Let’s get it together with ecosystem management

The North Coast of B.C. is one of my favourite places.

The North Coast of B.C. is one of my favourite places.

If you visit this spectacular and ecologically diverse region, you’ll see people fishing, logging, travelling on boats and ships, and raising families.

You’ll see mountains, forests, oceans, sea lions, puffins, and whales. If you are fortunate to dive into the ocean, you’ll see salmon, herring, rockfish, sea anemones, giant scallops, kelp forests, and – deep below – 9,000-year-old glass-sponge reefs. There is so much to see here, but we still have a lot to learn about how this ecosystem works.

It’s absurd to think that we could manage our activities in such a vast and complex area by having different government departments oversee individual activities in isolation. But that’s pretty much the way we’ve been doing things.

Fortunately, people are beginning to talk about a new way of managing our oceans, a way that’s being tested in five large ocean areas in Canada.

One of these areas is the North Coast of B.C., in a region stretching from northern Vancouver Island to the B.C.-Alaska border, which the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has labelled the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area, or Pncima.

DFO is attempting to engage an integrated management planning process here, in part based on the recognition that everything in nature is interconnected, including human activity.

For years, many scientists, resource managers, and environmentalists have encouraged government to adopt an ecosystem-based management, or EBM, approach that takes into account all values and interests.

The Encyclopedia of Earth defines EBM as “an integrated, science-based approach to the management of natural resources that aims to sustain the health, resilience and diversity of ecosystems while allowing for sustainable use by humans of the goods and services they provide.”

The federal government’s planning processes in the Beaufort Sea, Gulf of St. Lawrence, Eastern Scotian Shelf, Placentia Bay/Grand Banks, and Pacific North Coast could set an example for the EBM approach in all of Canada’s oceans.

Until now, there’s been more talk than action.

The Pncima integrated management planning process has recently seen some significant breakthroughs, though.

In December, DFO signed a formal governance agreement with First Nations in the area to move forward with a marine planning process. And in late March, more than to 380 people – including representatives from government, First Nations, coastal communities, marine industries, and non-governmental organizations – took part in a two-day forum to discuss management and conservation options for the region.

That so many people from so many walks of life and so many communities were able to come together to discuss the needs of this area shows not just that cooperation is possible but also that everyone understands the need for urgent action to protect the health of our oceans.

As with most processes involving a multitude of resources, interests, and ecological values, government must continue to play a leading role.

Even more importantly, our government must provide enough money for scientific research to ensure that decisions are made according to the best local and scientific knowledge.

We don’t have a lot of time to waste. Many ocean ecosystems are at tipping points, with pollution, resource extraction, and industrial impacts contributing to declines in fish, mammal, and other marine-life populations.

Add to that uncertainty about the effects climate change is having on these ecosystems, and the need for planning becomes even more urgent.

A credible, long-term plan for any ocean region must include an increase in protected areas where specific types of industrial activity are limited. Canada has the longest coastline of any nation on Earth, and 40 per cent of our jurisdictional area is ocean, yet the federal government has set aside less than one per cent of that as marine protected areas.

I hope governments, First Nations, and other interested people will continue the formal dialogue, scientific research, and relationship-building required to ensure we have intelligent management and conservation in our oceans.

I believe most people understand that our own health depends on the health of ocean ecosystems, and are willing to come together to ensure ecological and economic well-being provided by our oceans are maintained at as high a level as possible.

I encourage everyone in Canada who cares about the future health of our oceans to let the federal government know that we want a greater investment in science, management, and conservation so that our oceans stand a fighting chance in an all too uncertain future.

This column is co-written by broadcaster David Suzuki and Faisal Moola, a scientist.