Klemtu, Canada—On British Columbia’s Central Coast, a rare robust stock of Pacific herring can still be found in Kitasu Bay. Every March, herring inject their milky white roe into quiet bays, and wolves, bears, seals, and humpback whales descend to feast.

“Everything comes here to eat, including us,” said Ernest Vincent Mason, a hereditary chief of the Kitasoo Xai’xais First Nations and former fisherman.

But herring are in decline from overfishing, and that worries Mason, as do drops he’s observed in halibut, crab, prawn, herring, salmon, and abalone.

Those effects of commercial fishing are why the Kitasoo Xai’xais hereditary leadership took an unusual step in June 2022 and closed off the Kitasu Bay to outside fishing vessels by declaring it an Indigenous Marine Protected Area—an emerging model for conservation in Canada—while employing watchmen to protect it.

The Kitasoo Xai’xais declaration signals a shift in tactics in marine conservation. Sometimes referred to as Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas, these spaces can take many names and forms, but they usually include a long-term conservation framework and are grounded in Indigenous law, such as hereditary chiefs’ right to manage land and water.

Broadly speaking, the Canadian government is using Indigenous conservation efforts to meet the country’s targets of conserving 25 percent of land and marine areas by 2025 and 30 percent by 2030—minimum thresholds that scientists say are necessary to stem biodiversity loss.

The Kitasoo Xai’xais trace their ancestral roots to Kitasu Bay going back thousands of years and see the bay as important for biodiversity and food security. “We’re not doing it just for the sake of doing it,” said Mason about the nation’s reliance on fishing for basic sustenance. “There were fishermen coming into the bay, cleaning it out and leaving nothing for us.”

That can be dire in a place like Klemtu, which is only accessible by boat or air. Since the late 1980s, the town’s economy has been supported by Atlantic salmon fish farming, although tourism and conservation stewardship are both growing sectors. There’s a small grocery store, but otherwise food comes from the sea or by doing a grocery run that involves taking an overnight ferry to Vancouver Island.

The nation will retain its own herring roe operation, but close all other commercial and sports fishing “until such time that it starts overflowing,” said Mason.

But closing a bay is easier said than done.

Fishing licenses are set by the federal Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), not by First Nations, and so the Kitasoo Xai’xais have spent the past several months directly negotiating with some fisheries who access Kitasu Bay.

To their surprise, the negotiations are working.

Geoducks—pronounced “gooey ducks”—are large clams typically headed for Chinese and Japanese markets, and are a lucrative enterprise on the coast. A Kitasoo Xai’xais’ marine planning adviser estimates that Kitasu Bay yields about $2.2 million of geoduck.

The geoduck sector, via the Underwater Harvesters Association (UHA), said it was prepared to acknowledge the Kitasoo Xai’xais’ hereditary authority by withdrawing from Kitasu Bay—but asked that they be able to finish out this current season.

This concession on behalf of the UHA was important because legally protesting the fishery’s season was going to be challenging for the nation. The DFO had already granted fishing licenses by the time the Kitasoo Xai’xais announced their protected area.

The hereditary leadership reached a consensus to let the UHA finish their season.

“Let them fish—but after this there’ll be no more,” said Mason.

When asked about acknowledging the nation’s authority, representatives from the geoduck sector said it’s in the fishery’s best interest to work with First Nations and maintain good relations along the coast.

“These types of initiatives aren’t going away,” said Grant Dovey, the UHA executive director, about Indigenous and marine protected areas. “First Nations are key players at the table with recommendations for marine planning.”

More concerning for the UHA are the anticipated wider closures that they say could close off up to 40 percent of British Columbia’s coastline to commercial fishing.

On February 5, the federal Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), along with the British Columbia provincial government and 15 First Nations, including the Kitasoo Xai’xais, formally endorsed a plan almost two decades in the making to implement a string of marine protected areas by 2025 in British Columbia’s Northern Shelf Bioregion that stretches from the Canada-Alaska border down to the north of Vancouver Island.

The DFO’s endorsement for coast-wide marine protection and Indigenous knowledge was an important milestone for many.

“If we don’t protect these areas, nobody’s going to be fishing,” said DFO Minister Joyce Murray. “We need to make changes very quickly otherwise we’re not going to have food for sustenance,” she added.

The UHA said it hopes that when final zoning measures come into play, planners will see value in the geoduck fishing industry and not shut it out completely. Dovey said he hopes the First Nations will work with the UHA to still reach their ecological and cultural targets while mitigating impacts to the sector.

At COP15, the UN Biodiversity Conference held in December, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged $800 million CDN to support further Indigenous-led conservation in the region.

“It’s some pretty serious money,” said Douglas Neasloss, the Kitasoo Xai’xais elected chief councilor. “We’re excited about the way this endorses the work we’re doing in marine planning.“

To protect the bay and wider traditional territory, the Kitasoo Xai’xais First Nations employ Guardian Watchmen, a trained crew that patrols and stewards land and water.

“We’re there to stop the amount of poaching in the area, cause it’s our food source,” said watchman Matthew Danes. He added it’s rare to see federal and provincial enforcement agencies in the territory.

Along the coast, Guardian Watchmen programs have driven a lot of the data collection and indigenous science that’s fed into wider marine planning, such as regular crab and prawn surveys, or monitoring for compliance amongst industry.

“I just know I’m making my ancestors proud,” said Danes, “being part of this movement.”

In a historic move, BC Park Ranger status will be assigned to select Guardian Watchmen as part of a projected two-year pilot program, based on a memorandum of understanding signed in 2022 between the provincial government and the Kitasoo Xai’xais First Nation.

“They’re looking for that recognition that they’ve been there for thousands of years,” said Steven Hodgson, a BC Parks senior official, of the shared authority. “They are absolutely essential with monitoring and compliance activities within their territories.”

“That we were able to push the province to recognize the watchmen was super important for us,” said Neasloss.

The provincial authority allows them to write up infractions of the BC Parks Act or Wildlife Act—but not necessarily violations that fall under federal jurisdiction, like fisheries or marine transport.

The nation’s eight guardians are partially funded through a “sustainability fee” that outside tourism operators pay to the nation. Neasloss is working to establish a $7.7 million endowment from private donors to make sure there are no future gaps in funding.

But with or without government backing, Neasloss remains adamant that the Kitasoo Xai’xais are prepared to take care of their territory and the biodiversity within it themselves, just as they have done for thousands of years.

“We have a stewardship responsibility,” he said. “I think this might be the beginning of something larger.”