The coast is clear for a BC Coastal Marine Strategy

Our take on the Policy Intentions Paper

On December 15, 2022, BC released a Policy Intentions Paper for a Coastal Marine Strategy (“Intentions Paper”). This is a huge milestone in improving how coastal areas in British Columbia are managed and protected. The government is asking for feedback on the Intentions Paper until April 14, 2023. To help you get involved, we review the steps that led to this key moment and share our thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of the Intentions Paper.

Why we need a BC Coastal Marine Strategy

British Columbia is one of the only provinces or states in Canada or the US that does not have a coastal protection law or strategy to direct its ocean management. Instead, British Columbia has historically made management decisions affecting coastal and marine areas through a hodgepodge of different departments and ministries, using a number of pieces of legislation – such as (ironically) the Land Act – which were not specifically designed for ocean management. This has led to several persistent problems. 

First, without a coordinated approach to ocean management, we are failing to address the cumulative impacts of all the development and activities taking place in coastal areas. When docks, marinas, shellfish operations, dykes, waterfront developments and seawalls are all being approved separately for a given coastal area, there is a failure to properly understand how all of these different ocean uses taken together are affecting the coastal ecosystems that sustain us. 

In an era of increasing population and user pressure on the coast, coupled with more pronounced climate change impacts, the need for better provincial ocean management has never been greater. This has not been lost on local governments. In 2021, the Union of BC municipalities adopted a resolution calling on the provincial government to adopt a coastal protection strategy and law to help communities address issues like climate change and ocean health. 

Second, the lack of a consolidated body overseeing ocean management for the province has made it difficult for the BC government to collaborate effectively with other orders of government who also have ocean management responsibilities. This includes the federal government and even Washington State.  But this is particularly concerning in the case of Indigenous governments who have Indigenous title and rights to these areas, have stewarded them for millennia under their own laws and customs, and whose role in ocean management is not adequately respected and supported. This is something that the province is legally required to rectify as it implements the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Blueprint for the Coast initiative

These ocean management issues have long been of concern to many British Columbians who live, work and play along the coast. In 2019, CPAWS and WCEL started the Blueprint for the Coast initiative, calling on the BC government to develop, in partnership with Indigenous nations and the federal government, a provincial law and strategy to protect coastal areas.

Because BC is a laggard on this front, there are many coastal strategies and laws around the world that we can draw lessons from. For example, our southern neighbour, Washington State, has had a coastal strategy and accompanying coastal law in place since as far back as the 1970s.

Coastal strategies are meant to produce a shared or holistic vision for ocean governance and management. Often this is done by, among other things:

  • co-management structures that bring all decision-makers together;
  • an accompanying law that provides the legal tools to carry out the aims of the strategy and requires government decision-makers to comply with the strategy;
  • measurable outcomes or goals for ocean management;
  • a monitoring program to evaluate progress towards these outcomes; and
  • support for a sustainable ocean economy that benefits local communities.

Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship

The Blueprint for Coast initiative achieved a milestone in 2020 when the provincial government committed to co-developing a BC Coastal Marine Strategy. In 2021, the government undertook a crucial step in the process by creating the Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship (initially called the Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship). The province consolidated its ocean programs under this new ministry, which was given the explicit mandate to establish a co-management regime with Indigenous nations for the waters and lands of BC. This was a significant step in the process of reforming BC’s ocean governance, and one that our Blueprint for the Coast initiative had been calling for.

Intentions Paper: Setting out the vision for BC’s Coastal Marine Strategy

The Intentions Paper was co-drafted by staff from the Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship as well as staff from coastal Indigenous nations. The Intentions Paper acknowledges the problems listed above that give rise to the need for a Coastal Marine Strategy. It states that a Coastal Marine Strategy will be developed to look ahead to a 20-year timeline and “will lay out a plan for addressing priorities for coastal-marine ecosystem health and community well-being.”

The Paper offers the following overarching vision for the Strategy:

As stewards of coastal ecosystems on behalf of current and future generations, we aim to nurture healthy and productive ecosystems. We will manage them together in a good way to support sustainable prosperity and human health and well-being, while investing back into the ecosystems that sustain us all.

The Strategy will focus on activities, uses and values that the BC government is accountable for, as opposed to the federal government (this means that activities like shipping and the regulation of fishing will not be the focus).

The Intentions Paper also includes six outcomes to achieve the vision statement:

  1. A healthy and productive coast
  2. Resilience to climate change
  3. Trusting and respectful relationships
  4. Holistic learning and knowledge sharing
  5. Community well-being
  6. A sustainable, thriving ocean economy

To meet these outcomes, the Paper lists 30 policy intentions of the provincial government. These include: exploring the need for a comprehensive coastal zone law, improving monitoring of coastal ecosystem health and enhancing marine spatial data, shifting to nature-based solutions for coastal protection and investing in a diverse coastal and marine economy.

A good start

Revamping how coastal management is undertaken in British Columbia will not happen overnight, but the Intentions Paper is a promising start. The Paper is high-level in nature, containing intentions and outcomes, although it is often vague on the specific actions that will make the outcomes happen, aside from listing existing government programs. While its intentions and outcomes reflect many of the goals that the Blueprint for the Coast initiative has been advocating for, below we share some concerns that we hope will be addressed as the process continues.

It is a positive sign that a team of Indigenous and provincial staff co-wrote the Intentions Paper and that the province is committed to co-developing the Coastal Marine Strategy with coastal Indigenous nations. It is also encouraging to see that the vision statement in the Intentions Paper aims for the two orders of government to manage coastal ecosystems “together in a good way.” 

However, more engagement with coastal Indigenous nations will be crucial so that the co-development process is genuinely inclusive and responsive to the viewpoints of all coastal Indigenous nations. Moreover, it will be important that these collaborative relationships do not end with the drafting of the Coastal Marine Strategy but are also seen in action in future co-management.  

  1. Ensuring that intentions are supported by concrete actions and measurable goals

It is welcome that the government is thinking long-term by establishing outcomes in a 20-year timeframe. However, this means ensuring that the strategy remains resilient over the term of several governments to meet its outcomes. To be resilient, the strategy must: 

  • set measurable targets for environmental outcomes that can hold partners accountable, 
  • be supported by long-term funding, 
  • be recognized in law, and 
  • require interim reviews to make sure the strategy is meeting its goals. 
  1. Enacting a coastal law

Amending or enacting new laws will be important to grant the province the ability to properly co-manage marine ecosystems on the BC coast to meet the outcomes of the Intentions Paper. We have written before about how laws could support better coastal management, especially in light of the province’s legal obligation to bring its laws into compliance with UNDRIP.  The Intentions Paper lists “explor[ing] the need for a comprehensive coastal zone law” as a Policy Intention. But an intention to “explore” a new law is much weaker than an actual commitment to establish one. Without legal reform, there is a real risk that the strategy will not lead to any real changes in or on the water. Accordingly, we will continue advocating for the government to commit to legal reforms to support the Coastal Marine Strategy.

Have your voice heard

All in all, the BC government’s Intentions Paper presents a very welcome step in the development of the Coastal Marine Strategy, and most of the Outcomes and Intentions listed in it are commendable and needed. This is your chance to have your voice heard and influence the development of the Coastal Marine Strategy. You can do so by visiting the Intentions Paper engagement site and filling out their survey or emailing them your feedback.

By Kate MacMillan, CPAWS-BC Ocean Conservation Manager and Michael Bissonnette, WCEL Marine Program Staff Lawyer