan has been adopted, the work of designating and implementing protections for the areas identified in the plan will begin. WWF-Canada will continue to monitor and engage with governments, communities and rightsholders to support the network action plan.