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Lessons from Atlantic Canada’s oldest marine protected area

This year, Atlantic Canada’s first marine protected area created under the Oceans Act became a teenager. But since marine protection in Canada is still so new, the 13-year-old Gully is considered one of the venerable grandmothers of our country’s marine protection efforts. And it’s an excellent example of what marine conservation can and should be. 

© Fisheries and Oceans Canada

The deep submarine canyon known as The Gully is about 200 kilometres off Nova Scotia to the east of Sable Island. The largest underwater canyon in this region of the North Atlantic, it’s 2.5 km deep, providing an unusual habitat for wildlife, including over 30 species of coral, the highest known diversity of corals in Atlantic Canada.  

Carnivorous sponge © Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Some of the corals clinging to its canyon walls are more than a thousand years old. The Gully’s strong currents bring up nutrients from the seabed, supporting millions of tiny plankton, which provide a lavish buffet for seals, birds, dolphins and whales. 

Fragile corals live deep in The Gully © Fisheries and Oceans Canada

The Gully is also home to a population of endangered Northern bottlenose whales. Unlike other bottlenose whale populations in the North Atlantic, this small sub-population of only about 140 individuals stays in the Gully and nearby Shortland and Haldimand canyons year-round. The biggest threats to their survival are being hit by ships or getting entangled in fishing gear. Because they use sound to navigate and communicate, they’re also affected by noise pollution from shipping, sonar and seismic testing. 

Northern bottlenose whale © Hilary Moors Murphy

To protect the bottlenose whales and other species, activities that increase underwater noise and shipping traffic, such as oil and gas exploration, are banned in the MPA. A large part of the MPA is also off-limits to fishing, which reduces the possibility of entanglements within certain zones. 

Atlantic white sided dolphins in The Gully © Fisheries and Oceans Canada

WWF-Canada championed strong protections for The Gully before it was protected in 2004, and our involvement continues to this day, as we sit on The Gully Advisory Committee, which provides advice to Fisheries and Oceans Canada regarding the management of the MPA. Atlantic Canada’s first MPA set a strong precedent for future marine protected areas in the region and beyond — a template that has, unfortunately, not always been followed. 

© Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Protection of The Gully was a significant milestone for oceans management in Atlantic Canada, and it’s the subject of a permanent exhibition at the Museum of Natural History in Halifax, N.S. The Gully showed us it was possible to create marine protected areas with regulations strong enough to protect their exceptional biodiversity. Future and proposed MPAs should follow its example.