Gwaii Haanas: From standoff to marine management

By Jody Bissett
Biologist & Educator, Marine Matters
Nothing could have prepared me for how truly dependent on, and in tune with, the ocean the people of Haida Gwaii are. With the notorious Hecate Strait to the east, Dixon Entrance to the north and the open Pacific to the west, there is no place and no person that is not influenced by the ocean. The ebb and flow of the tides dictate where the good fishing spots are or even the ability to launch your boat. A low tide means clam digging; a verylow, low tide means octopus hunting. With up to often more than 20 feet between high and low tide the look and feel of these beaches changes dramatically throughout the day. Food, mail and supplies travel via ferry eight hours or more across the Hecate Strait three times a week – weather dependent of course!
(c) Hussein Alidina/WWF-Canada
(c) Hussein Alidina/WWF-Canada
There are challenges that go hand in hand with living in such a remote location, but however the benefits derived from a slower, more in-tune-with-nature pace seems more than worth it to me.
Although just over half of the 5,000 people living here are not of Haida ancestry, the vibrant, thriving Haida culture permeates everything on and everybody of Haida Gwaii. I have never met a people who are so passionately connected to their land and sea, and so willing to do anything to ensure that it continues to thrive and flourish.
Just over 25 years ago the Haida people, and many local islanders, took an
important stand against logging of old growth forest on Haida Gwaii. In October 1985 the Haida Nation blocked the logging road on Athlii Gwaii (Lyell Island). A number of Haida elders joined the blockage and stood the line, putting themselves at risk for the good of their island. Although emotions were high on both sides of the line, violence did not break out and the attention of both the Federal and Provincial governments turned to this small, remote archipelago.
(c) Mike Ambach/WWF-Canada
At the time all this was happening, I was an eight year-old girl in Ontario with no idea that one day I would call Haida Gwaii home and be raising my children here. And yet, 25 years later, I found myself joining nearly 1,000 people who came together to remember the Lyell Island blockade and celebrate the changes that resulted from it. For when the Haida do something, – they do it 110 percent, and the purpose of this blockade was not simply to stop one particular logging operation on one particular plot of land. The purpose was to make real, meaningful changes to how the land and waters of Haida Gwaii are used and managed.
In 1993, as a direct result of the Lyell Island blockade, the Council of the Haida Nation and the Government of Canada signed the Gwaii Haanas Agreement. This agreement outlined how these two bodies would co-operatively manage the southern portion of Haida Gwaii as a National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site. As part of this agreement these bodies committed to working towards protecting not just the land but also the marine environment. With the official establishment of the Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site this year, Gwaii Haanas now extends from mountaintop to deep sea, protecting nearly 5000 km2 of land and ocean.
(c) Mike Ambach/WWF-Canada
The next five years will be important ones, for over this time we will see the development of the Haida, Parks Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, with input from the people who care about and make there livelihood from these waters, will be developing the Gwaii Haanas Marine Management Plan. It will be an exciting time in which we can look a little differently at how our marine environment has been “managed” in the past – a time to make long- term and forward-thinking decisions. Decisions that ensure there will be a healthy marine environment here for my children’s children. With such a strong, passionate group of people working together on this important initiative, I feel optimistic for the future of this amazing place.