The federal government and coastal First Nations took a significant step towards establishing a massive marine protected area off the West Coast of Vancouver Island on Tuesday.

The proposed Tang.ɢwan — ḥačxwiqak — Tsig̱is Marine Protected Area (MPA) covers a 133,000-square-kilometre swath of open ocean 150 kilometres off the island’s west coast. The area harbours a unique concentration of hydrothermal vents, underwater sea mountains and rich deep-sea biodiversity hot spots found nowhere else in the world.

The federal government and the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council (NTC), the Council of the Haida Nation, Pacheedaht First Nation and Quatsino First Nation announced they’ve reached an agreement in principle on the vast MPA in their territorial waters.

The MPA will be the largest on Canada’s Pacific coast when it is established, said Joyce Murray, minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), speaking at IMPAC5, a global marine conservation summit underway in Vancouver.

“This MPA demonstrates Canada’s shared determination to protect distinctive ecosystems and our priority to advance reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples,” Murray said.

The proposed Tang.ɢwan — ḥačxwiqak — Tsig̱is Marine Protected Area (MPA) features a rare concentration of sea mounts, hydrothermal vents and unique marine life. Photo by Cherisse Du Preez / DFO

The agreement, or memorandum of understanding (MOU), outlines how the parties will work co-operatively on the planning, operation, management and use of the MPA following its designation, the minister said. However, specifics on the MOU weren’t detailed.

It isn’t clear yet if the MPA will include Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs) — where Indigenous governments jointly determine the objectives, manage and assume stewardship of a conservation area.

The Council of the Haida Nation House of Assembly declared the portion of the proposed MPA inside Haida territory as a heritage site in October. The other nations and the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council are looking to designate IPCAs in the proposed MPA, DFO said.

The proposed Tang.ɢwan — ḥačxwiqak — Tsig̱is MPA is a 133,000-square-kilometre swath of open ocean on Canada's West Coast with a unique concentration of hydrothermal vents, underwater sea mountains and rich deep-sea biodiversity hot spots.

No dedicated funding for the MPA was outlined as part of the announcement. It’s also not clear if the partner nations will have decision-making power in the MPA, including on fishery issues, a sticking point in negotiations in the past, according to the Ha-Shilth-Sa newspaper.

The Haida Nation and Canada already co-manage the Sgaan Kinghlas-Bowie Seamount MPA, the shallowest seamount on the West Coast in the open ocean off the northeast coast of Haida Gwaii but outside the boundaries of the proposed Tang.ɢwan — ḥačxwiqak — Tsig̱is MPA.

The name for the future MPA consists of a Haida word meaning “deep ocean” (Tang.ɢwan), a Nuu-chah-nulth and Pacheedaht word meaning “deepest part of the ocean” (ḥačxwiqak) and a Quatsino word referring to a “monster of the deep” (Tsig̱is).

The Haida Nation looks forward to working together with the partner nations and federal government to create a management plan with meaningful measures to the MPA and the biodiversity it supports for future generations, said Gaagwiis Jason Alsop, president of the Council of the Haida Nation.

The underwater seamounts, rich in nutrients, support marine life far offshore but also provide for the well-being of people on the coast, Alsop said.

“These species will come back to our territories and look after us if we look after the ocean,” he said.

Cloy-e-iis, Dr. Judith Sayers, of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, celebrated the MOU as the first step in creating the MPA. She dreams of establishing IPCAs to protect the oceans and spiritually and culturally significant areas that are so important to the coastal nations.

“Right now, this is the mechanism that we have,” Sayers said. “And we're grateful that we have something that we can all work with, but we need to push [the federal government] further.”

DFO map of the proposed Tang.ɢwan — ḥačxwiqak — Tsig̱is Marine Protected Area off Vancouver Island.

More than 70 per cent of all known Canadian seamounts and all hydrothermal vents are in the boundaries of the proposed MPA, and the rich marine life is unique to the area’s special geology, Murray said.

The MPA’s proposed protections go out for public input in March, and ultimately, the federal government’s recent minimum protection standards that ban dumping, oil and gas activity, mining and bottom trawling fisheries will go into effect, the minister said.

DFO did not clarify when the protections will take effect. In the meantime, a smaller marine refuge, which limits potentially harmful fisheries, remains in place to protect the Endeavour hydrothermal seamount that includes fragile rare coral and glass sponges.

Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples is paramount for the federal government, Murray said, adding more discussions on the MPA will unfold over time.

“We would not have been able to reach this historic milestone together without the knowledge, expertise and partnership of First Nations,” Murray said.

“We're one step closer to creating an MPA that honours your history of environmental stewardship and knowledge and embodies the spirit of reconciliation.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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This is an electronic publication. Is there any hope for actually using the capability to accompany strings of text like "Tang.ɢwan — ḥačxwiqak — Tsig̱is Marine Protected Area (MPA) " with a link to a pronuciation, either audible, or spelled out phonetically. (And not in the IPA, which is very excluding to most).

That's a good suggestion Roy. I'll do my best to try and get a phonetics for the name into my next story.