BC-MamalilikullaIPCAKnightsInlet-TheNarwhal-TaylorRoades-094

$335-million investment is building a sustainable economy in the Great Bear Sea

B.C. First Nations predict two decades of long-term funding will create 3,000 jobs and generate $750 million in investment

First Nations in coastal B.C. estimate they will create 3,000 jobs and generate $750 million in investment over the next 20 years by building up industries such as sustainable fisheries and renewable energy — supported by an investment of $335 million that was made official on Tuesday. 

The agreement, called the Great Bear Sea Project Finance for Permanence, includes 17 First Nations, the B.C. and federal governments and investors. It’s part of Canada’s previously announced $800-million commitment to invest in long-term funding for Indigenous-led conservation. The Great Bear Sea, also called the Northern Shelf Bioregion, is adjacent to the Great Bear Rainforest, a largely protected area on the central coast of B.C. that covers 6.4 million hectares.

Heiltsuk Chief Councillor and president of Coastal First Nations K`áwáziɫ (Marilyn Slett) said she’s excited some of the funding will go towards teaching Heiltsuk youth about the land and waters. The investment is intended to bolster First Nations stewardship over their waters.

“It’s being led by our communities, our communities are doing the work,” Slett said in an interview. “This is something that we’re really proud of.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a number of federal and provincial ministers attended a celebratory announcement in Vancouver on Tuesday morning.

“Today’s announcement is an important step in our governments’ efforts to collaborate on and advance Indigenous-led projects that will protect the health of our marine ecosystems for future generations. We will continue to work together with Indigenous and coastal communities from coast to coast to coast to ensure Canada’s marine and coastal areas remain healthy, clean and safe,” Trudeau said in a statement.

As part of the agreement, Coastal First Nations and Na̲nwak̲olas Council, two organizations that bring together member nations for collaboration, will provide administrative support, Coastal First Nations chief executive officer Christine Smith-Martin said. Coast Funds, an Indigenous-led conservation finance organization, will manage the funds. For Smith-Martin, the funding comes at a critical moment for the marine environment.

“We’re seeing this alarming decline of fish and wildlife and habitat, such as kelp forests. We’re losing key species of fish and shellfish such as crawfish, eulachon and abalone. Marine mammals such as whales in our communities are showing up on the shore, and a lot more than we would have anticipated, and dolphins and sea otters,” Smith-Martin said in an interview.

“We have an opportunity right now to make a difference.”

The 17 participating First Nations are Haida Nation, Gitga’at First Nation, Gitxaała Nation, Haisla Nation, Kitselas First Nation, Kitsumkalum Band, Metlakatla First Nation, Heiltsuk Nation, Kitasoo Xai’xais Nation, Nuxalk Nation, Wuikinuxv Nation, Da’naxda’xw-Awaetlala Nation, K’omoks First Nation, Kwiakah First Nation, Mamalilikulla First Nation, Tlowitsis Nation and Wei Wai Kum First Nation.

Three Mamalilikulla women stand on a muddy beach facing away from the camera towards the sea, wearing black and red button blankets on their backs.
In 2021 the Mamalilikulla First Nation, a signatory of the project finance for permanence agreement, declared the Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala (Lull Bay/Hoeya Sound) protected area in the southern corner of the Great Bear Sea. The protected area is part of a slew of Indigenous-led projects asserting Indigenous governance in the region. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

Funding comes as province grapples with transition to new economies

The investment will also support establishing the network of marine protected areas in B.C, announced by First Nations, the B.C. government and the federal government in February 2023. The network will be a mosaic of protected areas with individual management plans tailored to specific waters, communities and industries. It will eventually protect approximately 30,000 square kilometres — or 30 per cent of the Great Bear Sea — just under the size of Vancouver Island. According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 62 per cent of the proposed network is already protected.

Alternative economies are top of mind for First Nations partners in the Great Bear Sea, particularly on the heels of the federal government’s announcement of a ban on fish farms, which will come into effect in B.C. in 2029. However, Slett said this agreement is not connected to the transition away from fish farms and emphasized the protected areas network will not shut down commercial fishing. Management plans are being created in consultation with industry stakeholders, she said. 

“We understand the importance of fisheries,” she said. “Our people have depended on [fisheries] for an economy. The work we’re doing here is about being able to sustain that economy into the future.”

Marilyn Slett in a black shirt and silver necklace, with her black hair blowing in the wind looking to the right. Behind her, an overcast sky, mountains and ocean are in the background
Heiltsuk elected Chief Councillor K`áwáziɫ (Marilyn Slett) says the long-term funding is key to fulfilling their vision of a network of marine protected areas in the Great Bear Sea. Photo: Louise Whitehouse / The Narwhal

Many salmon populations in the province have plummeted, which scientists attribute to a multitude of factors including warming waters and worsening drought, pollution and lice from fish farms and poor forestry practices that have degraded habitat. According to the Pacific Salmon Foundation, Fraser River sockeye have declined 54 per cent in the past decade. Skeena River sockeye have declined 75 per cent since 1913.

Salmon fisheries require a functioning ecosystem, Slett said.

“There’s a lot of work to do to bring the resources back into abundance so everybody can enjoy them.”

Funding will help complete a network of marine protected areas in B.C.

The project finance for permanence model has been around for almost two decades, with roots in the 2006 Great Bear Rainforest agreement. Also used in conservation projects in Brazil and Costa Rica, the model is designed to support large-scale, long-term projects. 

The initial funding of the Great Bear Rainforest, which included $120 million from conservation groups, philanthropists and provincial and federal governments, yielded significant economic and environmental benefits. “We protected vast areas of ancient temperate rainforests, created nearly 1,300 jobs, launched over 130 new businesses and raised household incomes across the region. And we were just getting started,” Dallas Smith, president of Na̲nwak̲olas Council, said in a statement.

A view of a small pier on a lush green coastline near Knights Inlet in the Great Bear Rainforest. Clouds hang low between the trees and obscure the sky.
The Great Bear Sea supports First Nations, commercial fisheries and a diversity of communities and wildlife. Seventeen First Nations reached terms of this agreement after two years of negotiations with investors and the provincial and federal governments. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

Smith-Martin said conservation funding in the Great Bear Rainforest allowed people to transition from careers in logging to other industries, such as eco-tourism.

Prime Minister Trudeau first announced this new investment in 2022, when Canada hosted the United Nations’ biodiversity conference in Montreal, committing $800 million in funding for four Indigenous-led conservation initiatives. Tuesday’s announcement celebrates the official signing of the agreement to invest in the Great Bear Sea.

A similar agreement between Indigenous and Canadian governments is almost finalized in the Northwest Territories, which would see at least $100 million invested in the Northwest Territories Project Finance for Permanence. According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, the funding could help governments double conserved areas in the territory, and contribute 2.5 per cent or more towards Canada’s commitment to protect 30 per cent of the country’s land and inland water by 2030.

Map shows a mosaic of separate marine protected areas along the coast, some which are proposed and some that are already existing.
The proposed marine protected area network will protect 30 per cent of the Great Bear Sea, also called the Northern Shelf Bioregion. Over half of the network is already in place. Photo: Fisheries and Oceans Canada

More than 5,000 marine protected areas exist around the world, protecting about eight per cent of oceans. They are considered critical for safeguarding biodiversity and protecting fragile ecosystems. 

Slett said long-term funding is key to completing the west coast network. Short-term funding is more widely available, but creates uncertainty for projects and people, as organizers must seek out renewals or new funding sources every few years.

“This will help our communities immensely,” Slett said.

Smith-Martin said when she travels for conferences, people around the world say they’re paying attention to agreements being reached in the province.

“It kind of took me aback when I was in New York to know that so many communities and so many different countries know about the work we’re doing here, not just in Canada, but specifically in British Columbia, which I think is something that we all should be very proud of,” she said.

Updated on June 26, 2024, at 1:15 p.m. PT: This story has been updated to clarify in a photo caption that both Hím̓ás Wigvilhba Wakas (Hereditary Chief Harvey Humchitt) and Dallas Smith, president of Na̲nwak̲olas Council, are pictured meeting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as the previous caption only identified one of the two leaders. It has also been updated to clarify that the Great Bear Rainforest is not protected entirely, but largely, through a mix of protections and sustainable management. And the headline has been updated to remove language stating the $335-million is entirely federal funding, when in fact it is from the B.C. and federal governments, as well as other investors.

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

Heat, humidity, wildfires: what the weather report reveals about your health risks

For many Canadians, the summer months are a precious reprieve from long, cold and dark winters. Summer is for barbecues and beach days, camping and...

Continue reading

Recent Posts

Our newsletter subscribers are the first to find out when we break a big story. Sign up for free →
An illustration, in yellow, of a computer, with an open envelope inside it with letter reading 'Breaking news.'
Our newsletter subscribers are the first to find out when we break a major investigation. Want in? Sign up for free to get the inside scoop on The Narwhal’s reporting on the natural world.
Hey, are you on our list?
An illustration, in yellow, of a computer, with an open envelope inside it with letter reading 'Breaking news.'
Our newsletter subscribers are the first to find out when we break a major investigation. Want in? Sign up for free to get the inside scoop on The Narwhal’s reporting on the natural world.
Hey, are you on our list?
An illustration, in yellow, of a computer, with an open envelope inside it with letter reading 'Breaking news.'