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Race Rocks Ecological Reserve

Case Authors

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


The Race Rocks Ecological Reserve was established in 1980 by the Canadian provincial government of British Columbia after receiving a proposal from students and faculty members of the Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific, which conducts educational and research activities at the small archipelago.

The archipelago, located 17 kilometers southwest of Victoria, meets the ecological reserve designation criteria as a special natural ecosystem ideal for increasing human understanding. Provincial authority extends only to the terrestrial area and seabed.

Designation of the ecological reserve prohibited ocean dredging, dumping and extraction of non-renewable resources. In 1991, commercial fishing and some forms of recreational fishing were prohibited by the federal Division of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

In 1998, the ecological reserve was selected by the federal government as a pilot area for creation of a no-take Marine Protected Area (MPA) that would be part of a proposed national network of MPAs.

In 1999, a 14-member Race Rocks MPA Advisory Board was created to involve stakeholders, including First Nations bands, who have certain legal rights to fish and hunt for food. After recommendations were made by the Advisory Board, native First Nations bands repudiated their representatives, saying they did not have proper standing to negotiate. The process stalled in 2002.

In 2009, a new planning process was begun. Negotiations with the First Nations bands are being handled through a separate process directly with the DFO. Creating a no-take area would not apply to First Nations’ traditional needs, according to the reserve management plan.

MEBM Attributes

  • Scale: Ecosystem focus
  • Balance/Integration: Stakeholder involvement in conservation planning

Mission and Primary Objectives


The Race Rocks Ecological Reserve serves the following missions:

  • Conservation: To protect a provincially, if not globally, significant high-current sub-tidal and inter-tidal ecosystem.
  • Education: To provide educational opportunities.
  • Research: To conduct non-invasive research into marine ecosystems to benefit management of the reserve, other marine protected areas, and as a benchmark for the understanding of the marine environment.


The management plan approved in 2002 establishes a series of overarching objectives including:

  • Using federal authority to close all commercial and recreational fisheries and make the waters within the reserve a no-take area.
  • Developing regulations and guidelines for managing air and marine traffic to ensure the impacts from these activities do not affect the long-term well-being of the natural values of the area.
  • Working with the Department of National Defense to ensure that their activities respect the reserve’s objectives.
  • Developing marine pollution prevention and response plans.

Key Parties

Lead Organizations

  • BC Parks
  • Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific

Key Parties

Planning for the creation of a Marine Protected Area at the Race Rocks Ecological Reserve involved:

  • Federal agencies
  • Members of First Nations bands
  • Representatives from the diving community
  • Marine tour operators



Program Structure

Ecological Reserve

The Race Rocks Ecological Reserve is managed by faculty of the Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific under an agreement with BC Parks.

Race Rocks Marine Protected Area Advisory Board

After the federal Division of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) restarted the process to plan a no-take Marine Protected Area (MPA) at the ecological reserve, the advisory board was reconstituted in 2009 to serve the following functions:

  • Provide a forum for consultation and deliberation to develop consensus-based advice to DFO.
  • Delineate geographical boundaries of the proposed MPA to achieve its objectives.
  • Collate, analyze and summarize feedback from consultations.
  • Ensure community involvement in the establishment of the proposed MPA.

The 24 members include representatives of:

  • Federal agencies: DFO, Coast Guard, Department of National Defense, Environment Canada, and Transport Canada.
  • Provincial agencies: BC Parks.
  • Marine stakeholders: Dive shops, whale watch associations, marina operators association, and the Sport Fish Advisory Board.
  • Non-governmental organizations: Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Friends of Ecological Reserves, and the Georgia Strait Alliance.
  • Race Rocks Ecological Reserve administration: Reserve Ecowarden and Pearson College.

A liaison to the First Nations bands also sits on the advisory board, though the DFO is conducting a separate discussion directly with the First Nation bands.

Motivations for Initiating Effort

The Race Rocks area has long been recognized for its role as a biological nursery and as a research subject.

The Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific, located in Victoria, has used the archipelago as an outdoor classroom and research facility since the 1970s with permission from provincial authorities. Creation of the Race Rocks Ecological Reserve was sought by college faculty and students, who were advised by provincial authorities.

In 1980, the reserve was established in accordance with the Protected Areas of British Columbia Act and the Ecological Reserve Act of 1971. Passage of the Ecological Reserve Act had led to hundreds of applications for the designation of reserves.

The Ecological Reserve Act can apply to areas that include any of the following criteria:

  • Areas suitable for scientific research and educational purposes associated with studies in productivity and other aspects of the natural environment.
  • Areas that are representative examples of natural ecosystems in British Columbia.
  • Areas that serve as examples of ecosystems that have been modified by human beings and offer an opportunity to study the recovery of the natural ecosystem from modification.
  • Areas where rare or endangered native plants and animals in their natural habitat may be preserved.
  • Areas that contain unique and rare examples of botanical, zoological, or geological phenomena.

