May 16, 2011

The Sylvia Earle Alliance has helped send Dr. Phil McGillivary of the US Coast Guard Pacific Area and Brendan Tougher, an Environmental Management graduate student at the University of San Francisco, to participate in and comment on the 2nd International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC2) in Victoria, British Columbia. The two ocean advocates will be immersed in meetings with managers, scientists, graduate students and native peoples who are passionate about the protection of the marine ecosystem. Over the course of the conference they will be sharing their experience with the SEAlliance community by interviewing ocean champions who are committed to improving the state of the marine ecosystem.

Making Science Matter for Conservation: Day 1 at the IMCC2

Empress Hotel, BC

Across the Juan de Fuca Strait northwest of the city of Seattle, Washington, lies Vancouver Island, and on its southern tip the city of Victoria, British Columbia. We have traveled to this lovely and aptly named “City of Gardens” where flowers luxuriate in the abundant rain and cool temperatures for the Second International Marine Conservation Congress, May 14-18, 2011. The Conference was organized by the Marine Section of the Society for Conservation Biology, and is being held at the Victoria Convention Center adjacent to the Victoria Inner Harbor area and behind the imposing Fairmont Empress Hotel (shown on left above).

Coastal Salish Traditional Home
Butch Dick

The whole area is the land of the Songhees nation of the Coastal Salish native people. One of their traditional homes (shown on the right) sits adjacent to the meeting, on the grounds of the Royal British Columbia Museum near the water, welcoming people to the island just as it would have in the early 1800s and before.

In keeping with respect for the traditional owners of this land, we are welcomed to this conference with a greeting song and drumming by Butch Dick, a well-known carver and cultural expert of the Songhees nation. As Butch Dick notes in his welcoming remarks the native peoples recognized the link between the land and sea, and that conservation of the resources of the sea also requires proper management of the land. For the Songhees people the cedar tree is sacred, and represents this connection. A cedar tree the height of a man sits on each stage at the conference to acknowledge this link between the worlds of the spirit, nature and man. We are reminded that our work here is important in keeping with the theme of the conference, “Making Science Matter for Conservation.”

Here in British Columbia the native peoples have worked for more than two decades with Parks Canada to lead the way toward conservation of the land and sea. The opening plenary session is devoted to the history and current status of the Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area (shown below; This reserve is on the large island group offshore of the Canadian mainland north of Vancouver Island called Haida Gwaii, formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands but officially restored to its traditional name in 2009. The Haida people have taken advantage of Canada’s National Marine Conservation Act to preserve both watersheds and coastal marine areas to establish Gwaii Haanas as the first marine conservation area in Canada.

Gwaii Haanas Reserve

The talks review how native cultures first came in contact with the west and began the trade in sea otter pelts which decimated populations of these animals, disturbing the balance between otters and their favorite foods, urchins and abalones. The result of sea otter removal has been overgrazing by urchins of the coastal kelp beds that support the areas’ abundance of fish and shellfish. Still recovering from near extinction, the gradual recolonization of sea otters in some areas is once again shifting the balance of these disturbed coastal marine ecosystems, but a recent survey along the coasts of Haida Gwaii found that sites within the Gwaii Haanas Reserve differ in how rapidly this recovery is taking place. In many areas abalone populations are still strongly depressed or absent, and kelp beds remain overgrazed by urchins limiting recovery of the so-called “urchin barrens.” Additional time and monitoring will be necessary to determine the course of recovery of these ecosystems. However, with the establishment of this first marine protected area in Canada an important step has been made toward the recovery of this area. Creation of the Gwaii Haanas Reserve sets a precedent for establishing other marine protected areas to ensure conservation of Canada’s varied ocean ecosystems.

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