Between Vancouver and Victoria lie the emerald waters of the Southern Strait of Georgia, home to Canada’s most endangered orcas and more than 3000 marine species. These include many “world giants” including the world’s largest octopus, anemone, sea star and barnacle, as well as ancient glass sponge reefs, 100-year-old rockfish, vast schools of herring and salmon, and millions of seabirds.
Known by Coast Salish peoples as “SQELATES”, meaning “home”, the Southern Strait of Georgia has long been revered for its role in nurturing both human and natural ecosystems. It provides economic, cultural, and recreational opportunities for communities throughout the region and has supported First Nations for millennia.
The Gulf Islands and rugged shoreline of Vancouver Island form a network of reefs, bays, cliffs and channels that are fed by the open waters of the Strait, creating diverse habitats for plants and animals to feed, rest and breed.
Currently, 22 species in the marine waters of the Southern Strait of Georgia are either federally designated as Endangered, Threatened, Special Concern, or considered high conservation priority by the government of British Columbia.
The Southern Strait of Georgia is critical habitat for our endangered southern resident orcas. The Southern Residents have enjoyed a recent baby boom but their population is still critically low, barely above 80 animals, compared to an estimate of 200 in the late 1800s according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Threats to the System
But industrial and commercial activities, pollution and climate change threaten the health of these waters and the species that live there, including us humans. According to Parks Canada, the Southern Strait of Georgia is “…the most heavily utilized and impacted of all the marine regions on the west coast of Canada.”
These threats are not new, but they are increasing. Back in 1969, Jacques Cousteau, world-famous ocean explorer, called for the urgent long-term protection of the Southern Strait of Georgia as a marine park and warned that without protection, the vibrant marine ecosystems that span our shores are doomed.
A healthy marine environment provides a range of vital “ecosystem services” including protection from wave damage and floods, nutrient cycling, water cleaning, and carbon storage, so failing to protect our marine environment will have serious consequences for everyone.
What is happening
In 2003 Parks Canada proposed a National Marine Conservation Area, to protect the ecological, cultural and recreational values of the Southern Strait of Georgia. In 2010 a proposed boundary for the National Marine Conservation Area was jointly released by Parks Canada and the Province of BC. But 13 years later these waters are still not protected.
A National Marine Conservation Area would prohibit harmful industrial activities such as oil and gas exploration, mining and dumping, and ensure that all other activities are managed in a sustainable, conservation-minded manner. Like National Parks, National Marine Conservation Areas reap economic benefits to local communities, creating jobs, safeguarding resources, maintaining recreational and cultural values, and promoting tourism.
Since 1997, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society has led the Southern Strait of Georgia Marine Conservation Network – a coalition of conservancy and community groups, scientists, and stakeholders in the in the region working to support and strengthen efforts to protect the marine environment.
For almost three decades we have been working together to defend our coast and make sure that our waters, the Orcas and other marine species that live here, get the long-term protection that they so badly need.