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Casting the bottom line on the blue planet

Ed B. Wiken, Chairman,
Canadian Council on Ecological Areas (CCEA)

In search of a safe passage...

A ship's supremacy on the sea is not always set
By the might of her cannons,
Or by the mass of her sails,
But by the skills of those who guide
her through.

The Blue Planet

It isn't until you stand back and view the world from space that you understand why so many people call the Earth the Blue Planet. The Seven Seas of antiquity embrace much of the world's surface. Canada's land mass ends at the margins of three of these great seas: the Atlantic Ocean in the east; the Pacific Ocean in the west, and the Arctic Ocean in the north.

The coasts, islands, fjords, and inlets against which these ancient seas roll are enormous. At over 243,000 kilometers, no other country in the world has more coastlines. As a result, Canada is known the world over as a Maritime Nation. But large numbers of Canadians have never seen the oceans, smelled the salt air, nor dealt with the fortunes and perils of a maritime navigation.

500 years ago, brothers John and Sebastian Cabot, sailed across the North Atlantic for King Henry VII of England. They didn't know that the Vikings had already abandoned these shores 500 years before them. Equally, they did not know that many European nations would come after them to further explore and exploit the bays, rivers, coves, and channels that surround Canada. And yet it was the navigational skill of the Cabot brothers — their ability to sail the seas and sound the shoals in uncharted waters — that set the stage for 500 years of settlement, exploration, and exploitation of the very land so many of us take for granted today.

Charting a Different Course

The theme of this year's conference of the Canadian Council on Ecological Areas is "Protected Areas and the Ecological Bottom Line." We all know that the bottom line is commonly thought of as an accounting term. It essentially means the real cost of producing something — after we subtract the expenses. But there is another meaning to the bottom line that has some significance as a metaphor for what we do at this conference.

Casting a bottom line was a common practice on early sailing ships. An ordinary seaman would go to the forward position on the ship's bow. From there, he would be responsible for looking ahead for obstacles as well as casting his lead-weighted line into the depths. Soundings from his bottom-line combined with his intuition and observations were vital forms of information that were conveyed to the ship's captain and helmsman to direct the ship's course through unknown waters, reefs, and shoals.

The use and understanding of that information kept the ship off the rocks, ensured the safety of the crew and delivery of the cargo goods. The water's depth, the occurrence of shoals, and the location of sandbars were features of nature that needed to be recognized and acted upon. They were fundamental characteristics of navigation that had to be considered. Ignoring them often meant trouble or disaster — from a hole in the ship to a lost ship.

Land and Sea

Although the Seas of Antiquity were the "information superhighways" of their day, TERRA FIRMA — the land that we live on — is what captures and keeps most people's day-to-day attention. For centuries, we have been exploring and exploiting our ecosystems, soils, forests, wildlife, and natural resources. In recent years, we have started to understand how our behavior over the decades has affected terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.

But we have yet to discover a bottom line — a depth sounder if you like — that will help us find safe passage to a haven of sustainable resources and life sustaining systems.

What is the bottom-line reading on our scientific knowledge and assessment skills? What is the bottom-line reading on resource use, protection, and conservation? What is the bottom-line reading on ecosystem health and integrity? These questions are complex and progress in answering them is tasking and burdensome on us all.

For centuries, we believed that the wilderness, seascapes, landscapes, and resources of Canada or, indeed, elsewhere were inexhaustible. It was admittedly a comfortable thought for most but perhaps lucrative conceit as well. In Canada, we saw land and forests that stretched beyond imagination. Incomprehensible amounts of fresh water. Fish we could scoop out of the sea in baskets. People could not believe that too many trees could be cut, too many fish could be harvested, too much land could be converted to farms and urban areas or too much water could be diverted! After all, we literally had more natural resources than we knew what to do with.

Today, Canada is still acknowledged for its magnitude and diversity. But we Canadians can no longer take this wealth for granted. Our one-time conceit and confidence about the boundlessness of resources, natural areas, and healthy ecosystems are unravelling.

The Horizon and Beyond

Many agreements have been reached and principles set on less restrictive approaches to bottom lines. Dialogues, critiques, and assessments have been important in this process. Progress has been achieved not by conservation groups alone nor by industry or governments alone. Governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and industry have merged more closely owing to common needs and ground. In the last decade, this has been exemplified by the principles behind agreements such as:

They have all pointed to the growing realization that some other form of harmony must be reached.

Finding the ecological bottom line is a challenge. It can:

Perhaps most importantly, understanding the bottom line in the realm of ecology can help us prevent problems that we might not wish to live with either today or in the future.

Often, an overriding concern is the impact on "future generations." This is not restricted to people. It applies to impending generations of other species, of existing and emerging types of ecosystems, and of basic resources like air, water, and soils. By studying how we interact within and rely on natural and human-modified ecosystems — we can help predict what our ecological impacts may be. Understanding the bottom line in ecology can help us understand what we must do to attain and retain sustainability.

With sustainable resource use, ecosystem integrity, and ecosystem management, many organizations and people currently see the attraction behind these notions but not the achievements. The passageways for them have not been mapped that clearly. We do not have charts showing every reef and rock nor every safe channel. So welcome to the CCEA's New Brunswick conference!

Seamen, Helmsmen and Captains

Seamen, helmsmen and captains — these are orders of rank but not of importance. This is a subtlety that many have missed. We have expected the CEOs of industry, the ADMs of government departments and Chancellors of universities to be the captains of the fleet and command ships like HMS Ecology and HMS Sustainable Development. This is an odd expectation when we intuitively know that the success of a voyage is very much dependent on the entire crew. Many of us attending the conference, in effect, fulfil the roles of seamen—some ordinary seaman and some leading seamen.

We have all been exposed to different experiences. Assessing and reporting on ecosystem degradation and depletion in Canada's oceans, arctic, grasslands, and forests have been essentially negative experiences. We have seen parallels in countries like the United States, Mexico, and Africa. A refreshing counterbalance of sorts has been initiatives like model forests, new commitments to protected area plans, ecological science centers, state-of-the-environment reporting, and integrated regional planning. They have provided a better foundation for applying and ensuring an ecological approach. Unfortunately while resource/ecosystem degradation and depletion continue in both different and rather widespread forms, the positive initiatives `come and go' without any sustained and widespread application. This situation is a problem!

Finding the ecological bottom line is of mutual interest. It isn't a case of just setting aside protected areas but rather acknowledging the total value and importance of our ecosystems, terrestrial or aquatic. Some view protected areas as the anchoring points or safe havens of the ecosphere. Between these spots are the seaways of commerce, the ports providing traditional goods and services, the tour boats and recreation ventures, and everything else necessary for our well being.

"How good are our navigational skills, the charts we employ, and the directions we set?"— that is the ecological bottom line.

Canada's Marine Ecosystems: Basic Geographical Measurements and Protected Area Considerations

By Ed B. Wiken
Chair, CCEA
Ottawa, Ontario
H1H 5Y9


and Harold Moore, President
Gregory Geoscience
Kanata, Ontario

Marine and Terrestrial Ecosystems in Canada

Usually, we speak of 'land' or 'sea' rather than 'land and sea'. Land is far easier to understand as it is typically all around us and we can more readily view the parts and differences of terrestrial ecosystems. For the sea, this is not so. There are many barriers to scientific investigations. The vastness of Canada's sea areas makes it inconvenient for most of us to travel to different surface locations. Our ability to study and monitor the basic ecological character of marine systems is obscured by the fathoms of water which mask the depths. Beyond obstacles like this, however, what are some of the fundamental land/sea differences?

At the macro scale, we have 20 major ecosystems in Canada. Fifteen are associated with the land and five with the sea (Figure 1). In a legal and territorial sense, Canada's land area is 9 215 430 km² (Table 1); this is in effect a figure that really covers land as well as freshwater bodies like rivers, ponds, and lakes. How large is the seascape in comparison? It is surprisingly about 60% as large, being 5 543 913 km². This marine area is over ten times the size of France or five and a half times the size of the province of Ontario.

Comparison of land and sea areas within Canada's ecozones

Canada's Marine and Terrestrial Ecozones

Canada's Marine Limits

Some of the marine area figures are striking. For instance, the Pacific Marine Ecozone or B.C.'s Pacific Ocean system adds up to 8.3% — a figure that is much lower than most people expect. What is often forgotten is that only the lower half of British Columbia has ocean access and the upper portion of the province is really cut off by the protrusion of the Alaskan Panhandle. In contrast to the West Coast, the arctic-based marine ecosystems (i.e., #17 & #18) are overwhelmingly high. The Arctic Archipelago Ecozone surrounding the main set of arctic islands alone amounts to nearly 40% of the nation's oceanic territory. In addition to being large, it is rather unique in the entire arctic ecosystem setting. Unlike anywhere else in the circumpolar arctic, the marine waters here form an extensive lattice of aquatic ecosystems in and amongst the largest set of arctic islands in the north. This land/water interface provides a favored habitat for species like polar bears. The Arctic Basin Ecozone comprises the icefast oceanic barrens in Canada's far northeast. As a wetland often represents a transition between true water bodies and land, this marine ecozone is a hybrid, having attributes of landscapes and seascapes.

About 8% of the 15 terrestrial ecozones has been protected in IUCN classes 1-6. In comparison, work to protect and conserve marine ecosystems has been rather negligible to date. Heritage Canada (Parks) and the government of British Columbia have been quite successful in initiating a variety of actions in the Pacific Marine Ecozone. Elsewhere, Environment Canada - Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) has been the most progressive organization, conserving over 2 918 891 ha through Migratory Bird Sanctuaries and 174 673 hectares as National Wild Areas. Many of the protected areas lie within arctic ecozones. The new legislation (i.e., Oceans Act) under the Department of Fisheries and Oceans offers further opportunities for expanding a network of marine protected areas.

Twelve and Two Hundred Mile Limits

Perhaps the two most commonly cited jurisdictional areas in marine literature are the 12- and 200-nautical-mile limits. These two areas have specific implications with regard to the mechanisms that are available to encourage the establishment and regulation of marine protected areas. Owing to historical settlements on international borders, to resolution of boundaries through recent international disputes, and to peculiar interpretations of legal definitions, the resulting tabulations according to these two jurisdictions are rather different than might be anticipated.

The split between the 12- and 200-mile limit is almost exactly 50:50 (Table 2). How can this be so? Hudson Bay, a circular body of marine water in the heart of Canada, is over 500 miles in diameter. Parts of this Bay you would assume would fall within the 12- and 200-nautical-mile limits. Areas like this are considered to be part of Canada's 'internal marine waters' and thus, legally and technically, within the 12-mile limit.

Under the Canadian Wildlife Act, National Wildlife Areas (NWA) can be established on land and marine (within the 12-mile limit) areas. Under the same act, within the 12- to 200-nautical-mile limits, a different mechanism comes into place — Marine Wildlife Areas (MWA). In about half of Canada's marine waters, the CWS could consider protecting special and endangered wildlife areas under the designation of a NWA and as a MWA in the other half. As the 12- to 200-mile ratios indicate, the NWA mechanism likely has less importance in the Atlantic Marine and Arctic Basin Ecozones.

The jurisdictional areas and coastline lengths of marine ecozones


Measuring coastlines is always dependent upon factors like the scale of the base map and the physical geography. The more detailed the map base becomes, the more likely it is that coastline details can be properly measured and represented. In coastal areas like Labrador, eastern Baffin Island and British Columbia, moving from 1:1 000 000 to 1:250 000 baseline maps makes a marked difference. Values measured in Labrador would increase by a factor of three. On smooth, lined coasts that have few islands like southern coastline of Hudson Bay, the differences in coastline measurement may jump by just an increment of 1.5.

Measured at intermediate scales like 1:500 000 / 1:250 000, Canada has over 243 795 kilometers of coastline. The earth's circumference is a mere 12, 756 kilometers or 19 times smaller than the nation's coastline. About 65% of the coastline is connected to the Arctic Archipelago Ecozone; another 19.4% is included in the Northwest Atlantic Ecozone. The tortuous fjords and myriad islands provide for a diverse range of coastlines in these two ecozones.

The mesh of land and freshwater bodies is an integral part of both landscape ecosystems and terrestrially based conservation areas. In the ocean setting, the coastlines and open seas are the interwoven and vital elements of marine ecosystems and protected areas. The sea cliffs, coastal islands, bays, fjords, nearshore areas, and beaches are indirect synonyms for 'coastline'. They are important in the overall life cycle of many marine organisms (e.g., birds, mammals, crustaceans) and systems. They act as sites for colonies, perching, denning, rearing of young, foraging, resting, and refuge.

Ecosystems and Jurisdictions

The traditional protected area programs throughout Canada are built upon different forms of intellectual scaffolding. Some emphasize ecosystem representation, some productive wildlife habitats, some forest types, some scientific reserves, and so on. However, in common, they tend to work through windows based on jurisdictional frameworks that are driven by legal mandates or by provincial, territorial or national boundaries. For the newer efforts which will be devoted to marine areas, the breakdown by political jurisdictions is interesting (Table 3).

Jurisdictional breakdown of coastlines

The coastline span of the Northwest Territories dominates the figures. The largest length of coastline, the largest amount of marine waters and the relatively weak understanding of marine systems overall, places a great deal of responsibility on northern jurisdictions and ecosystems. Newfoundland and British Columbia are also tasked by their wealth of shorelines. At the federal level, departments such as Environment (Canadian Wildlife Service), Heritage Canada (Parks) and Fisheries and Oceans Canada have responsibilities that transcend all of these coastal areas.

