Protected Areas

Status and Trends

status for terrestrial good; improvements in representation continue

Healthy, improving at a slow to moderate rate

status for marine poor; progress in identifying areas for protection

Impaired, improving at a slow to moderate rate

trends are clear

High confidence in finding

KEY FINDING 8. Both the extent and representativeness of the protected areas network have increased in recent years. In many places, the area protected is well above the United Nations 10% target. It is below the target in highly developed areas and the oceans.

This key finding is divided into four sections:

Protected areas are usually set aside to protect biodiversity or cultural resources.1 While some protected areas are managed exclusively for biodiversity, others allow recreational opportunities and still others allow resource use under management regimes that do not jeopardize the long-term sustainability of the natural environment. Protected areas are important because they provide places where ecological processes can evolve, refuges for species at risk, and repositories of genetic material. They also provide opportunities for recreation, spiritual renewal, and the conservation of places of cultural value. Protected areas are one tool for the protection of biodiversity. Sustainable management outside protected areas is equally important.


Global Trends

More than 12% of the world’s land and 5.9% of territorial seas are in protected areas. Protected areas are not distributed evenly. Fifty-six percent of global terrestrial ecoregions and 18% of the marine ecoregions have reached the 10% protected areas benchmark set by the Convention on Biological Diversity.3







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Terrestrial protected areas

Millions km2, 1885 to May 2009
Graph:  terrestrial protected areas. Click for graphic description (new window).
Note: the green dot is the total area protected, including protected areas with unknown dates of establishment.
Source: Environment Canada, 20092



Canada’s terrestrial protected areas network has increased steadily since 1992, when the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity was signed. As of May 2009, 4,826 protected areas, covering 9.4% (939,993 km2) of the land base, had been designated.2 This includes: some very old parks, such as Banff National Park, created in 1885 and covering 6,641 km2; areas of international significance, such as Queen Maude Gulf Bird Sanctuary, covering 63,024 km2 of Arctic tundra and marshes; and smaller areas representative of unique and endangered ecosystems, such as Point Pelee National Park, covering 15 km2 in southeastern Ontario, with many at-risk species representative of the Carolinian forest. Protected areas established after May 2009, such as the expansion of Nahanni National Park Reserve from 4,766 km2 to over 30,000 km2, are not included in this analysis.

The majority (68%) of the protected areas in Canada are managed primarily for conservation of ecosystems and natural and cultural features. Over 1,500 protected areas (31%) have also been dedicated for sustainable use by established cultural tradition.2

Photo: bowhead whales in Isabella Bay, Baffin Island, Nunavut © A.P. Taylor
Bowhead whales in Isabella Bay, Baffin Island, Nunavut

National wildlife areas in Nunavut

National Wildlife Areas protect nationally significant habitat for migratory birds, support species or ecosystems at risk, or protect rare or unusual habitat. Critical natural features are conserved and activities considered harmful to species or habitats are prohibited. Three new National Wildlife Areas were created in Nunavut in June 2010 to protect critical habitat for Arctic seabirds, bowhead whales, and other species. They will be co-managed by local and federal governments, and were chosen based on advocacy and involvement from the communities of Qikiqtarjuak and Clyde River.9

Photo: Akpait National Wildlife Area © Garry DonaldsonAkpait National Wildlife Area (774 km2) is an important area for migratory birds. It provides breeding habitat for one of Canada’s largest thick-billed murre colonies, black-legged kittiwakes, glaucous gulls, and black guillemots. It is also home to polar bears, walruses, and several species of seals.9

Qaqulluit National Wildlife Area (398 km2) is home to Canada’s largest colony of northern fulmars, representing an estimated 22% of the total Canadian population. Marine animals, including walrus and ringed seals, also use the waters of this National Wildlife Area.9 Ninginganiq National Wildlife Area (Isabella Bay) (336 km2) protects critical summer habitat for the eastern Arctic population of bowhead whales, a Threatened species.9

B.C. north and central coast-land use plan

Photo: North Coast grizzly © A.S. Wright

In one of the largest coordinated land-use planning efforts on record, B.C. and the majority of First Nations of the North and Central Coast, along with industry, environmental, and community leaders, agreed in 2007 to a unique management approach for 64,000 km2 of the B.C. coast.10 Vast areas of temperate coastal rainforest have now been protected, including the largest intact temperate rainforest left on earth, home to thousands of species of plants, birds, and animals. The land-use planning agreement protects more than 30% of the land in 114 protected areas and recommends low-impact logging regulations that will conserve 50% of the natural range of old-growth forests outside of the protected areas. Applying this management approach recognizes the critical role played by land outside protected areas in the conservation of biodiversity. An adaptive management framework is in place to monitor, learn from, and improve the management of this area on an ongoing basis.

