Boundary expansion proposed for national marine conservation area

Environmental groups want borders of national marine conservation area in Georgia Strait expanded.

Proposed boundaries are set for a national marine conservation area in Georgia Strait, but environmental groups want its borders expanded further.

The provincial and federal governments announced the proposed boundaries in mid-October.

The reserve covers 1,400 square kilometres, stretching from the southern tip of Gabriola Island to the Saanich Inlet and Cordova Bay. It’s one of 29 marine regions Parks Canada hopes to create as part of the national marine conservation area system.

Mining and oil and gas exploration will be prohibited, but activities such as fishing, shipping and recreation will continue. The goal is to harmonize conservation practices with human activities.

Both the Mid-Island Sustainability and Stewardship Initiative and the Nanaimo Area Land Trust want the Nanaimo Estuary, just outside the current boundaries, included in the reserve.

Dale Lovick, chairman of NALT’s board, said it’s a significant oversight that the estuary wasn’t included.

“The estuary, of course, is the heart of the river and the heart of the ecosystem,” he said.

Submitting a request to the federal government to change the boundary to include the estuary was an action plan supported by environmental organizations during NALT’s Nanaimo River Symposium held in September.  The idea was presented by MISSI members.

Pauline Hunt, MISSI’s acting president, said members also want the reserve to encompass Gabriola Island.

“Having this larger buffer around Gabriola Island would support revitalization, fisheries and marine resources, of the Nanaimo Estuary,” said Hunt in a press release. “The Nanaimo Estuary is important ecologically, economically and culturally to our region and having this designation would encourage conservation and restoration of this marine and coastal ecosystem.”

Christianne Wilhelmson, executive director of the Georgia Strait Alliance, said the group wants the conservation area to cover the entire Georgia Strait.

She also hopes the consultations will revive the conversation about creating a cross-border stewardship area with the United States.

A decade ago the alliance was part of the Sounds and Straits Coalition advocating for the Orca Pass International Stewardship Area, which was meant to address issues of habitat disruption and sources of pollution in the shared waters.

“The orcas don’t know the lines change and the rules change when they swim into the San Juan,” she said.

Despite the concerns, Wilhelmson is thrilled the conservation area is taking shape, because initially organizations feared the project would never come to fruition.

The conservation concept was created in 1995. For the past eight years the provincial and federal governments consulted with stakeholders and were hammering out a deal to transfer administration of the seabed from the provincial government to the federal government.

Between 2005 and 2010 Parks Canada hosted 35 public information sessions, open houses and workshops in communities in the southern Gulf Islands and Lower Mainland. It also consulted with First Nations and hosted more than 300 meetings with stakeholder groups.

Richard Carson, director of western national parks and marine conservation areas for Parks Canada, said the process is entering its final phase and consultations with First Nations, communities and stakeholders will occur over the next six months to a year.

The time frame is fluid and depends on how many interested parties want to be part of the discussion.

“We’re going to go one more round and then will wrap up,” said Carson.

Carson said a number of factors need to be considered for including another area in the reserve including preserving a continuous area, the inclusion of unique marine environments and the cost of including the area in the reserve. Other factors are how the area exemplifies the attributes of the region, the geographic characteristics, species, the seabed and a range of other items.

Carson said there will be consultations in the Nanaimo area, but nothing has been scheduled yet.

reporter3@nanaimobulletin.com

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