Additionally, provisions of the Park and Recreation Area Regulation apply to the Race Rocks area.

Ecological Reserves are managed by British Columbia Parks, though college officials, under a permit, have acted as the wardens of the Race Rocks Ecological Reserve. Ecological reserves are not designed for recreational activities.

Federal agencies, who manage activities in the water column as well as marine transportation and are charged with providing enforcement, have increasingly agreed that the Race Rocks Ecological Reserve is deserving of greater protections. In 1991, commercial fishing and shellfishing was prohibited by the federal Division of Fisheries and Oceans. Recreational fishing also was prohibited, except for salmon and halibut fishing.

In 1998, the federal government announced that the Race Rocks Ecological Reserve had been selected as one of four pilot areas for the creation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) under the authority of Canada’s Oceans Act of 1997. This move required the development, through collaborative processes, of integrated ocean management plans and MPA networks.

The Race Rocks MPA would be a no-take area with the same boundary as the ecological reserve. As part of the pilot project, voluntary guidelines were developed to address concerns related to boating, diving and whale watching. The dive community prepared guidelines for appropriate diving practices to lessen impacts from mooring and minimize disturbance to marine life. The whale watching operators also developed guidelines stating best practices.

Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats


The Race Rocks Ecological Reserve is located at the transition between the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the southern Gulf Islands. It is exposed to such extreme tidal and weather phenomena that it is legendary for shipwrecks and a lighthouse began operating on the Race Rocks Islets in 1860.

These extreme conditions support a large number of diverse species and limit human activity in the area, including:

  • Forty-five species of marine birds which use the Race Rocks area for feeding and nesting, including glaucous-winged gulls, pigeon guillemots and black oystercatchers.
  • Marine mammals, such as elephant seals, sea lions, harbor seals and whales.
  • A significant and unique assemblage of benthic and pelagic invertebrates, including the rare spiral white snail and the Pacific abalone, which is listed as threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.
  • Salmon and halibut.


The 2002 Race Rocks Ecological Reserve Management Plan identified the following threats:

  • Sewage discharged directly into the water column from the handful of residences on the island that supported educational and research activities.
  • The possibility of oil spills from the two supertankers that pass through the Strait of Juan de Fuca each day.
  • Commercial sight-seeing tours and diving and scuba activities which may be affecting the ecosystem including the feeding habits of whales.
  • By-catch collected during recreational fishing for salmon, although the extent of by-catch its impact on the ecosystem is not known.


Major Strategies

Establishment of the Race Rocks Ecological Reserve promulgated regulatory controls by the provincial and federal authorities to prohibit dredging, dumping, commercial fishing and certain types of recreational fishing. The latest management plan for the reserve, which was approved in 2002, recommends harm-prevention and regulatory strategies to be conducted in partnership with federal authorities and stakeholders. Particular recommendations include:

  • Continuing discussion by the provincial Environmental Stewardship Division with First Nations bands to develop an understanding of common interests, and the type and nature of their use of the reserve.
  • Supporting the process led by the federal Division of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to designate a Marine Protected Area, and develop protocols with DFO to ensure the coordinated, cooperative, and effective management.
  • Developing an oil spill prevention plan and response plan in conjunction with federal authorities.
  • Installing and maintaining self-composting toilets on the residences on the island, a recommendation which was fulfilled in 2003.
  • Developing a marine navigation plan to consider speed limits, establishing minimum distances boaters must maintain from specific features, mooring practices and other tools; the DFO issued a more limited notice to boaters and anglers with guidelines in 2009.
  • Implementing guidelines for diving in the reserve.

Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

The environmental biology and systems faculty and students of Lester B. Pearson College provide monitoring and reporting on the biological characteristics of the Race Rocks Ecological Reserve. The management plan recommends increased monitoring, including:

  • Documenting the effects of the fishing closure on the fish, avian and mammalian species.
  • Monitoring the boundary of the reserve for effectiveness, and adjusting it as necessary to achieve objectives of the reserve.
  • Developing a long-term research and monitoring plan.

In addition, external researchers visit the Race Rocks area. BC Parks and the college evaluate proposals from external researchers to determine suitability; the guidelines established by the reserve state that preservation of ecological integrity takes precedence over the provision of research facilities.


  • Protective Regulations: Establishment of the Race Rocks Ecological Reserve has led to the issuance of protective regulations and guidelines to limit human impact on the ecosystem.
  • Education and Research: The reserve is continuing to serve its function to support education and research.
  • Conservation Planning: The reserve was selected as a pilot site for the implementation of Canada’s Oceans Act of 1997, which required the development of Marine Protected Area networks.

Website Links

Race Rocks Ecological Reserve:

Race Rocks Advisory Board: