Click to return to the Homepage

A Partnership of the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment, Brown University and Duke University

Printer friendly versionPrinter friendly version

British Columbia Central Coast

Case Authors

Dave Gershman, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan


The Central Coast of British Columbia, a diverse marine habitat notable for killer whales and fisheries, has been viewed as deserving of greater environmental protections for more than a decade. Overfishing and other human impacts have taken a toll on the marine ecology.

Planning for the implementation of ecosystem-based management has been slow, stymied by a tangled web of government jurisdictions and the skepticism of fishers and First Nations bands, whose worries about restrictions on their activities have sapped the government’s political will.

Since 1998, a non-governmental organization, Living Oceans Society, has led a campaign for the government to make good on its commitments in the Oceans Act of 1997, which required the collaborative development of an integrated ocean management plans and marine protected areas along Canada’s coasts.

The Central Coast of British Columbia had been noted as the candidate site on the Pacific coast for the new approach to ocean governance. Living Oceans Society has conducted its own scientific analysis of the 22,000 square kilometer area of the Central Coast and refined it several times, gathering scientific data on habitats, using GIS mapping techniques, and interviewing fishermen.

Finally, in December 2008, the federal government and key First Nations bands signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Collaborative Ocean Governance, establishing a framework to support a new effort, the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area.

This roughly 88,000 square kilometer area encompasses much more than just the Central Coast, stretching from Vancouver Island north to the border with Alaska. The first planning forum was held in 2009 and the effort remains at an early stage of development.

MEBM Attributes

In developing the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area, the government is committed to:

  • Complexity: Integrating scientific data collection and monitoring into the planning and decision-making process.
  • Collaboration: Creating inclusive and collaborative governance structures.
  • Adaptive management: Using flexible and adaptive management techniques.
  • Scale: Managing an area that will be defined on the basis of natural and economic systems, rather than administrative or political boundaries.

Mission and Primary Objectives


The Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area Initiative has released a list of seven core purposes:

  • To foster the sustainable development of the area and its resources.
  • To promote the understanding of ocean processes, resources and ecosystems in the area.
  • To promote the application of the precautionary approach to the conservation, management and exploitation of the area’s resources in order to protect these resources and preserve the marine environment.
  • To reflect that conservation, based on an ecosystem approach, is of fundamental importance to maintaining biological diversity and productivity in the area.
  • To recognize that the oceans and their resources offer significant opportunities for economic diversification and the generation of wealth for the benefit of all Canadians, and in particular for coastal communities in the area.
  • To promote the integrated management of oceans and marine resources in the area.
  • To reaffirm participants’ roles as world leaders in oceans and marine resource management.

Key Parties


  • Living Oceans Society (the largest nonprofit in Canada that focuses exclusively on marine conservation issues)
  • Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Key Parties

In addition to the involvement of First Nations bands and fishermen in the formal, government-sponsored planning for the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area, its development is being monitored by Living Oceans Society, which has partnered with the David Suzuki Foundation and Sierra Club BC to identify milestones and commitments needed to ensure its success.


Program Structure

Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans is leading the planning process of the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area Initiative and has assigned a staff person to the position of coordinator.

A Bilateral Coordination Steering Committee of federal officials and leaders of First Nations provides the strategic direction and executive oversight of the planning process. The position of chairman is a one-year post, rotating between First Nations members and government officials. Of the other six members of the committee, three are representatives of First Nation bands, and three are representatives of Canada’s federal parks, environment and natural resources agencies.

A Pacific Interdepartmental Oceans Committee will be formed to coordinate and integrate the roles of federal agencies in carrying out the management initiative.


Motivations for Initiating Effort

Canada’s Oceans Act of 1997 committed the government to develop integrated managed ocean areas, and establish marine protected area (MPA) networks. Existing fisheries regulations were not viewed as able to protect commercially valued species and key habitats, or respond to new threats to the marine environment.

Progress in creating MPAs off the Central Coast has been slow, however. Today, only two small MPAs have been established, and neither MPA is considered by advocates to be a full no-take reserve, off-limits to extractive uses.

