Conserving the Southern Strait of Georgia NMCA Reserve

by Laurie Gourlay 

The great and hidden treasure that is the Nanaimo River and estuary, along with coastal waters wrapping around Gabriola Island, should be the northern boundary for the new Southern Strait of Georgia National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA) Reserve. 

The goal of a NMCA reserve is to harmonize conservation practices with human activities – to create a flourishing habitat that supports a wide variety of fish and marine life, providing long term economic benefits while building healthier coastal communities. 

At the first Rio “Earth Summit” in 1992, Canada was at the forefront of advancing Marine Protected Areas “from sea to sea to sea”; and in 1997 furthered its international leadership by being one of the first countries to pass a comprehensive Oceans Act. With only 0.5% of our oceans presently protected, however, there’s still a fair way to go if we’re to provide the promised boost to marine nurseries, re-stock our fisheries, nurture species and help restore our coastal communities to their former selves. 

On Vancouver Island we have a chance to contribute to that recovery. An exceptional place on the planet, smack dab between three of BC’s largest urban populations, perched on the Salish Sea and adjacent to the Pacific Ocean, the proposed Southern Strait of Georgia NMCA forms part of a complex and abundant archipelago, lapping at our shores, chock full of life. 

Through thousands of years of teeming excess, from microbial biomass to orca mammal, this food chain was once so prolific you could walk across streams on the backs of salmon. Tidal flats and tidal pools, inter-tidal zones, island shores and sub tidal communities are home to crabs, urchins, star fish, sea anemones, lush kelp forests, seals and sea lions, porpoises, dolphins and killer whales. And of course eel grass and saltmarsh wetlands offer both sanctuary and nourishment to a vast range of resident colonies and migrating birds of the Pacific flyway. 

In Nanaimo the industry, government and non-profit groups that formed the Estuary Working Group, concluded that “the estuary is one of the greatest natural assets in the region and it is important to ensure that this resource is protected to yield the best social and economic returns.” 

Designating the Southern Strait of Georgia National Marine Conservation Area Reserve has been slow, begun back in 2002. There was great enthusiasm when the federal and provincial Ministers of the Environment announced the proposed NMCA boundaries last fall. Unfortunately that proposal ended at the southern tip of Gabriola Island, just a few kilometres shy of Vancouver Island’s largest, and some would argue, most important estuary. 

The Ministers have since remarked that NMCA boundaries remain “fluid,” and a campaign is calling for the inclusion of the coastal waters of Gabriola Island and the Nanaimo River estuary.

What might the return be, in dollars and cents, for designating a NMCA right here in the Harbour City of Nanaimo? 

Last fall’s local accounting by the Nanaimo & Area Land Trust took a baseline approach, noting that “the Nanaimo River estuary is “one of the highest-ranking estuaries in terms of fisheries resource value, productivity, and social and recreational value.” 

If we look at the ready-made ferry routes to Vancouver and Victoria, which just happen to go right through the proposed NMCA, we can see a substantial return from tourism. And let’s not forget that, no matter how you might measure it, the recreational and educational opportunities for all ages, offer more than just the sum of their economic, social and ecological parts. 

If we are to protect Vancouver Island’s largest estuary, and Gabriola’s coastal waters, the proposed “Southern Strait of Georgia National Marine Conservation Area” is by far our best and greatest option available. The NMCA brings all interests together, advancing a practical and proven marine reserve approach that has the backing of all levels of government and academia around the world. 

The Salish Sea coastal shores and waters deserve the best management practices that a cross-disciplinary representation of government, industry, academia and local residents can provide. 

This year is the promised deadline to declare local boundaries – and so it is up to us who live here to let our governments know if the southern Georgia Strait coastal waters are important enough to include in a National Marine Conservation Area. 

Your interest and support are essential:


Laurie Gourlay has worked with environmental groups for thirty-odd years, and farms 20 acres organically on Vancouver Island with life-partner Jackie Moad.

[From WS Summer 2012]

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