Creating national marine conservation areas: building blocks for better health

Parks Canada is leading and supporting the creation of 10 new national marine conservation areas (NMCAs) by 2025. These areas will contribute to Canada’s commitment to the international goal to protect 25% of marine and coastal areas by 2025, and 30% by 2030. That’s a lot of new NMCAs!

National marine conservation areas offer a ton of benefits. They’re a winning combination of healthy marine environments, communities, and livelihoods. There are a number of steps involved in creating new NMCAs. Leadership from Indigenous nations and support from coastal communities are important for creating successful NMCAs… for building better health for us, and for the planet.

Three kayakers paddle in glassy blue waters.
Kayaking on the ocean at Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site. Photo: Charlotte Houston/Parks Canada

Iconic coastal and cultural places

Canada has the longest coastline in the world at 243,042 kilometers. More than one quarter of Canadians live in coastal areas. There are countless ways that Canadians use and enjoy marine and freshwater places in every season.

The marine environment is core to the social, cultural and economic well-being of coastal communities. Indigenous Peoples have cared for and been sustained by these areas for millennia.

National marine conservation areas create opportunities for Canadians to appreciate and enjoy their natural and cultural marine heritage.

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National marine conservation areas

Parks Canada has over 30 years of experience creating marine and freshwater NMCAs. Strong Indigenous leadership, and a close collaboration with other partners, have been key to protecting and conserving these areas.

Together, we have protected and conserved 5 NMCAs in 6 unique marine regions across 3 provinces and 1 territory. Another 7 proposed sites are in different phases of a feasibility assessment to become an NMCA.

Zoning

Zoning is a collaborative process that determines where various activities and uses are allowed within an NMCA.

All NMCAs are divided into zones that allow for ecologically sustainable uses of marine resources. Every NMCA needs at least one zone that fully protects special marine ecosystem features. Each NMCA also needs at least one multiple-use zone. These zones allow different activities that don’t compromise the health of the ecosystem.

Zoning is a key feature of NMCAs.

The back of a single whale as it swims in the distance under a dramatic sky.
A whale at Saguenay—St. Lawrence Marine Park. Photo: Éric Lajeunesse/Parks Canada
Three scuba divers are in halfway submerged in the water next to a rocky shoreline.
Divers explore Saguenay—St. Lawrence Marine Park. Photo: Éric Lajeunesse/Parks Canada
A photo is taken from aboard a boat on the water of another boat that is nearby.
Boats in Saguenay—St. Lawrence Marine Park. Photo: Nicole McFadden/Parks Canada

Building blocks to create new NMCAs

No two NMCAs are the same. Each NMCA will vary depending on who is creating it, where it’s being created, and the different building blocks used to create it. While every NMCA is unique, there are common pieces that go into creating all NMCAs.

Some of the building blocks used to create new NMCAs include:

  • a marine or freshwater area that:
    • represents 1 of Canada’s 29 unique marine regions
    • is rich in marine features, like wildlife, archaeological treasures, islands, special oceanographic processes
    • does not contain oil and gas exploration and development, mineral mining, or bottom trawling, and has strict limits on the disposal of substances
  • leadership and Traditional Ecological Knowledge from Indigenous nations
  • marine users, like fishers, shippers, and tourism operators, that can continue their uses sustainably and respectfully
  • feasibility assessments, consultations, and negotiations with partners. They include a mix of:
    • other federal departments, and provincial, territorial and Indigenous governments
    • stakeholders, including different industries, tourism operators, recreationalists, academia, and non-governmental organizations
    • coastal communities and the public
    • visitors to come enjoy the NMCA and learn about its natural and cultural treasures

Parks Canada, Indigenous nations, and key stakeholders draw on these pieces as building blocks to create new NMCAs in Canada.

An aerial view of whales swimming at the mouth of an arctic estuary.
Belugas at Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area. Photo: Mario Cyr/Parks Canada
Two women sit on the edge of a cliff that overlooks a coastal vista and islands.
Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site. Photo: Michael Lecchino/Parks Canada
A father points to the water from aboard a boat while his daughter next to him looks excitedly in that direction.
Watching for marine life. Photo: Éric Lajeunesse/Parks Canada

Creating NMCAs means building better health

Creating new NMCAs offers heaps of value. Spending time in NMCAs can improve our health and wellbeing. All coastal communities rely on these areas for social and economic benefits. Marine and freshwater areas provide everyone with:

  • a sense of identity
  • prosperity and a means of survival
  • a sense of place
  • connection to nature

Indigenous people and communities are especially connected to these areas. They have long-standing connections to the lands and waters of NMCAs. These are places where Indigenous people continue their traditional and cultural practices.

Marine wildlife, like whales, fish, turtles and seabirds, rely on healthy food supply and habitats found in NMCAs. Many economies that depend on marine areas can only continue if the ocean and its wildlife are flourishing. Creating NMCAs can even mitigate the effects of climate change.

A woman wearing a long red dress, holding a hand drum, stands on shore while looking out into the water.
A Mi'kmaq woman on the shore of Skmaqn–Port-la-Joye–Fort Amherst National Historic Site. Photo: Stephen DesRoches/Parks Canada
Two parents and their three small kids and a dog on a leash walk through shallow water.
Family beach day. Photo: Dale Wilson/Parks Canada
Four people aboard a charter fishing boat smile at the camera. One holds a rod while another holds a fish.
Chartered fishing tour in Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area. Photo: Dale Wilson/Parks Canada

That’s why it's so important for our health—and the planet—to work together to protect more of these marine areas. By doing so, current and future generations can continue to use, better understand and enjoy them.


Creating NMCAs help make healthy wildlife, communities, and livelihoods.


  • Healthy water, healthy wildlife

    Saguenay St—Lawrence Marine Park, Quebec


    Watch a video from Saguenay St—Lawrence Marine Park about their efforts to protect the St. Lawrence Estuary Beluga.

