Making waves: Seven highlights from the IMPAC5 conference

In February, the 5th International Marine Protected Areas Congress was hosted in Vancouver on Musqueam, Squamish and Tseil-Waututh territory. Here are seven highlights for the seven seas.

  • Published Mar 17, 2023
  • Updated Oct 19
  • 2,703 words
  • 11 minutes
Gentle waves lap onto the shores of a pebbly beach as blueish mountains loom in the background.
This year's IMPAC5 summit took place in Vancouver (Photo: Abi Hayward/Can Geo)
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In early February, on the western shore of the longest coastline in the world, conservationists, Indigenous leaders, scientists, government officials and activists came together to push forward the global conversation on marine protected areas. The fifth International Marine Protected Areas Congress (IMPAC5) sought to bring diverse voices together to advance and achieve ocean conservation targets — including how we can protect 30 per cent of land and ocean by 2030, less than a decade away. 

The world’s oceans represent 90 per cent of potential living space for life on this planet. From sponges to seahorses, sharks to Homo sapiens, all life relies on the ocean: for food, for habitat, for livelihood, for navigation, for culture. The ocean is the world’s great connector — and protector. And yet, it is threatened from all corners: climate change, pollution, overfishing, resource extraction and ecosystem degradation, to name a few.

There are plenty of achievements to celebrate; since the first handful of marine protected areas (defined by the IUCN as “any area of intertidal or sub-tidal terrain, together with its overlying water and associated flora, fauna, historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by law or other effective means to protect part or all of the enclosed environment”) were established in the early 20th century, the movement has snowballed, with hundreds declared by the 80s. Currently, there are over 13,000 MPAs globally, covering an estimated 7.65 per cent of the world’s oceans. Canada designated its first MPA in 2003 and now has about 842,822 kilometres of ocean — about 14.66 per cent — covered by some form of marine protection.

Yet there’s so much more to be done, as IMPAC5 made clear. In Vancouver — as rain pounded on the roof of the convention centre right next to the sea, and mist obscured the water that everyone had travelled there to talk about — some of the world’s greatest ocean leaders came together to share ideas, celebrate progress, and make a plan for the future of ocean protection. Here are the key highlights you should know.

Indigenous Peoples are ocean conservation leaders

Indigenous voices were a vital part of the conversation at IMPAC5. Participants were warmly welcomed to the land by their xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam Indian Band), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish Nation), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh Nation) hosts. Land acknowledgements were part of every panel, every keynote, every media briefing. Indigenous visitors from other territories sought permission from the host Nations to share songs and prayers.

And Indigenous leadership was prominently featured in the form of keynote speeches from ‘Aulani Wilhelm, who led the establishment of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and World Heritage Site in Hawaiʻi; Q̓án̓ístisḷa (Michael Vegh), the Háɫcístut (“to turn things around, and make things right again” in Heiltsuk) Implementation Manager for Heiltsuk Tribal Council; and Cloy-e-iis, Judith Sayers of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, who practiced law for 18 years and champions ocean protection on many fronts.

Sayers joined representatives of the federal government, the Council of the Haida Nation, the Pacheedaht First Nation and the Quatsino First Nation in announcing a roadmap for Tang.ɢwan-ḥačxʷiqak-Tsig̱is marine protected area, which, once established, will be one of the largest in Canada at 133,019 square kilometres.

Tang.ɢwan-ḥačxʷiqak-Tsig̱is comes from the Haida, Nuu-cha-nulth and Kwakwala languages, and means, among other things, “precious deep water ocean place.” One hundred kilometres west of Vancouver Island, deep below the swells of the surface, enormous seamounts loom up from the seafloor — some of them up to 3,000 metres high. According to Sayers, some Elders remember names for some of these unique, highly productive formations. In this otherworldly realm, too, lie deep sea hydrothermal vents, home to the most unique of ecosystems, with some species only recently identified by science. They are key hotspots of biodiversity thanks to superheated nutrient-rich water spurting up from the vents.

14 people stand on a stage with a screen behind them showing the logos of 15 first nations, as well as the British Columbia and Canada governments.
Representatives of 15 First Nations, as well as representatives from the federal and B.C. governments celebrate the announcement of the Northern Shelf Bioregion, a.k.a. the "Great Bear Sea" MPA network (Photo: Abi Hayward/Can Geo)
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Creating networks of protection

Down in the Ocean Expo, there was a buzz as folks excitedly chattered at tables surrounding a central stage. The hum of anticipation quieted as we heard a strong voice singing, accompanied by a drum beating. Chief Ian Campbell of Squamish Nation emerged from the crowd with representatives of 15 nations with territories that extend from northern Vancouver Island to the Alaska border, followed by representatives from the B.C. and federal governments. Everyone stood, hands were raised. They’re about to announce the endorsement of the Great Bear Sea (North Shelf Ecoregion) MPA network plan — a landmark strategy that’s been a decade and a half in the making.

The network will include a collection of individual MPAs of various shapes, sizes and protection levels. Each one will also have its own unique conservation objectives and implementation process, guided by Indigenous knowledge combined with western science. Each speaker  reaffirmed their dedication to working together, despite a “long, winding and sometimes rocky road.”

