Orcas and humpback whales. Sea lions and seals. Dolphins, porpoises. Sea otters, starfish and all five species of Pacific salmon. This is the Great Bear Sea.
Located along the northern and central coasts of British Columbia in Canada, the Great Bear Sea is one of the planet’s most biodiverse marine areas. It surrounds the Great Bear Rainforest, part of the largest intact coastal temperate rainforest on Earth. It is therefore fitting that people are coming together in unprecedented ways to protect this extraordinary place.
Local First Nations have maintained a balanced relationship with nature and stewarded the Great Bear region since time immemorial. Today, they rely on the sea for sustenance, cultural well-being, and income from ecotourism, commercial fishing and unique harvested products such as herring eggs on blades of kelp. But in recent decades, they have become concerned about the compounding effects of climate change, uncoordinated commercial use and other threats to the beauty and bounty of the Great Bear Sea.
In 2015, a unique initiative known as MaPP (Marine Plan Partnership)—made up of 16 First Nations and the government of British Columbia—completed plans that balance habitat protection and economic development for four subregions of the Great Bear Sea, covering more than 39,000 square miles. MaPP is the first-ever integrated marine planning effort of its kind to be co-led by Indigenous peoples.
As a result of trust built over many years, the Canada program of The Nature Conservancy was invited to help bring the MaPP plans to life. “We are helping secure financing to implement the plans well into the future, and we also provide strategic, scientific and communications support,” says Jenn Burt, the program’s marine lead in British Columbia. For example, Jenn facilitated a workshop in 2019 to help operationalize a regional approach to kelp monitoring. At the end of the workshop, one participant shared a hope for the future: “I’d like to watch the development and launch of the world’s largest collaborative, community-based kelp-monitoring program.”
The Canada program also supports on-the ground stewardship initiatives, such as the First Nations’ Coastal Guardian Watchmen, an Indigenous Guardians program that plays a key role in monitoring marine habitats and activities. An online Indigenous Guardians Toolkit was developed to provide a wide range of training and fundraising resources. It is now being used across Canada, with more than 25,000 website visits and 1,800 resource downloads to date. Jenn says, “Our work in partnership with the Nations is boosting the capacity of the Guardian Watchmen so they can monitor forest tenures and kelp forests, map and protect archeological sites, and be the eyes and ears on the water to observe and respond to natural resource issues and incidents—all critical elements of MaPP implementation.”
MaPP is held up as a world-class example of marine conservation planning that involves a large group of stakeholders with many different goals and interests. Over the past five years, the partnership has inspired TNC projects in places as far away as the Seychelles islands off the east coast of Africa, providing a roadmap for Indigenous co-governance and collaborative marine planning. “Here in the Great Bear region, you feel deeply connected to the busy ecosystem that is thriving all around you,” says Jenn. “The world can learn so much from this place and the people who care for it.”