It’s Friday, February 10, and Canada is backing an Indigenous-declared marine refuge.

Google map showing the Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area at Gwaxdlala / Nalaxdlala

In November 2021, the Mamalilikulla First Nation declared a 40-square-mile patch of its land and water on the coast of British Columbia, Canada, to be an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area — a unilateral decision meant as a “constructive challenge” to Ottawa’s pledges to uphold the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Now, the Canadian government has officially recognized the marine portion of the Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area, naming it the first official marine refuge in the Northern Shelf Bioregion — an ecologically rich area covering about two-thirds of Canada’s west coast. The 8-square-mile marine refuge, located in a fjord roughly 150 miles northwest of Vancouver, is home to underwater sponges and rare corals and serves as an important throughway for salmon swimming upstream to spawn. Designating it a refuge makes it off-limits to commercial fishing. The change will help restore populations of salmon, rockfish, crab, and prawns throughout the watershed.

Joyce Murray, Canada’s minister of fisheries, oceans, and the coast guard, said the announcement was made possible by “close collaboration” with the Mamalilikulla, who the government drove from their villages over the course of the 20th century. “This is a significant achievement in Canada’s commitments to advance reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and protect important marine areas,” she said in a statement.

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The federal government is expected to recognize more marine protected areas — to be jointly governed by a group of 15 First Nations and provincial governments — as it pursues its target of protecting 30 percent of Canada’s oceans by 2030. (So far, Canada has protected some 14 percent of its marine areas.)

Mamalilikulla Chief Councillor Winidi (John Powell) welcomed the collaboration, saying it would have pleased his ancestors. “I think they would all be happy to see what we’re doing here today,” he said during an announcement event last weekend.

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