Freshwater protected areas

In general, the protection of freshwater has not been a focus of protected area efforts, with the exception of Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area, the largest freshwater protected area in the world. Located in the Canadian part of the Great Lakes, it consists of approximately 10,000 km2 of lakebed and associated shoreline and 60 km2 of islands and mainland.2

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Photo: stellar sea lions © Environment Canada
Stellar sea lions

Marine Protected Areas

Thousand km2, 1885 to May 2009
Graph: marine protected areas. Click for graphic description (new window).
Source: Environment Canada, 20092

Approximately 45,280 km2 (0.6%) of Canada’s oceans are protected.2 Although many protected areas on Canada’s coasts have marine components, the designation of specific marine protected areas is more recent. This includes some marine areas of global significance, such as the Gully Marine Protected Area, the largest underwater canyon in eastern North America, situated 200 km off the coast of Nova Scotia, and the Bowie Seamount, a large submarine volcano 180 km west of Haida Gwaii, B.C.

Gwaii Haanas Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site

Gwaii Haanas Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site is Canada’s newest marine protected area, covering 3,500 km2 of water and seabed. With the adjacent Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, a contiguous protected area of 5,000 km2 now extends from the alpine tundra of the mountaintops, through the temperate rainforest, to the deep ocean beyond the continental shelf. The marine area is noted for its diverse and unique ecosystems, which include deep-sea coral reefs, kelp forests, and eelgrass meadows. Nearly 3,500 marine species dwell in this area, including economically important fish and shellfish, breeding populations of seabirds, and marine mammals such as whales, dolphins, and sea lions. The area will be cooperatively managed by the Haida Nation and the federal government.4, 5

The Gully Marine Protected Area

The Gully, comprising an area of 2,364 km2, is located offshore of Nova Scotia, near Sable Island. Its ecological significance is well established and includes the highest known diversity of coral in Atlantic Canada, 14 species of marine mammals, including the endangered Scotian Shelf population of northern bottlenose whales, and a wide variety of fish, seabirds, and bottom-dwelling animals.6, 7 The Gully is managed using a zonation system that protects the deep water from all extractive activities, allows some fishing in the canyon head and sides, feeder canyons, and on the continental slope, and allows activities in the adjacent sand banks if they do not disrupt the ecosystem beyond natural variability.8

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Distribution and size of protected areas

Canada’s protected areas do not meet the Convention on Biological Diversity’s target to protect 10% of each of the world’s ecological regions. Although some terrestrial ecozones+ have greater than 10% protected, others, such as the Prairies and Mixedwood Plains, have a low percent protected, even though they have some of the highest biodiversity values in the country. No marine ecozones+ have 10% protected. The use of conservation corridors to enhance the biodiversity value of current protected areas in a fragmented landscape is an important and more recent conservation tool.

Map: percent area protected by ecozone+. Click for graphic descriptor (new window).

* 7% of the Taiga Shield Ecozone+ (eastern and western portions) is protected.
Source: Environment Canada, 20092

Size of terrestrial protected areas

Number and area of protected areas by size category
Graph: size of terrestrial protected areas. Click for graphic descriptor (new window).
Source: Environment Canada, 20092

Large protected areas are generally believed to have the greatest conservation value for the widest range of biodiversity. Less than 1% of Canada’s protected areas are larger than 5,000 km2, but these large areas comprise 59% of the total area protected. The 3% of protected areas larger than 1,000 km2 comprise 82% of the total area protected. In some places, adjacent protected areas create large protected area complexes. One of several examples is the Tatshenshini-Alsek/Kluane/Glacier Bay/Wrangell-St. Elias complex, which exceeds 98,000 km2 and crosses B.C., Yukon, and Alaska.

Small protected areas have a role in protecting rare species or species requiring specialized habitat. They can also serve as links between larger reserves. Most (72%) of the protected areas in Canada are less than 10 km2 in size. Altogether these small protected areas contribute less than 1% to the total area protected.


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