Making a splash about ocean conservation

With its strategic location on Canada’s west coast, talented workforce and world-class research facilities, Vancouver leads the way in marine conservation. So, when Sabine Jessen of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) — expert in ocean conservation and sustainable development — received a request from the Vancouver Convention Centre to support a bid for the Fifth International Marine Protected Areas Congress (IMPAC5), she didn’t hesitate to get on board.

“I thought it was an excellent idea for Vancouver to host the conference,” she recalled. “I knew that our country was truly moving forward in advancing marine protected areas and restoring the health of our oceans and there’s been a lot of innovative work being done on the west coast for some time.”

Drawing on her 30-year career, Sabine rallied her team at CPAWS and engaged a group of marine conservation experts to garner support for the bid. She worked closely with government officials — including Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Parks Canada — as well as local First Nations communities and the Province of British Columbia.

“I thought that in terms of a package that would go to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, it would be important to demonstrate that not only was the environmental community interested, but that different levels of government were as well,” Sabine added.

She was right. After a competitive selection process involving countries from around the globe, Vancouver was selected as the host destination for the world-renowned conference.

Headshot of Sabine Jessen
Sabine Jessen, Executive Director, IMPAC5 Secretariat, Department of Fisheries and Oceans


Taking a stand for the ocean

From 3-9 February 2023, high-level government officials and roughly 3,000 of the globe’s top ocean conservation professionals flocked to the city (while several hundred tuned in online). The Congress was presented by the Host First Nations — xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) — alongside the CPAWS, International Union for Conservation of Nature, and the governments of Canada and British Columbia. It took place at the state-of-the-art Vancouver Convention Centre that overlooks the breathtaking Vancouver harbour.

The goal of IMPAC5 was to provide a platform for ocean conservation professionals to come together and share their commitment, learnings and best practices in protecting marine ecosystems — and ultimately, chart a course toward conserving 30 per cent of the global ocean by 2030.

Over the six days, attendees enjoyed a highly captivating program that covered five distinct themes and featured 15 visionary keynote speakers, over 900 thought-provoking sessions and several presenters. This included many of Canada’s most influential ocean protectors, such as renowned fisheries scientist, Dr. Daniel Pauly, and President of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council and sustainable development advocate, Cloy-e-iis, Dr. Judith Sayers.

Along with the presentations and discussions, IMPAC5 shone a light on the groundbreaking work taking place within the ocean technology community — providing unparalleled opportunities for investment and business-to-business collaboration. For instance, delegates were able to use the event app to schedule meetings with local ocean innovators throughout the week.

“We also invited many local experts and companies to host a series of panel sessions, which focused on how innovative solutions and technologies can be used to manage marine protected areas,” Sabine added. “It was the first time that ocean technology companies were involved in this way at the congress.”

Attendees had the chance to be immersed in the natural beauty and cultures of the surrounding region through enriching field trips. Among them, there was a Átl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound Biosphere Region boat tour, an interpretive paddle and walking tour with an Indigenous guide, and a day with a local birding expert who took delegates to several key sites in the Fraser River Estuary Key Biodiversity Area.

Congress key partner CPAWS also collaborated with the Secretariat and a number of other organizations to produce a public-facing Ocean Festival featuring marine-themed activities held coast to coast to coast. The festival culminated in a weekend-long “celebration of the sea” at Jack Poole Plaza that saw top musicians, artists and storytellers perform for tens of thousands in attendance, who learned about the importance of protecting the ocean for future generations.

Leading the way with unique initiatives

As Sabine pointed out, one element that made IMPAC5 truly unique was the significant role that Indigenous Peoples and young professionals had in the conference. From the very outset, organizers made it a priority to offer significant space for attendees to hear their perspectives, which resulted in their own program streams during the conference.

Recognizing the important role that Indigenous Peoples have played in the stewardship of their lands and oceans since time immemorial, international, national and regional First Nations organizations were invited to strike an Indigenous Working Group to advise the congress planning committee after winning the bid. During the conference, there was an Indigenous caucus and networking event, a large, interactive Indigenous pavilion, and an Indigenous networking space.

“The IMPAC5 Indigenous Working Group was very active on providing input on the conference, from the beginning right to the end. Through this work, Canada set a standard for Indigenous engagement that no one else has ever achieved at an international meeting,” Sabine said.

Young professionals were also core to the event. Through a partnership with Ocean Wise, a young professional engagement program provided a platform to showcase the voices of emerging leaders in the international marine protected area community. Young professionals also had the chance to take part in a variety of activities designed specifically for them, including a two-day teambuilding event that was held at an offsite venue prior to the event.

Charting a new course for global ocean protection

IMPAC5 was regarded as an incredibly successful conference, with delegates returning home filled with fresh perspectives, promising ideas and new connections that will propel their work forward. Congress partners were especially pleased with the announcements and commitments made by Canada during the conference, including a pathway to protect at least 25 per cent of the ocean around Canada by 2025, enroute to 30 per cent by 2030, and the implementation of minimum protection standards in marine protected areas that will ensure wildlife and their habitats are safe from harmful human activities and have the chance to thrive into the future.

“Hosting IMPAC5 was an opportunity for Canada to demonstrate its leadership in ocean conversation and marine protected areas,” said Sabine. “From the focus on the perspectives of Indigenous Peoples and youth to the technological innovations around marine protected areas, we were able to showcase what we’re doing and the unique ways we’re doing it.”

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