Moving Ahead

“It used to be green side up!” This expression is sometimes used to describe the state of Canada's terrestrial ecosystems. In the southern latitudes, the expression has some sense of truth. The Prairie Ecozone, for example, has undergone extensive alteration because of agricultural activities (e.g., farming, ranching, feedlots) to the point that native greenery is all but gone. Unfortunately ecosystems like this were highly valued as a farmscape long before protected areas gained wider currency as a value of equivalent status. What quote will eventually summarize our progress with marine areas?

Some of the earliest work on promoting a national and inclusive system of marine protected areas was done in the late 1980s and reported in the Council's Occasional Paper No. 9. As little has been done to strategize a system for establishing a comprehensive network of marine protected areas until recently, the diversity in organizations with capabilities to implement such a system is opportune. With the downsizing and resource reductions that seem to be universally applied across governments, a great deal of synergy will be required to have timely and meaningful actions. The CCEA as well as many other environmental non-government organizations (ENGOs), scientific groups, and concerned individuals welcome the initiatives and leadership that federal and provincial departments/ministries have undertaken.

Background Literature

Brown, C. (Ed.). The Illustrated History of Canada. Lester & Orpen Dennys Limited, Toronto, Canada. ISBN 0-88619-147-5. 575 p.

Biodiversity Science Assessment Team. 1994. Biodiversity in Canada: A Science Assessment. ISBN 0-662-22458-2. Minister of Supply and Services Canada. Ottawa, Ontario K1A OH3. 245 p.

Gauthier, D. , Kavanagh, K., Beechey, T., Goulet, L., and Wiken, E. 1992. A Strategy for Developing a Nation-wide System of Ecological Areas. Occasional Paper No. 12. CCEA Secretariat. Ottawa, Ontario K1A OH3. 39 p.

Government of Canada. 1991. Chapter 1. Where We Live: The Ecosphere. In State of the Environment Report. . Minister of Supply and Services, Ottawa, Ontario K1A OS9. ISBN 0-660-14237-6. Pp. 1-1 to1-17

Government of Canada. 1996. Chapter 1. Understanding Interdependencies. In State of the Environment Report of the Conserving Canada's Natural Legacy. CD ROM. Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada. Ottawa, Ontario K1A OE7.

Graham, R. (Ed.). 1990. Marine Ecological Areas in Canada. CCEA Occasional Paper No. 9. Canadian Council on Ecological Areas. Ottawa, Ontario. K1A OE7.

IUCN/UNEP/WWF (International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, United Nations Environment Programme, World Wildlife Fund). 1980. World Conservation Strategy: Living Resource Conservation for Sustainable Development. Gland, Switzerland.

IUCN/UNEP/WWF (World Conservation Union, United Nations Environment Programme, World Wide Fund for Nature). 1991. Caring for the Earth: a Strategy for Sustainable Living. Gland, Switzerland. 228 pp.

Wiken, E.B., and Lawton, K. 1995. North American Protected Areas: An Ecological Approach to Reporting and Analysis. Hancock, Michigan. The George Wright Forum 12: (1): 25-33.

Wiken, E. 1996. Ecosystems: frameworks for thought. In IUCN World Conservation 1/96. CH-1196 Gland, Switzerland.

Wiken, E.B. 1997. State of the Environment Reporting in Canada and North America: An Overview of the Concepts and Applications. In Proceedings of the First National Workshop on the State of the Environment Reporting Workshop. SOER Occasional Paper No. 1. ISBN: 0-7974-1744-3. Government of the Republic Zimbabwe. Ministry of Environment and Tourism. Harare, Zimbabwe. pp. C13-C18

Wiken, E.B., Gauthier, D., Marshall, I.B., Hirvonen, H., and Lawton, K. 1997. A Perspective on Canadian Ecosystems: the Terrestrial and Marine Ecozones. Canadian Council on Ecological (CCEA) Occasional Paper No. 14. Ottawa, Ontario. K1A OE7 Canada

Zurbrigg, E.J. 1996. Towards an Environment Canada Strategy for Coastal and Marine Protected Areas. Canadian Wildlife Service, Environment Canada. K1A OH3. 35 p.


Thanks to Ken Lawton, the CCEA Executive (D. Gauthier, L. Warren, M. Gorman, J. Loo, N. Lopoukhine, and B. Worbets) and Linda Wiken for their comments and input.