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Sable Gully Marine Protected Area

Case Authors

Amy Samples, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan


The Sable Gully is the largest submarine canyon in eastern North America. The deep-water feature garnered conservation attention in the mid-1990s due to its diverse set of marine habitats and species, including deep-sea corals and the endangered northern bottlenose whale.

In 1998, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Canada’s lead federal authority for oceans management, identified the Gully as an Area of Interest, in order to initiate qualification for its establishment as a Marine Protected Area (MPA).

Due to resistance from user groups, particularly fisheries and hydrocarbon exploration/extraction interests, combined with the need to develop and become familiar with the MPA designation process under the new legislation, the Sable Gully was not formally designated as an MPA under the Canadian Oceans Act until 2004.

The Gully MPA protects an area of exceptional marine biodiversity. It also satisfies international obligations, made in Canada’s ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and national objectives for establishing the national MPA system specified in Canada’s Oceans Act (1997) and Canada's Oceans Strategy (2002).

MEBM Attributes

  • Complexity: Use of a science-based process to verify Sable Gully as a unique environment.
  • Scale: Recognition of an interconnected ecosystem and development of a broader management plan.

Mission and Primary Objectives


The conservation goal identified for the Sable Gully ecosystem is to "conserve and protect the natural biological diversity and integrity of the Sable Gully ecosystem to ensure its long-term health and sustainable use."

To achieve this goal, the following objectives were identified:

  • The protection and conservation of valued and sensitive species and communities, and their habitats.
  • To maintain the ecological integrity and physical processes of the Sable Gully.
  • To promote better understanding of the Sable Gully ecosystem through research and monitoring of natural processes and the effects of human activities.
  • To plan for the 'multiple use' of the Sable Gully ecosystem, with activities in the area that meet the objective and goals of the Conservation Strategy.
  • To provide a management framework that promotes and facilitates collaboration among agencies, users, and interests in the Sable Gully to help resolve any conflicts and to develop an open and inclusive dialogue.

Key Parties

Lead Organization

  • Fisheries and Oceans Canada: Oceans and Coastal Management Division

Key Parties

  • Dalhousie University (Cetacean research)


Program Structure

The Sable Gully Marine Protected Area is managed by the Oceans and Coastal Management Division of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

 The area contains three management zones with varying levels of protection based on the conservation objectives and ecological vulnerability of each zone:

  • Zone 1 comprising the deepest parts of the canyon is preserved in a near-natural state with full ecosystem protection.
  • Zone 2 imposes strict protection for the canyon head and sides, feeder canyons and the continental slope.
  • The adjacent sand banks, which are prone to regular natural disturbance, comprise Zone 3.

Motivations for Initiating Effort

Through the mid-1990s, the Sable Gully’s ecological significance generated major conservation interest, which provided momentum for the area to be selected as the focus of a pilot for the newly mandated integrated management effort under Canada’s 1997 Oceans Act. By 1998, Fisheries and Oceans Canada had identified the Gully as an Area of Interest (AOI) in the department’s Marine Protected Areas (MPA) Program, with the intent of securing long-term protection for the core of the canyon ecosystem. Before becoming a MPA, a candidate area must first be reviewed and publicly vetted as an AOI. Though the planning process was protracted, the Sable Gully was designated as the nation’s second MPA in May 2004.

In recognition of the Gully’s position within a larger ecosystem – the Scotian Shelf – the Sable Gully Conservation Strategy recommended that integrated management approaches be applied to the offshore area around the Sable Gully AOI, ultimately leading Canada to select the Eastern Scotian Shelf as a pilot project. The Oceans Act mandated development of integrated management plans for all of Canada’s marine regions. The legislation required development of a National Ocean Strategy (published in 2002) as well as the development of Large Ocean Management Areas (LOMAs). The Eastern Scotian Shelf, which includes the Gully, is one of five LOMAs. The LOMAs extend from the coastline to the limits of jurisdiction under international law and address large-scale ecosystem and economic development issues through the development and implementation of integrated ocean management plans.


Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

The Sable Gully canyon is approximately 200 kilometers northeast of Nova Scotia’s Sable Island, near the edge of the continental shelf. The Gully itself extends over 65 kilometers in length, 15 kilometers in width, and over 1 kilometer in depth. It contains a rich diversity of marine habitats and species, including deep-sea cold-water corals, the world’s largest colony of grey seals, and a residential population of endangered bottlenose whales.


At the time the Gully was being discussed for protection as a Marine Protected Area, whale-ship collisions were considered to be a primary threat to ecosystem. The resident population of northern bottlenose whales lingers at the ocean surface, making the species especially prone to ship collisions. Vessel rerouting was highlighted as a priority to reduce ship collisions and limit noise disturbance.

The gully and the greater Scotian Shelf have also been targets for hydrocarbon exploration and extraction. In 1997, six natural gas fields to the west of the gully entered a production phase. The project’s required Environmental Impact Statement identified the gully as a “unique ecological site” and “valued ecosystem component.” Between 1998 and 1999, a Sable Gully Code of Practice was drafted as part of the Environmental Protection Plan for the Sable Offshore Energy Project. The code required environmental monitoring and addresses waste management, vessel routing and aircraft flights for personnel working near the gully. In 1999 a Gully Policy was adopted by the Canada Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board, stating that no new oil and gas activity would be permitted in the Gully Area of Interest.

In the greater context of the Scotian Shelf, a number of user activities further impact the ecosystem. Continued offshore oil and gas exploration, shipping, maritime defense operations, submarine cables, research and development, recreation and tourism, and potential offshore minerals development all influence the habitat and species of the shelf system.


Major Strategies

Gully Conservation Strategy

Gully Conservation Strategy includes a conservation objective, goals and recommendations for planning and management. The strategy is divided into three phases:

  • Phase 1-Science Review: Beginning in July 1997, Fisheries and Oceans Canada coordinated a multi-disciplinary scientific review to "provide a description of the environment and ecosystem(s) of the Sable Gully and surrounding area and frame this information in the context of the greater Scotian Shelf system."
  • Phase 2-Development of the Conservation Strategy: A document was developed to provide a basis for discussion and describing the conservation objective and proposed management options for the Sable Gully.
  • Phase 3-Implementation of the Sable Gully Conservation Strategy: Following the completion of the Conservation Strategy document, work began on the recommended management actions.

Subsequent Management Actions

  • Establish formal protection measures
  • Restrict use based on development of zones
  • Call for protections for greater Scotian Shelf


Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

1998 Gully Science Review

In preparing the Gully Conservation Strategy, the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) studied the Gully ecosystem throughout 1997 to provide a basis for conservation action. The objective was to “provide a description of the environment and ecosystem(s) of the Gully and surrounding area and frame this information in the context of the greater Scotian Shelf system.” Thirty two scientific experts from DFO, other federal resource departments, universities, and other non-governmental organizations participated. The report describes of the existing sources and interpretations of scientific information, and identifies gaps in the data.

Gully Ecosystem Science Program

In response to the data gaps identified in the 1998 Science Review, the DFO funded a two-year research program to resolve some of the information gaps. Research findings were communicated in a 2001 meeting and published (“Advances in Understanding The Gully Ecosystem: A Summary of Research Projects Conducted at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography 1999-2001”).

Related Work

  • Cetacean Science at Dalhousie University.
  • Center for Offshore Oil and Gas Environmental Research: Coordinated acoustical and biological studies in 2003 in conjunction with seismic exploration programs.




  • Establishment of a tanker exclusion zone (1990).
  • Gully Whale Sanctuary (1994) to reduce ship collisions and limit noise disturbance.


  • Workshop organized by Canadian Wildlife Service (1994) yielded call for overall conservation strategy.
  • Support for development of Eastern Scotian Shelf Integrated Management Initiative.

Ecosystem Monitoring

  • Environmental monitoring includes benthic and acoustic sampling near the Gully.


Website Links

The Gully Marine Protected Area:

Gully MPA Zones:

Gully Photo Gallery: