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Comment: We are an ocean province, let's act like one

What do people think of when they think of British Columbia? Chances are they think of the mountains, the forests, the coast with its salmon and orca, and Indigenous people and cultures.
HMCS Brandon passes Oak Bay in a Remembrance Day a sail past. Darren Stone, Times Colonist

What do people think of when they think of British Columbia? Chances are they think of the mountains, the forests, the coast with its salmon and orca, and Indigenous people and cultures.

Indeed we are an ocean province, with a 25,000-kilometre-long coastline. For comparison, Newfoundland and Labrador’s coastline is around 18,000 km, while Nova Scotia’s is 13,000 km; New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island have 5,500 km and 1,800 km respectively.

But it seems that simple fact has eluded successive B.C. governments.

As Blueprint for the Coast, a collaboration founded by Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society B.C. (CPAWS) and West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL), notes: “B.C. is one of the only coastal jurisdictions in North America without a united plan and law to protect it”.

And yet both the Blueprint and Fisheries for Communities — a network of Indigenous and non-Indigenous fish harvesters, First Nations fisheries representatives, small businesses, fishing families and leaders in coastal communities — have identified a plethora of environmental, social, economic and cultural challenges.

So the Blueprint collaboration is proposing a B.C. coastal strategy and a B.C. Coastal Protection Act, while Fisheries for Communities wrote to John Horgan on Oct. 30 asking him to establish a ministry for fisheries, coastal communities and the marine environment.

Because unlike the four Atlantic provinces, we do not have such a ministry. It’s a bit like Saskatchewan not having a ministry of agriculture, or Alberta not having a ministry of energy.

The B.C. government’s blind spot with respect to our coast and ocean is startling.

The words “ocean,” “coast,” “fish,” “fisher” or “fishery” and “aquaculture” do not even appear in the Ministry of Agriculture’s service plan, although “seafood” appears 18 times! Clearly the commercial fisheries, aquaculture and seafood are only seen as an industry with career and economic issues, but their natural resource base — the ocean — is absent.

Just as troubling, the words “ocean,” “sea” or “marine” do not appear in the service plan for the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, while fish appears only three times, two of them in connection with fish passage on the Fraser River. The only four references to “coast” are all in connection with coastal forests and logging. Clearly, the ocean is not seen as a natural resource

And if you think the environment includes the ocean and coast, think again; those words, as well as “sea” and “marine” are absent from the service plan for the Ministry of Environment.

Nor can it be argued that this is because the ocean lies within federal jurisdiction. Blueprint for the Coast points out that large amounts of our coasts and ocean — mainly the Salish Sea and Queen Charlotte Strait — “have been interpreted to be ‘inland waters’ within the Province of B.C. by the Supreme Court of Canada … in 1984.”

In a January 2020 report, WCEL examined coastal strategies and laws from around the world and suggested six key issues that “a coastal strategy and law could address in B.C: 1) implementing coastal and marine plans, 2) rules to direct climate adaptation, 3) reducing shoreline hardening, 4) prevention of coastal habitat loss, 5) intergovernmental coordination, and 6) maintaining public access.”

In a July 2020 report looking at the experience in Nova Scotia and Washington, WCEL noted: “the coastal framework has recognized and empowered local governments, demonstrating that a state or province-wide coastal framework need not require consolidating power in a central government.” Such an approach, they noted in an earlier blog, could also help implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, given that “provincial coastal and marine management does not currently recognize Indigenous law and/or provide adequate space for Indigenous nations to articulate their coastal governance laws.”

WCEL’s January 2020 report on coastal management plans and laws concluded: “Without such a strategy and law, B.C. puts the ecological integrity of the coast as well as the economic and cultural future of coastal communities in jeopardy.” Is that what we want? Isn’t it time B.C. acted like the coastal province that it so clearly is?

The new B.C. government should create a ministry and bring forward — and quickly — a strategy and a Coastal Protection Act.

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Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.