Beginning in 1998, Living Oceans Society stepped into the role of marine planner. It sought to create its own scientific and socio-economic framework to map a network of MPAs along the Central Coast to protect the region’s biodiversity. A diverse array of habitats would be protected and in sufficient number to prevent a natural or man-made environmental disaster from wiping out a specific type of habitat. In addition, techniques would be developed to identify and protect small, ecologically important pockets hidden within larger habitats.

In 2002, the government released an Oceans Strategy for implementing the Act, and then, according to Living Oceans Society, began several failed efforts and broke promises to live up to the Act, which the non-profit publicized in its campaign for MPAs. The federal government, in explaining the delay, claims the province of British Columbia had focused on developing a comprehensive land use plan and capacity for marine planning was limited. In addition, governance arrangements among the three federal agencies involved in marine planning, the province and First Nations were less well defined in this region of Canada, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

In 2004, the federal and provincial governments signed a memorandum of understanding to commit to developing an integrated management plan and clarify their roles and responsibilities. An Oceans Action Plan was released in 2005. The Memorandum of Understanding on Collaborative Oceans Governance between Fisheries and Oceans Canada and First Nations bands was signed in 2008, allowing the planning to move forward for the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area. Living Oceans Society is continuing to campaign for MPAs and engage stakeholders in the initiative.

Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

The Central Coast of British Columbia is a diverse environment of archipelagos, fjords, passages, estuaries, sandy beaches, rocky shorelines and exposed coasts that is tied economically and culturally to fishing. According to a Living Oceans Society report, “Modeling a Network of Protected Areas for the Central Coast of BC,” the area is best known as the home of killer whales, but it also provides key habitats for 400 species of fish, 161 species of birds, and 29 species of marine mammals.

For thousands of years, 19 bands of Canada’s First Nations have lived in this portion of British Columbia. Finnish and Norwegian settlers arrived to build small communities on the coast. Many other small towns began as logging camps. Then, the rise of commercial fishing sparked growth along the coast.

Today, ghost towns dot the coast, remnants of the once thriving salmon fishery and its associated local cannery plants. A decline in the stocks of fish and the centralization of the processing industry in Vancouver ended those jobs, and inhabitants fled the communities in search of employment.

Still, about 15,000 people remain employed across the province by the commercial fishing industry. On the Central Coast, residents are still dependent on commercial fishing to provide employment on boats, and at processing facilities and marinas, and related service industries. Increasingly, tourism and the sports fishing industry are becoming important sources of employment.


Many threats to the ecosystem stem from the legacy of commercial fishing activity and the rise of new types of aquaculture. Sea-floor habitats have been altered by the destructive practices of bottom trawling. Overfishing is still a problem. Several salmon spawning areas have collapsed. A government report rated 27 of 56 commercially harvested species as low. Wastes, antibiotics and pesticides from fish farms pollute the near-shore waters.

Other threats stem from cruise ships, which discharge wastes and spill fuel into the water, and strike whales, though the frequency of such whale strikes is not known. Gas and oil exploration is forbidden in the area, but some of the province’s political leaders have discussed whether to lift the moratorium.


Major Strategies

A vision for the management area is still being developed but the use of Marine Protected Area networks could be proposed by the final management plan, though the Canadian government is being careful not to prejudge the outcome of the collaborative planning process with the First Nations bands and stakeholders.

Strategies employed will consider economic opportunity and ecological sustainability of the region.

Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

The Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area Initiative is committed to using data collection, monitoring and scientific research to inform the planning and decision-making process of drafting a management plan, and change management techniques based on a better understanding of the ecosystem. Exact plans for monitoring, assessment and evaluation remain to be specified.


Cooperative planning

A complex web of jurisdictions have been negotiated, with three federal agencies and the provincial government establishing clear roles and commitments to implementing recommendations of the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area. In addition, First Nations bands, initially concerned that their traditional fishing rights would be impacted, are actively participating in the development of the initiative.

Website Links

Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area Initiative:

Living Oceans Society:

Fisheries and Oceans Canada:

Canada’s Oceans Act of 1996: