Indigenous Marine Protected Areas

Marine conservation that is led by or that involves Indigenous Peoples requires protecting vital community resources and traditional territories and strengthening broader conservation initiatives around the world. A Marine Protected Area (MPA) “is part of the ocean that is legally protected and managed to achieve the long-term conservation of nature.“ Indigenous Marine Protected Areas also connect marine conservation efforts with Indigenous cultural values and Indigenous self-determination.

Strategies undertaken by Indigenous communities to protect coastal waters and marine life include:

  • traditional resource management.
  • environmental conservation.
  • data collection and monitoring.
  • networking and collaboration with non-Indigenous supporters.
  • reinvestment into education and strengthening community building.

Indigenous Marine Protected Areas in Canada have involved co-management among First Nations’ and Canadian governments. For example, MPAs, that are a part of the Coastal First Nations Great Bear Initiative, are co-managed by the Council of the Haida Nation with the Government of Canada, according to what values the Indigenous communities want to be protected. Values may include supporting food security; protecting coastal areas and species; protecting coastal jobs; and keeping ecosystems productive and resilient.

Networks have enabled First Nations to effectively plan for the ongoing protection of marine areas by creating specific zones to limit activities for community use or halt all activities to prevent fishing. For example, The MPA Network of the BC Northern Shelf is a “collection of individual marine protected areas that operates cooperatively and synergistically, at various spatial scales, and with a range of protection levels, in order to fulfill ecological aims more effectively and comprehensively than individual sites could alone.” Network planning on the BC Northern Shelf began in 2011 with the National Framework for Canada’s Marine Protected Areas and it now involves a partnership of multiple First Nations, the BC Provincial government, and the Canadian government.

The Eastern Shore Islands (ESI) of Nova Scotia is “an area of interest for MPA establishment.” Mi’kmaq communities are seeking out ways that they can become more involved in the governance of MPAs in Atlantic Canada. However, the systemic barriers to enhancing the inclusion of Mi’kmaq Peoples alongside non-Mi’kmaq peoples involve “limited understanding of Mi’kmaq culture, governance, and rights.” In turn, the establishment of a Marine Protected Area in the Eastern Shore Islands is also linked to the resurgence of Mi’kmaq culture and Indigenous ways of knowing.

Canada’s Oceans Protection Plan was implemented in November 2016. As a $1.5 billion initiative, the Oceans Protection Plan is designed to provide protection to coastal regions and waterways and promote economic growth across Canada. In its first five years, the Oceans Protection Plan has funded various pilot projects, implemented in partnership with Indigenous Peoples to address marine safety, marine emergency response training, enhanced situational awareness through web-based platforms, environmental protection priorities, and create Indigenous-led Coast Guard Auxiliary Chapters.

While information available about Marine Protected Areas focuses heavily on co-management initiatives among Indigenous and local non-Indigenous communities, more examples are needed of marine protection initiatives that highlight Indigenous-led practices and that prioritize values of Indigenous Peoples.


By Leela Viswanathan


(Photo Credit: Sharissa Johnson, Unsplash)