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Chief John Powell, centre, of the Mamalilikulla First Nation, sits with Joyce Murray, back left, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, and former chief Richard Sumner, during an announcement about a new marine refuge in the Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala area in Knight Inlet on B.C.'s central coast, at IMPAC5 in Vancouver, on Feb. 5.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

A group of 15 First Nations, along with the British Columbia and federal governments, has announced a co-governance plan for marine protected areas that run from the top of Vancouver Island to the province’s border with Alaska.

The Network Action Plan follows years of negotiations, takes in areas that provide key habitat for fish, sea birds and marine mammals, and reflects Indigenous communities’ insistence that they be involved in conservation strategy for the region.

“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, one of the groups involved in the plan, at a formal announcement Sunday for the development.

The plan covers the Northern Shelf Bioregion, an area that spans roughly the northern third of Canada’s West Coast and is also known as the Great Bear Sea because it is linked by location, environment and communities to the Great Bear Rainforest, a conservation area on the B.C. coast.

First Nations in the area have been working on detailed marine conservation strategies since at least 2006. Other plans have since materialized, including a 2014 strategy agreement between Canada and B.C.

The plan unveiled Sunday is intended to be a blueprint for adding potential new marine protected areas (MPA) and managing existing ones. It follows a December announcement by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for up to $800-million in federal funding for as many as four Indigenous-led conservation areas. They are considered key if Canada is to meet its goal of protecting 30 per cent of its lands and oceans by 2030.

‘Ambitious’ conservation targets demand agreement between B.C., Ottawa

The Network Action Plan is also intended to have a financial component through what’s called a Project Finance for Permanence Model, or PFP, which links public, private and philanthropic funds to create permanent endowments that can help pay for guardian programs or other initiatives.

In a statement, the federal government said the new plan is the first approach for an MPA network in Canada and shows a world-leading model of collaborative governance.

MPAs put designated areas off-limits to certain activities, such as commercial fishing. In a statement Sunday, WWF-Canada applauded the action plan but called for speedy implementation, including formalized protection measures.

In a related update, federal, provincial and First Nation officials on Sunday announced the first marine refuge in the Northern Shelf Bioregion.

The refuge, the Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala area in Knight Inlet on the B.C. coast, is home to fragile and slow-growing coral. The Mamalilikulla First Nation had in November, 2021, declared the area an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area.

“We made our IPCA designation with the intent of protecting, restoring and managing the unique ecological and cultural features of these sites,” Mamalilikulla Chief John Powell said Sunday, adding that in doing so, his First Nation asked for “urgent action” to protect the area.

All commercial, recreational and food, social and ceremonial (FSC) fisheries will be closed within the area. It’s hoped that marine refuges will have a “nursery effect” that will enhance biodiversity and recovery in nearby areas, Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray said.

Sunday’s announcements were made at the 5th International Marine Protected Areas Congress, an international oceans forum being held Feb. 3 to 9 in Vancouver.

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