Marine Protected Ares are helpful, MPA Networks are even better!

An update on MPA network planning in Canada


For decades, scientists have tracked the decline in ocean health, calling for strong action to protect and recover marine life and ocean ecosystems. Here in Canada, we are bearing witness to these changes in the collapse of Newfoundland cod and some Pacific salmon stocks, the plight of endangered whales, and disappearance of sea ice and kelp.

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are widely recognized as one of the most effective tools to stop this decline. Presently, almost 14% of Canada’s ocean is protected and the country is committed to protecting 25% by 2025 and 30% by 2030 to address the impacts of the dual crises of biodiversity loss and climate change on ocean ecosystems.

To get the most conservation value out of these protected areas, it helps to connect MPAs in MPA networks.

The best MPA networks include these fundamental features:

  • REPRESENTATIVENESS OF SPECIES: the network should protect a broad spectrum of species, ecosystems, and biodiversity representative of the area.
  • REPLICATION: the network should include more than one example of each habitat type or ecosystem.
  • VIABILITY: each MPA in the network should be large enough and designed to properly protect the target species or ecosystem.
  • CONNECTIVITY: the network should protect ecological linkages between areas and species, for example, habitats of juveniles and adults.
Top: A young blue shark off the coast of Nova Scotia. Bottom: Jelly fish in the sea grass in the Eastern Shore region of Nova Scotia. Photos: Nick Hawkins/CPAWS NS

MPA networks that meet these four design criteria are more resilient and adaptable to the impacts of climate change. They ensure that if a particular habitat is impacted in one area, there are other areas that are protected as an ecological insurance policy. They help to maintain and support biodiversity and ecological integrity. These connected spaces provide safe “landing zones” for species that are forced to migrate due to climatic change.

By planning multiple protected sites over a large area, MPA networks provide flexibility in size and spacing of protected areas and allowing activities like fishing and shipping to continue in adjacent areas while ensuring MPAs are strongly protected. In doing so, network planning can help to reduce conflicts and minimize costs to manage and monitor MPAs while maximizing benefits. Successful MPA network planning processes are informed by science alongside local and traditional knowledge, working with many stakeholders to ensure ecological, social, and economic benefits are maximised.

Canada committed to complete MPA networks in five priority areas and these networks are currently in various stages of consultation and planning. Two of the most advanced MPA Network planning processes in Canada are in the Northern Shelf Bioregion in British Columbia and the Scotian Shelf and Bay of Fundy in the Maritimes.


The planned Northern Shelf Bioregion MPA Network – also known as the Great Bear Sea – extends along the north and central coasts of BC. This spectacular region includes the co-managed Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, Scott Islands marine National Wildlife Area, and Hecate Strait/Queen Charlotte Sound Glass Sponge Reefs MPA.

The Northern Shelf Bioregion MPA network planning process is setting a global precedent as it is being co-developed and will be co-governed with coastal First Nations who have stewarded these waters for thousands of years.

This process was on track to be Canada’s first MPA network, however, there have been significant delays along the way. The next key step in the process is the release of the action plan for public consultation, which was expected in the fall of 2021, but has yet to happen.


The Scotian Shelf and Bay of Fundy Network Plan will lay out a roadmap for a well-designed network of protected areas that provide long-term protection for marine and coastal ecosystems and support the livelihood of East Coast communities.

A dedicated team has been working on the plan for almost a decade. After being put on hold in 2017, work resumed in 2021 with renewed vigor. There have been recent indications that the Eastern Canyons Marine Refuge and Fundian Channel-Brown’s Bank are now close to receiving legal protection.


MPAs networks amplify the benefits of individual MPAs. As Canada strives to meet its commitment to implement MPA networks in five regions, it is critical that the federal government works closely with Indigenous Nations, provinces and territories, and coastal communities to ensure that MPA networks are well supported, strongly protected, and truly effective.