    Text transcript Parks Canada beaver logo
    [Aerial view of the Alliance research boat leaving the Tadoussac Marina.]
    [Host speaks directly into the camera with the research boat docked behind her.]
    [The Resource Conservation team is preparing the boat for a day of research on the water.]
    [Name Tag] Sarah Duquette, Resource Management Officer, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park
    [Name Tag] Research Team, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park
    Good morning, here is the Tadoussac Marina.
    We have a really beautiful day!
    The sea conditions are ideal, there is no wind, so it's perfect for operations in the upper estuary.
    [Beluga whales are swimming together in the water.]
    [Text] The Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park is in the heart of critical habitat for at-risk St. Lawrence Estuary Belugas.
    An aerial view of the Saguenay River coastline.
    [Text] Parks Canada and Sépaq work closely with several partners and coastal communities to protect the belugas.
    [Sarah prepares a smaller Zodiac boat that will accompany the Alliance on the research expedition.]
    So today on the Alliance, it’s a big day.
    [There are many people on board, so we will accompany them.]
    In fact, we're going to join them using our Zodiac, the Uapameku.
    [Name Tag] Chloé Chartrand, Resource Management Officer, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park
    [Title] Studying Habitats to Better Protect Belugas, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park
    [Both boats leave the marina and head to the research location.]
    Today, the work will be carried out in a really particular sector, the upper estuary, which is a very important sector, especially for belugas.
    [A map of Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park appears and a dotted outline shows the location of the upper estuary in the St. Lawrence River, south of the Saguenay River mouth.]
    [Belugas swim in the distance and a close-up image of a beluga whale appears, giving a closer look at the whales.]
    [Text] The upper estuary is a critical habitat for St. Lawrence Belugas. Females use it as a nursery to birth and care for their young.
    [A Parks Canada scientist uses binoculars to study the coastline in the Saguenay River.]
    [Text] In the Marine Park, Parks Canada scientists and their partners study things like food availability, underwater noise, contamination levels, and the presence of aquatic invasive species.
    [The Alliance research boat floats in the distance. Sarah, the host, approaches the Alliance with the Zodiac.]
    Our research vessel, the Alliance, is about to arrive, so, we’ll wait here in this enchanting environment.
    [Name Tag] Samuel Turgeon, Resource Conservation Manager, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park
    [Name Tag] Eliza-Jane Morin, Resource Management Officer, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park
    [Name Tag] Simon Bouchard, Alliance Captain, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park
    [Simon tosses a rope to Sarah so they can tether the two boats together.]
    So, we just joined the Alliance in the middle of the river, in the upper estuary.
    We will come on board, or even a little closer, to the operations
    [Name Tag] Nathalie Simard, Biologist, Marine Aquatic Invasive Species, Fisheries and Oceans Canada
    [Name Tag] Nadia Dalili, Resource Management Technician, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park
    Nathalie, a researcher with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Nadia work together to collect and test water samples aboard the Alliance.
    [Text] The aquatic invasive species project is conducted in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
    [A montage shows Parks Canada scientists collecting a variety of water samples and recording the findings.]
    This is equipment that measures the physicochemical properties of the water where the net was sent.
    So we see information like temperature, salinity, conductivity and the depth.
    Parks Canada scientists lower a fine-mesh net into the water to collect a phytoplankton sample.
    Aquatic invasive species are species that are not native to the environment.
    To measure the presence of these aquatic invasive species, we used a variety of techniques.
    [Text] Monitoring indicators like aquatic invasive species helps us track changes to beluga habitat so we can implement measures to minimize their impacts.
    [The fine-mesh net has been retrieved from the water and a Parks Canada scientist is spraying the net with a hose. There is a collection bucket at the bottom of the net where the water and samples flow.]
    [Eliza will rinse well to make sure that everything flows into the bucket.]
    [A Parks Canada scientist pours the phytoplankton sample into a collection container.]
    We have a sample of phytoplankton.
    Scientists label small sample containers with the date and the location that the samples were collected.
    So from this water sample that was collected, we will find DNA particles that can come from secretions, fish scales, and feces from different organisms.
    To date, no aquatic invasive species have been found in the marine park.
    [The Alliance floats in the blue water with a blue sky above.]
    [Text] Climate change and an increase in maritime transport create favorable conditions for aquatic invasive species to establish, meaning it’s essential to continue this monitoring.
    [The camera dips below the water and when it emerges, a lighthouse on the coastline of the St. Lawrence River is visible.]
    [Text] The knowledge gained through this research and ecological monitoring since the creation of the marine park has made it possible to adapt protection measures for belugas.
    [An aerial view of the Saguenay Fjord.]
    [Text] See how Parks Canada protects endangered whales: parks.canada.ca/whales
    Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park logo
    Parks Canada logo
    Canada wordmark

    Many different species of whales come to Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park to feed, rest, birth and care for their young. The unique marine features found in the marine park are essential for supporting plenty of marine biodiversity.

    Yet, the marine park is also one of the busiest areas for ship and boat traffic. This causes hazardous conditions for whales, like the St. Lawrence Estuary Beluga.

    Two white whales swim. One swims vertically.
    Beluga whales in Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park. Photo: Renaud Pintiaux/Parks Canada
    A white whale crosses paths with a ship in the St. Lawrence River.
    A ship and a beluga on the St. Lawrence River

    Establishing the marine park was necessary for providing a safe place for the Beluga whales. Creating zones throughout the park with different protection measures and rules was very important for many reasons.

    These include navigation closure areas and ship slow downs. These special zones reduce disturbance, providing tranquil havens for whales.

    Slower ships reduce underwater noise that whales are exposed to and they reduce the risks of collisions with ships. The shipping industry is also voluntarily reducing ship speeds in whale feeding grounds.

    The backs of several white whales can be seen swimming through dark blue water.
    St. Lawrence Estuary Belugas at Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park
    Photos: Renaud Pintiaux/Parks Canada

    By protecting a healthy marine habitat, whales and other marine life are able to thrive. Whales also help reduce the impacts of climate change! So we all have a lot to gain from protecting them.

    A Parks Canada staff person stands on a water viewing deck next to mounted binoculars while looking down to write on a clipboard.
    A Parks Canada staff member doing a visual survey for beluga whales from shore. Photo: Michael Lecchino/Parks Canada
    A Parks Canada staff person walks along the edge of a vessel on the water while holding a rope.
    A Parks Canada resource management technician onboard a research vessel that monitors whale activity in Saguenay—St. Lawrence Marine Park. Photo: Michael Lecchino/Parks Canada
    A close up of the head of a white whale as it swims partially out of the water.
    A Beluga whale in Saguenay—St. Lawrence Marine Park. Photo: Renaud Pintiaux/Parks Canada

  • Healthy water, healthy communities

    Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site, British Columbia

    A group of 4 people are seated in a boat just off the shore as an Indigenous guide takes them on a tour.
    Visitors on a zodiac boat at Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site. Photo: Christine Pansino/Parks Canada

    The land, sea and people are interconnected in Gwaii Haanas. Oral histories and recent archaeological work attest to the fact that the Haida have been living on the Haida Gwaii archipelago for 13,000 years.

    Haida place names for land and ocean features in Gwaii Haanas illustrate the interconnection between land, sea and people.

    The tail of a large whale emerges from the water.
    A whale’s tail breaching in Gwaii Haanas. Photo: Charlotte Houston/Parks Canada
    A large purple starfish is exposed at low tide, along with mussels and kelp.
    An intertidal scene from Gwaii Haanas including a purple sea star, mussels and kelp. Photo: Stephanie Fung/Parks Canada
    A vast mountain range at sunset.
    A mountain range sunset on Mount Yatza. Photo: Benson Hilgemann/Parks Canada

    For 30 years, Parks Canada and the Council of the Haida Nation have cooperatively managed and protected the area’s natural, cultural and marine treasures. They are guided by principles based on ethics and values from Haida law, including balance and respect.

    Three old poles made of wood stand in a mossy forested landscape along the water’s edge.
    The remains of ancient totem poles on the shores of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site. Photo: Brady Yu/Parks Canada
    An Indigenous man stands next to the wooden poll as he speaks.
    A Haida Watchmen shares stories with visitors at SG̱ang Gwaay. Photo: Scott Munn/Parks Canada

    Together, Parks Canada, the Haida Nation, and local partners create employment opportunities. They establish long-term monitoring programs. These track and protect ecosystem health and cultural resources.

    Visitors connect with the Haida Gwaii Watchmen, who welcome them to their ancestral villages. Haida citizens are engaged in the management of the NMCA Reserve.

    An Indigenous person works carefully with embroidery thread to create intricate traditional crafts.
    A Haida Gwaii Watchwoman working on a Chilkat weaving on Gandll K’in Gwaay.yaay Island
    A Parks Canada employee waves from aboard a boat to someone passing.
    Gwaii Haanas staff waves to passing sailboaters on their way to SG̱ang Gwaay (Anthony Island). Photo: Scott Munn/Parks Canada

    The site is a model for how those with differing worldviews and cultures can work together. From the mountain tops, to the coast, to the seafloor, this sacred space is well protected, understood and celebrated—and that helps make thriving, healthy communities.


  • Healthy water, healthy livelihoods

    Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area, Nunavut

    An open ocean Arctic landscape dotted with large icebergs and whales.
    Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area. Photo: Mark Mallory

    Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area is one of the most significant ecological areas in the world.

    One reason for this is the presence of polynyas—open water areas surrounded by ice. Warm water currents in polynyas mix with sunlight to create lots of plankton. These large Arctic oases attract feeding narwhals, belugas, polar bears, and seabirds.

    An aerial view of a pod of narwhals swimming in dark blue water.
    Narhwals at Tallurutiup Imanga NMCA. Photo: Mark Mallory
    The back of one narwhal and the head and long pointed tusk of another narwhal swimming together through icy Arctic waters.
    Narwhals swimming in icy waters in Tallurutiup Imanga NMCA. Photo: Mario Cyr/Parks Canada

    Inuit in Nunavut continue to rely on Tallurutiup Imanga for their traditional lifestyles, including harvesting. These practices have significantly influenced a modern and sustainable fishing industry.

    Upholding these rights is key for the health and wellbeing of Inuit. A conservation economy can exist in tandem with the creation of the NMCA through zoning, which allows for multiple uses.

    An aerial view of whales swimming at the mouth of an arctic estuary.
    Belugas at Tallurutiup Imanga NMCA. Photo: Mario Cyr/Parks Canada

    One reason that this model has been successful is the use of Inuit traditional knowledge (Inuit Qauijimajatuqangit) to inform management decisions in the NMCA.

    Inuit have a longstanding relationship and understanding of the land, sea, and ice. Their knowledge is used alongside scientific research to ensure the sustainable use of marine resources, now and into the future.


  • A site in the making

    An Inuit Protected Area under the Canada National Marine Conservation Areas Act, next to Torngat Mountains National Park, Labrador

    An inflatable boat with 5 crew on board cruise past a large iceberg.
    An iceberg floats in the Torngat-Area of Interest in Northern Labrador. Photo: Gary Baikie/Parks Canada

    A large area off the coast of Torngat Mountains National Park within the Labrador Shelf Marine Region is a proposed Inuit protected area.

    Inuit have been stewards of this area since time immemorial. They continue to keep their practices and traditions alive today on its lands and waters.

    An aerial view from above low lying clouds of a fjord and mountainous landscape.
    Ugjuktok Fjord in the Torngat-Area of Interest . Photo: H. Wittenborn/Parks Canada
    Three men stand in a snowy mountainous landscape. Two are holding a rifle.
    Inuit hunters using their ancestral land. From left to right: Wayne Broomfield, Jacko Merkuratsuk, Joey Merkuratsuk. Photo: Gary Baikie/Parks Canada

    This would be the first time that a marine area in Canada is being studied as a potential Inuit protected area. It would set precedence if an Inuit Protected Area were established under the Canada National Marine Conservation Areas Act.

    Generally Indigenous Protected Areas share three essential elements. They:

    • are Indigenous-led
    • represent a long-term commitment to stewardship
    • elevate Indigenous rights and responsibilities

    This area is a place of cultural significance. Protecting it would contribute to the vitality of Inuit culture and traditions, and the well-being of Labrador Inuit.

    This is a unique ecosystem that transitions between Arctic and Atlantic habitats. Protecting the area would also help conserve the marine wildlife that use, live and travel in these waters.

    The scenic fjords between Arctic and Atlantic habitats.
    Nachvak Fjord in the Torngat-Area of Interest. Photo: Gary Baikie/Parks Canada
    Three polar bears swim in water surrounded by mountains.
    Polar bears swim in the Torngat-Area of Interest. Photo: Gary Baikie/Parks Canada

    That’s why Parks Canada and Labrador Inuit are leading a feasibility assessment for the site, guided by Inuit Knowledge and science. Together, they’ll discuss whether the area of interest meets the criteria to become an NMCA.

Actions needed now

Marine and Great Lakes environments in Canada are vital for sustaining diverse marine life and ecosystems. The ocean, land, and all living things are influenced by one another in marine ecosystems. The health of the environment is a reflection of our own health.

Yet, the state of the oceans, lakes, and rivers is in crisis. Climate change, intensive use, pollutants, and invasive species are some of the pressures on marine wildlife and habitats.

We need to improve the health of our planet to continue benefiting from these environments. To do this, we need to protect and conserve marine and freshwater areas.

We need to create more NMCAs.

One destination—many ways to get there

All of the building blocks used to create NMCAs are different, including the site location, local partners, and marine users. This makes each NMCA very unique. Yet all NMCAs offer common benefits.

From healthy marine wildlife, to vibrant coastal communities, to sustainable livelihoods… NMCAs in Canada are like building blocks for creating better health.

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