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Finding the Arctic’s most important marine habitats

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This article is reprinted from The Circle 4.14. Jake Rice is the Chief Scientist for Canada’s Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans, providing advice for international and domestic marine policy and management, including the EBSA process.

Developing scientific criteria for determining ecologically or biologically significant areas (EBSAs) was one of the key components of Canada’s plans to implement the Oceans Act in 1997. These criteria highlight waters that may have high functional significance for species that use the area; are fragile or highly vulnerable to perturbation; serve as centres of aggregation for populations; or are otherwise exceptionally diverse or productive. These criteria have since been applied to all of Canada’s marine areas and are proving to be of value in freshwater systems as well.

Initial meetings to apply the criteria in the more southern areas of Canada’s Atlantic and Pacific oceans relied primarily on extensive and spatially resolved sets of systematically-collected scientific data sets. When attention turned to the Beaufort Sea and Arctic Archipelago there were fewer such data sets, and their coverage was often limited in space and time. DFO turned to social scientists who worked with Elders and long-time residents of the Canadian North to record knowledge of areas of ecological or biological significance in ways that were culturally respectful and directly usable in the expert meetings for those two Arctic marine areas. The process for meeting and collecting this knowledge took time, but no more time than consolidating all the data sets of oceanographic and biological information in other areas. Some EBSAs were indeed recognized based on “scientific” data sets from remote sensing or ship-based surveys of ocean productivity, current patterns, and ice conditions, or by technologies for tracking tagged animals. Many others were identified based on Inuit and Aboriginal knowledge of migration routes of marine mammals and where they bred, fed, and overwintered, or areas where they have long fished or found seabirds. Often the available scientific data and knowledge of the Indigenous people worked in complementary ways to highlight the areas that were most significant on one or several of the criteria. Maps of all the EBSAs that have been identified are available here, along with rationales for each one.

The process of identifying the EBSAs focused on information-sharing and objectively using the knowledge from all sources to identify the areas that best reflected the pre-adopted criteria. The maps and justifications of EBSAs that were produced are rich in information. But maps are only maps until they are used as a resource for planning and management. This is where we are seeing concrete evidence that the time invested in creating them was time well spent.

Maps are only maps until they are used as a resource for planning and management.


First of all, in the process of applying the criteria, we learned some things about EBSAs that had not been grasped before. In the Arctic, many of the areas found to be ecologically or biologically significant got much of their significance from the position and nature of the ice front, which of course moves seasonally. For the first time, the meetings delineated EBSA boundaries that might have encompassed the entire area covered by the ice edge from its winter maximum to its summer minimum. But the justifications stress that within those larger boundaries, the features that made the area special would be found in association with the smaller subarea where the ice edge was located at any particular time. Importantly, the management implication of that situation was spelled out. In planning for activities that involve permanent built infrastructure, the entire area in the EBSA boundary needs to be considered as requiring particularly risk-averse management. In planning for activities which are inherently mobile, such as ecotourism or fishing, risk-averse management is still needed, but should be focused on the much smaller sub-area where the ice front is located at the time the activity is occurring. Since the Arctic EBSA workshops, this way of thinking about different kinds of EBSAs has spread to oceans all over the world, at is applies equally well to important features like oceanographic fronts.

So we now have these maps of EBSAs and their individual justifications. Are they making a difference? The short answer is that it is too soon to tell. Planning for uses and, where appropriate, protection of the Arctic is an ongoing process. Plans such as the Integrated Ocean Management Plan for the Beaufort Sea make extensive use of the results of the EBSA identification process in developing the plan. However that Plan is still fairly high level, implementing the concepts is another piece of work. What, if anything, ends up being different in the EBSAs versus other parts of the Arctic remains to be seen. Importantly though, the EBSAs are part of all the discussions for other topics such as Marine Protected Area networks in the Arctic, the routing of shipping, tourism etc. Having the information systematically available is already helping. As the EBSA identification process spreads to the rest of the Arctic, and as information accumulates and areas are reviewed, it can only get better.

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