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A glass sponge reef is photographed off the British Columbia coast.Bruce Kirkby/The Globe and Mail

An otherworldly garden of delicate crystalline structures built over thousands of years by sponges off the coast of British Columbia has topped a list of unique places that Canada will propose to the United Nations for future inscription as World Heritage sites.

The glass sponge reefs of Hecate Strait are among eight candidate sites that have now been added to Canada's tentative list for world heritage status, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna announced on Wednesday.

The eight were selected from 42 proposals, marking the first time that members of the public, including Indigenous peoples, were given the opportunity to directly nominate sites.

"I think it's a very good signal about how much people care about these places," said Christina Cameron, a professor at the University of Montreal's school of architecture, who led the independent panel of experts that reviewed the proposals.

Described as an underwater Jurassic Park, the glass sponge reefs are located in three separate areas in Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound. They host a number of rare fish species and other sea creatures and they have long been a priority for marine conservation groups who have sought to protect them from bottom trawling and other forms of commercial fishing.

In 2011, the reefs were identified as a sanctuary in a marine-use plan by the Central Coast First Nations, but it was not until this past February that the federal government finally designated the reefs a marine protected area.

Under UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) guidelines, any site considered for world heritage status must be adequately protected by the country that is proposing it.

Four Central Coast First Nations groups led the nomination, which was also supported by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

"We're really pleased that it's been selected," said nomination spokeswoman Chief Marilyn Slett of the Heiltsuk First Nation.

"We see it as the beginning of creating a healthier marine environment."

The selection means that the group must now undertake extensive documentation on the site, a process that could take several years, to demonstrate that it meets the criteria to be considered for the UN's world heritage list.

Canada currently has 18 world heritage sites, including cultural treasures such as the old city of Quebec and places of great natural and scientific value, such as the Burgess Shale fossil bed in the Rocky Mountains.

Prior to Wednesday's announcement, another six sites in various stages of preparation were already on Canada's tentative list and only one of those can be put forward per nomination cycle for consideration by the UN.

Nevertheless, it was time for Canada to refresh its list, which has not been updated since 2004, because "the evolution of the concept of what is a world heritage site has changed a lot over time," Dr. Cameron said.

Over all, the world heritage list remains conspicuously thin on Indigenous cultural sites as well as marine and Arctic locations.

The new additions to Canada's tentative list appear to address those gaps.

In addition to the glass sponge reefs, the new Canadian proposed sites include:

  • British Columbia’s Stein Valley;
  • Wanuskewin Heritage Park in Saskatchewan;
  • Anticosti Island, Quebec;
  • Heart’s Content Cable Station Provincial Historic Site in Newfoundland;
  • Qajartalik, Nunavut;
  • Sirmilik National Park and the proposed Tallurutiup Imanga/Lancaster Sound National Marine Conservation Area in Nunavut;
  • The Yukon Ice Patches archeological sites.

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