Resistance to deep sea mining

Under gathering rain clouds, a determined-looking group of people prepared placards, held signs and readied themselves to take to the streets of Vancouver to protest against deep sea mining. “Deep seabed mining is like clear-cutting the ocean, except we don’t see what’s happening,” said Bodhi Patil, a young ocean climate solutionist. “Ideally, we hope for Canada to declare a moratorium on seabed mining … As young people advocating for marine protected areas, advocating for biological protection and diversity and people of color being included in these spaces, we know that there is opportunity to push the agenda and push the needle forward.” Patil and others — including Jonathan Mesulam of the Alliance of Solwara Warriors, which has been fighting seabed mining in Papua New Guinea since 2009 — marched forward, joined by some members of the public bashing pots and pans together, or beeping car horns.

The protestors’ destination was the headquarters, just blocks away from the IMPAC5 conference, of The Metals Company, a Canadian company looking to become the first commercial operation to mine the deep sea for the “battery in a rock.” Companies like The Metals Company are looking to scoop up potato-sized polymetallic nodules — rich in copper, nickel, cobalt, iron, manganese, and rare earth elements — to use as part of the “battery-powered shift to clean energy and electric vehicles with the lightest planetary touch.” But the company found itself in hot water earlier this year when footage was leaked appearing to show waste sediment being dumped into the Pacific Ocean between Mexico and Hawaii during a trial of their mining technology.

Later in the IMPAC5 summit, during a panel on local and Indigenous resistance to deep-sea mining, emotions ran high as participants came together to talk about what could be done to stop the destruction of the ocean floor — an ecosystem we know little about. “This deep sea mining is real, it’s happening. There are people coming to our islands and bribing people and making plans and shaking hands with politicians,” said marine scientist Jacqueline Evans from the Cook Islands, who had been fired from her role as director of Marae Moana marine protected area after she’d expressed support for a 10-year moratorium on seabed mining. Tears filled eyes in the room as people shared their own struggles to protect the little-known ecosystems of the deep sea.

Many of the participants at that panel — and more widely across the conference — hoped that Canada would weigh in on the seabed mining conversation. Toward the end of the conference, Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray and Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault confirmed Canada’s position: a moratorium on domestic deep-sea mining. “It is effectively a moratorium until we actually know what we need to know to inform decisions about seabed mining,” said Wilkinson, adding: “Canada’s position with respect to the areas that we have jurisdiction over — and Canada’s position with respect to the international issue — are exactly the same.” Canada has not joined countries like France in calling for an outright ban on deep sea mining.

A white woman with greyish hair sits in a chair in front of a window with ocean views. She's wearing an orange shirt with raccoons on.
"I'm very pleased to see these minimum standards articulated: what they are and what it means," says Megan Leslie of WWF Canada. "I really don't think that we're asking for much that these areas have true protection." (Photo: Abi Hayward/Can Geo)
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Doubling down on what protection actually means

Four years ago, the Canadian federal government unveiled a blueprint for minimum protection standards for MPAs, outlining the industrial activities that would be explicitly banned in these areas. And as the world’s ocean leaders watched at IMPAC5, Fisheries MinisterMurray, along with Environment Minister Guilbeault, announced that the government had finalized details of these standards. “That’s what it’s all about,” said Murray. “We can draw a line on the map, but if we don’t have meaningful protection, what are we doing?” The finalized standards include a prohibition on oil and gas activities, bottom trawling and mining in MPAs established from 2019 onward. It also includes proposed restrictions on dumping, including greywater, scrubber washwater, sewage, food waste and bilge water discharges. The new standards were met with some relief from organizations such as the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and WWF Canada. 

“I’m actually pleasantly surprised that it was a real announcement with substance. I wasn’t expecting that last night when I went to bed!” said WWF Canada president and CEO Megan Leslie, just after the announcement. 

“The announcement is always the top of the iceberg and below, there’s a huge amount of iceberg,” laughed Susanna Fuller of Oceans North. “With regards to the standards, I think we’re really delighted to finally see that in policy.”

But the standards don’t immediately ban wastewater from shipping, a key contaminant from ocean-going vessels. Canada is calling for voluntary compliance in its own waters and, in the future, it is hoped that mandatory restrictions could be put in place for protected ocean areas — both domestically and internationally. The new standards also only apply to those MPAs established later than April 2019. When asked by Canadian Geographic about older MPAs, Minister Murray said, “We now have standards that we are aiming to share with other countries so that there can be broader international norms, and then work to do the consultation and figure out the opportunities and barriers to changing standards on existing MPAs will take place in due course.” These MPAs will be reviewed as part of their management cycles.

Legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle asks: "Should we be prepared to be cautious while we still have a chance before we lose the opportunity to carve up the last great wilderness on the planet? The high seas. Almost half the world." (Photo: IISD/ENB/Anastasia Rodopoulou)
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Navigating the high seas

While individual nations seek to set aside a third of their own waters to meet the 30 by 30 goals, a team of international delegates, stakeholders, rights holders and scientists are looking further afield to the high seas. Two thirds of the ocean lies beyond national jurisdiction. The high seas take up about half the planet. Yet only one per cent of the high seas are protected, despite containing unique ecosystems that we are only just starting to discover. We know more about the surface of the moon than the depths of our ocean. “We don’t know much about the deep sea, the high seas, about most of life on earth. And yet we act as if: we don’t know about it, it can’t be important. If we don’t know, we can’t care,” said the legendary oceanographer, explorer, author and speaker Sylvia Earle gravely in one panel discussion on the high seas. “It’s really baffling to know that we don’t know and not be prepared to put our ignorance on the balance sheet as a precautionary principle.”

Another panelist, Sheena Talma, who has worked on deep-sea research in the Seychelles, spoke about how her own attitude towards the high seas has shifted. “Before having experienced it, before having rolled back the layers of our ocean and sea underneath, I was perhaps like most people: the high seas is outside my jurisdiction, there’s a lot of work to do here in my own country, etcetera.” She paused. “It is clear that we need more protection in these spaces.”

Most of the one per cent that is protected is within the Ross Sea MPA in Antarctica, where the icy ocean teems with life. The area is home to 40 per cent of the world’s Adélie penguins and 30 per cent of the world’s emperor penguins — and has a phytoplankton bloom every summer that can be seen from space. It took more than a decade, including five years of intensive diplomatic negotiations between 27 countries, for the MPA to come to fruition.

For the wider high seas, it’s almost another story entirely. “The core issue that has occurred is that there are several critical governance gaps on the high seas. At the moment we have a fragmented puzzle of organizations that manage different aspects of human activities in different areas on the high seas with varying degrees of success,” said Nicola Clark of the Pew Charitable Trusts, who follows the the UN negotiations for the treaty on marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). “And it’s in this messy, patchwork approach to the high seas governance that key things have slipped through the cracks: mainly that there’s no legal mechanism to establish high seas marine protected areas for most of the high seas. And there’s also no global obligation to conduct environmental impact assessments for these activities that are taking place there.”

On March 3, after five years of negotiations, and two decades of international diplomacy, the world’s governments finally agreed on the UN High Seas Treaty —  a watershed moment for protecting biodiversity beyond national borders. The treaty is yet to be ratified by member states.

A woman wearing a crisp white shirt and black jacket speaks into a microphone on a podium against a blue background.
"We work in systems that demand we communicate in a language that is not our own. Who knew that English was the unofficial official language of science? The hegemony of English is particularly problematic, and I think we all recognize that," says marine biologist and ocean educator Asha de Vos in a moving presentation calling out colonial systems (Photo: IISD/ENB/Anastasia Rodopoulou)
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Uncovering, understanding and reducing inequities in the marine space

IMPAC5 was characterized by the presence of incredible ocean leaders. But something else stood out: those that weren’t present. Numerous brilliant scientists and conservation leaders couldn’t get visas to travel to Canada because of the countries they come from. This visible absence raised an important question: which voices get elevated in the ocean discourse? And which perspectives are lost?

“What we have to recognize and acknowledge is that we work in a very, very flawed system, one that is designed to support and uplift individuals who have access to experiences and resources that enable those experiences that people like myself in the global South can only really dream of,” said Sri Lankan marine biologist and ocean educator Asha de Vos in her keynote speech. “Many times, due to visa delays, I’ve had to sit out expeditions and important meetings that would have benefited from my perspective, presence and voice.”

De Vos asked delegates to reflect on the barriers faced by scientists in the global South and other underrepresented communities on the global stage, such as lower pay, discrimination against languages that aren’t English or western scientists undermining, or taking credit for, the work done by local people. “You have to be twice as good to be half as accepted. It is exhausting. In some cases, these hurdles have derailed the careers of good people that could help us to make a difference for our planet.”

A woman with long dark hair laughs with a twinkle in her eye, against a background of blue and wooden accents.
“Martin Luther King didn't start his speech by saying, ‘I have a nightmare,’” laughs marine biologist and conservation photographer Cristina Mittermeier. “He told us what the dream was.” (Photo: Abi Hayward/Can Geo)
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We can still celebrate accomplishments while asking “yes, and?”

“Martin Luther King didn’t start his speech by saying, ‘I have a nightmare,’” quipped marine biologist and conservation photographer Cristina Mittermeier after her IMPAC5 keynote speech. “He told us what the dream was.”

The point being, there’s a tendency to focus on the negative, or what remainsto be done in ocean conservation. As UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean Peter Thompson pointed out in his own keynote, it’s easy to get depressed, but there’s a lot to celebrate too. “Last year was a really big year for the ocean,” he pointed out.

Megan Leslie agrees on the need to pause to celebrate achievement, reflecting on how she felt immediately after the Kunming-Montreal Agreement came out of COP15: “Hey, hang on. Actually, this is a big deal. Let us just celebrate it. And tomorrow… tomorrow we’re going to wake up and we’re going to say ‘yes, and?’

“I know people are leaving [IMPAC5 feeling], inspired, rejuvenated,” she added. “I know they’re leaving with new ideas, with fire in the belly.”


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