Gwaii Haanas sunset (view from hotsprings island)
The designation of protected areas-whether they are in the sea or on the land is a complicated balancing act. How do we protect fragile ecosystems and species while conserving cultural activities? Do we remove all human activity from these regions or can a balance between humans and the environment be struck in a sustainable and ethical way?

Over one hundred years ago, indigenous peoples were often removed from many national parks to maintain the notion of a “pristine environment”. Today, the designation of marine protected areas is under a similar challenge as their terrestrial counterparts. What are the impacts on indigenous peoples who have co-existed with these regions for thousands of years?

Over the next two days, we will feature two recent examples of marine protected area designation and what it means for indigenous peoples from both sides of the border; one from the northwest coast of British Columbia, Canada and another from the shores here in California.

“Where the land, the sea and the people are inseparable” – the Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site was officially recognized in a landmark agreement between the Government of Canada and the Haida First Nations peoples on June 7, 2010. Located on the remote south coast of the Haida Gwaii, formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, southeast of Alaska and approximately 62 miles from the mainland province of British Columbia, Canada, the reserve is considered by some to be “the Galapagos of the North”.

According to the Vancouver Sun, the protected area “will make history as the first on the planet to guard a precious ecosystem stretching from 2,000 feet below water to 4,000 feet above the ocean”.  Including both the temperate rainforest ecosystems that surround the coastline and the sea floor in a 1,351 square mile reserve was not easy. For one thing, bringing together the Haida, a First Nations tribe who have lived in the region for millennia, with the Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans who manage the economically critical fisheries in the country, and Parks Canada into an agreement took over 20 years. Parks Canada Planner and Project Manager for the Gwaii Haanas agreement, Nick Irving says this unique co-operative planning structure is “fundamentally premised on a willingness of the respective parties to come together and work in the spirit of cooperation”.

What’s next for the Gwaii Haanas? Irving says the three parties will be working towards the development of a comprehensive management plan for the area that will be based on “shared ecological, cultural and sustainable use objectives”. According to him, “you can’t take humans out of the equation, but rather, you can put greater emphasis on the need to care for an area…for it to be celebrated, used, and experienced”.

Image: Nick Irving, 2010

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