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Haida Gwaii waters and seabed to be protected

The federal government has announced plans to expand protection for an area off British Columbia’s northern coast known among conservationists as the "Galapagos of the North."

The spectacular islands that make up Haida Gwaii have long been protected within Gwaii Haanas national park, but for years that protection stopped at the beach.

Now the federal government says it will protect a 3,500-square kilometre area covering the waters and seabed surrounding the archipelago formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands.

Environment Minister Jim Prentice tabled an amendment on Monday to formally establish the area as Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site.

Prentice said the amendment marks the first time a national marine conservation area has been established under the Canadian National Marine Conservation Areas Act, a move hailed by some environmental groups as landmark progress.

"Today's milestone is the result of an historic and outstanding collaborative partnership between the Government of Canada and the Haida Nation," Prentice said in a written statement.

"As our maritime nation prepares to celebrate World Oceans Day (Tuesday), I am sincerely proud of Canada’s international leadership in protecting one of the most spectacular and wild seascapes in our country."

The heritage site will extend about 10 kilometres offshore from the existing Gwaii Haanas park reserve, in an area that’s home to blue whales, endangered Steller sea lions, songbirds and corals.

The existing park and new conservation areas will protect more than 5,000 square kilometres of wilderness in all, from mountain tops to the deep sea. That’s a first not only for Canada, but also the world.

"This is a changing of the tides," said Guujaw, president of the Haida Nation.

Guujaw added it’s critical to "appreciate the fragile and precious nature of our marine areas" and to "look after and restore our oceans." The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society also applauded the move, which it said was reached after two decades of discussion.

"The spectacular Gwaii Haanas islands were protected years ago. But sadly, protecting its ocean took much longer," said Sabine Jessen, the organization’s oceans program manager.

"CPAWS has long advocated for the conservation of the waters of Gwaii Haanas because they are so rich ecologically."

Jessen congratulated the Haida for their vision to conserve the waters and for persevering in the long years of discussions and study by the federal government.

She added all parties must give their consent if the order-in-council is to be finalized before the parliamentary session adjourns for the summer.

The region is famous for the culture of the Haida, whose black and red art and traditional drumming and dance have become synonymous with West Coast First Nations culture.

Haida Gwaii, which means Islands of the People in the local language, was also an inspiration for artist Emily Carr, whose renderings on canvas of Haida totem poles have etched them into history.

Darcy Dobell, vice-president of Pacific conservation with World Wildlife Federation Canada, also applauded the announcement.

"We’re definitely excited about the designation," she said. "It’s definitely a landmark for oceans management."

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