IMPAC5’s impact: Marine protection makes progress at international oceans summit in Vancouver

To truly conserve marine life and fight climate change, ocean protection must go beyond lines on a map.

That was one of the key themes that emerged from IMPAC5, a global oceans congress held in Vancouver last week, and host country Canada led by example, announcing progress on several First Nations-led marine protected areas (MPAs) along the B.C. coast and unveiling a new “protection standard” for federal MPAs.

The floor of the international oceans conference IMPAC5 in Vancouver, BC © Emily Vandermeer / WWF-Canada

WWF-Canada staff were there, alongside Indigenous Peoples and ocean practitioners from around the world, to share knowledge as we collectively chart a path towards meaningfully protecting a third of our oceans by 2030.

From a ripple to a wave

As recently as 2015, Canada had set aside less than one per cent of our marine and coastal areas for conservation. Today that ripple has become a wave, with the percentage of protected areas now at 14.66 and plans to reach 25 per cent in the next two years.

So, how will we get there?

In a joint announcement at IMPAC5, environment and climate change minister Steven Guilbeault and fisheries and oceans minister Joyce Murray shared Canada’s Pathway to 2025. It lays out 17 regions — all at different stages of readiness — that will comprise Canada’s roster of protected and conserved areas come 2025.

Narwhal A pod of male narwhal (Monodon monoceros) in Nunavut, Canada
© Paul Nicklen National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada

The plan includes the Last Ice Area’s Tuvaijuittuq, or “the place where the ice never melts” in Inuktitut; the western Hudson Bay and southwestern James Bay, a proposed marine area adjacent to one of the world’s largest stocks of carbon-rich peatlands; and Witless Bay, an area off the eastern coastline of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula that provides habitat to globally significant populations of seabirds such as Atlantic puffins, Black-legged Kittiwake and common murre.

Indigenous co-governance takes centre stage

Parks Canada kicked off the conference by announcing a new policy guiding the establishment and management of all “current and future” national marine conservation areas (NMCAs) that emphasizes “the importance of collaboration and co-management with Indigenous peoples” to preserve vulnerable ecosystems.

This focus on Indigenous-led ocean conservation was seen again and again over the week-long conference as First Nations, together with the province of B.C. and federal government, shared progress for collaboratively managed MPAs along the West Coast.

First up was the Northern Shelf Bioregion, also known as the Great Bear Sea. Spanning 100,000 square kilometres of deep fjords, glass sponge reefs, coastal estuaries and ocean waters frequented by fin whales, humpbacks and orcas, the announced “action plan” will create the world’s largest Indigenous-led and collaboratively developed MPA network.

“Our ability to come together as Indigenous people, as we have for 14,000 years, has led us to this position – where we are doing this together,” said Dallas Smith, president of Nanwakolas Council, at the announcement.

Group of Indigenous leaders on stage at IMPAC5 oceans conference
Indigenous leaders on stage at IMPAC5 conference announcing Great Bear Sea marine protected area network action plan © Emily Vandermeer / WWF-Canada

This sentiment was echoed at by B.C. Minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship, Nathan Cullen: “The only path back is a path that is done together, that is walked together.”

Later in the day, the first marine refuge in the Great Bear Sea MPA network was announced. The Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala area in Knight Inlet on the B.C. coast is home to fragile and slow-growing coral and was first declared an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area by the Mamalilikulla First Nation in 2021.

And on Feb.7, the Council of the Haida Nation, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, Pacheedaht First Nation and Quatsino First Nation jointly announced that a memorandum of understanding has been reached with the federal government on the proposed Tang.ɢwan-ḥačxʷiqak-Tsig̱is marine protected area (formally known as the Offshore Pacific Area of Interest).

Named for its underwater mountains (or seamounts) and hydrothermal vents, this 133,000 square kilometre deep sea oasis is home to wildlife found nowhere else on the planet.

Raising the bar

Over the years, tens of thousands of Canadians have joined WWF-Canada in calling for stronger marine protection standards, including 23,000 of you who contacted the government to demand a comprehensive ban on dumping of ship waste in MPAs.

Canada was listening.

“We can draw a line on a map, but if we don’t have meaningful protection, what are we doing?” said Minister Murray at a press conference unveiling the federal government’s new MPA Protection Standard.

A man standing at a podium with an IMPAC5 sign on it
WWF-Canada’s shipping specialist Sam Davin presenting his report on ship-waste dumping © Emily Vandermeer / WWF-Canada

The new minimum standards provide clarity on exactly what activities will and won’t be allowed in federal MPAs, including prohibitions on oil and gas activities, mining and bottom trawling up to 200 nautical miles from shore.

They also include proposed restrictions on vessel-based discharges of greywater, scrubber washwater, sewage, food waste and bilge water that will be mandatory within 12 nautical miles of shore and voluntary up to 200 nautical miles due to jurisdictional constraints on international shipping beyond that point.

WWF-Canada congratulated Canada on these important steps and encourages government to take action at the IMO to extend mandatory protections to all MPAs.

On the last day of IMPAC5, Canada called for a moratorium on deep seabed mining (a contributor to underwater noise), pledged to become the first country to protect all seamounts from destructive practices like bottom trawling and committed to ratify a treaty on the high seas, those ocean areas that lie beyond the jurisdiction of any country and make up about two-thirds of the ocean.

What we were up to

WWF-Canada staff took part in panels on topics ranging from better understanding our blue carbon ecosystems and modelling ship-waste dumping to MPA network planning in the Arctic centered around Inuit knowledge, guidance and experience.

(Check out our full Twitter thread for more details what else we did at IMPAC5.)

Jimmy Ullikatalik and Min. Joyce Murray discussing an Aqviqtuuq Inuit Protected and Conserved Area. © WWF-Canada

We were also joined by our partner Jimmy Ullikatalik and Peter Aqqaq of the Spence Bay Hunters and Trappers Association in Taloyoak, NU, as they shared their perspectives on Indigenous-led conservation and the community’s plan for an Aqviqtuuq Inuit Protected and Conserved Area on multiple panels. (Jimmy was also able to promote his cause directly to Min. Murray at a WWF-Canada supporter event.)

Overall, IMPAC5 not only pushed Canada and the world closer to protecting 30 per cent of coastal and marine areas by 2030, it also helped ensure that it would be done the right way, by advancing sectors like blue carbon to fight climate change and supporting Indigenous-led conservation to advance our shared goal of protecting ocean ecosystems and at-risk species.

WWF-Canada looks forward to working together with the Government of Canada, industry, Indigenous people and our global network to further strengthen marine protections at home and abroad so that our seas remain full of life in the future.