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Comment: B.C. needs a coastal-zone management act

British Columbia’s coast is perhaps our most important asset. Home to most of our population, it is also home to some of the most productive ecosystems on Earth and is central to our economic life and our communities.

British Columbia’s coast is perhaps our most important asset. Home to most of our population, it is also home to some of the most productive ecosystems on Earth and is central to our economic life and our communities. We need legislation to ensure it is managed properly.

Our coast faces unprecedented challenges from issues such as increased development and loss of public access, proposals for hydrocarbon port developments and transportation corridors, threatened fish stocks and the need to respond to the challenges from CO2 emissions such as ocean acidification, sea-level rise and extreme weather events.

Jurisdictional uncertainties add complexity to coastal planning and management, particularly in the absence of effective mechanisms to co-ordinate the actions of multiple government agencies and interests. B.C. lacks a co-ordinated legislative framework for taking action, and for exercising our jurisdiction and ownership of our marine and coastal resources. It is time for a comprehensive coastal-zone management act.

Management of coastal and marine resources is a complex area of shared jurisdiction among all levels of government, including First Nations. The federal government has responsibility to regulate marine fisheries and navigation, and provide for the military defence of our waters.

Local governments have planning and zoning powers over shorelines, and regulate much of coastal development. First Nations sustainably used coastal resources for millennia before Europeans arrived and are taking an active interest in ensuring their wise use.

A Supreme Court decision in 1984 confirmed provincial ownership and jurisdiction over the seabed and all coastal or “inland” waters within the “jaws of the land.” The province has responsibility for a range of activities that affect the quality and use of our coastal and marine resources, and B.C. has shown leadership and taken action in a number of areas.

Our provincial protected-area system includes more than 180 marine areas. Many upland areas adjacent to important and sensitive coastal and marine habitats are also under provincial protection. Recently, the B.C. government formed a unique partnership with central and north coast First Nations to complete management plans for coastal waters north of Campbell River to provide for their sustainable use and the protection of critical ecosystems.

When it was passed in 1996, the federal Oceans Act was seen as one of the most progressive oceans-management laws in the world, and yet its initial promise remains largely unfulfilled. Further, it was never intended to take on all coastline-management issues. Still, its initial promise remains and could provide the basis for a successful partnership with Ottawa.

Other provinces such as Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador have developed their own coastal management strategies that have highlighted the need for improved governance arrangements.

There are successful coastal-management legislation models in other countries. Perhaps the most useful example is the U.S. Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 that empowered coastal states to develop some of the most progressive programs in the world.

Under the U.S. act, state-level programs provide for important initiatives such as ecosystem protection, management of shoreline development, improved water quality, siting of coastal-dependent uses, and public access to the coasts for recreation. State programs have also led to the redevelopment of deteriorating urban waterfronts and ports, and the preservation of historic and cultural features.

A recent review of the act has concluded that comprehensive coastal programs have led to the co-ordination and simplification of coastal-management decision-making, opportunities for public and local government participation, and improved co-ordination among coastal management agencies.

Following the models in the Canadian Oceans Act and the U.S. Coastal Zone Management Act, a B.C. coastal management act could reaffirm our province’s commitment to the conservation and sustainable management of our estuarine, coastal and marine resources. The minister responsible for the act could be empowered to develop a coastal management strategy, and it could provide a legislative basis for coastal and marine spatial planning, and the establishment of a comprehensive network of marine protection areas.

The act could also enable local government programs to protect and restore coastal ecosystems, develop climate-change adaptation strategies for issues such as extreme weather events, storm surges and sea-level rise, prepare for coastal and marine emergencies, and to revitalize our coastal communities.

The act would signal B.C.’s intent to take coastal management seriously and fully exercise its ownership and jurisdiction. Our coasts are too important and action is needed now.

Jamie Alley is the Pacific vice-president for the Coastal Zone Canada Association and former director of the Oceans and Marine Fisheries Branch in the B.C. government. He currently teaches integrated coastal zone management at universities in Canada and Iceland.