The following article was published in Wavelength, April/May 2000

Orca Pass – Protecting Transboundary Waters

Laurie McBride

 Year ago, the Canadian-based Georgia Strait Alliance and the US-based People for Puget Sound began to develop an informal coalition of marine conservation organizations, to establish a margin protected area in the shared, “transboundary” waters between BC and Washington State.

Despite the political boundary, the area is really a single ecosystem, It’s home to the same marine creatures – from orcas to oystercatchers – and it’s affected by the same types and sources of pollutants and habitat disruption.

In December 1999, more than twenty citizen groups reached a consensus to focus the effort around Boundary Pass (between the southern Gulf Islands and the US San Juan Islands). The area being proposed is rich in marine biodiversity, environmentally sensitive habitat, and sites of cultural and spiritual importance to Coast Salish tribes and First Nations on both sides of the border.

The decision came after an assessment of biological considerations (including GIS mapping of marine resources) and constituent interests, along with meeting with government officials on both sides of the border to look at how the initiative could complement related efforts such as the Islands Trust / San Juan County marine protection initiative and the National Marine Conservation Area proposed for southern Georgia Straits.

The area has been given the working title of “Orca Pass International Stewardship Area” (after the orcas that transit regularly).  Currently the groups are working to define what forms of protection are needed within the area, and to build a constructive dialogue with First Nations, government agencies, resource users, and other groups towards effective protection efforts.

Participants include, in BC: Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Marine Life Sanctuaries Society, Galiano Conservancy Association, Living Oceans Society, Oceans Blue Foundation; and in Washington State: Friends of the San Juans, Washington Scuba Alliances, Waldron Community, Evergreen Islands and a number of other groups from both sides of the border.

Representatives of the Coast Salish Sea Council and the Lummi Nation have also been involved in the discussions, and participants have agreed that First Nations co-management is fundamental to the proposal.  The initiative comes in the face of alarming species decline – including the news that the southern Orca population is officially at risk and that seven Puget Sound fish species are being eyed for listing under the US Endangered Species Act.  Though ground fish are less visible than salmon, they may be more vulnerable to extinction because they are slow to reach sexual maturity and are non-migratory.  Providing these long-lived species with protected places to grow to maturity and reproduce will be essential if they are to survive.

The initiative is unique in its cross-border approach, and in the fact that it is purely a citizen-led effort – without “official” standing or government-run studies or consultative processes.  But judging by the enthusiasm of the groups involved, it’s and idea that’s long overdue.  Over the coming months we hope to undertake an intensive community outreach effort and awareness campaign which will eventually result in designation of North America’s first transboundary marine protected area.



·        Give us your feedback what sort of protection would you like to see in this area?

·        Organize local meetings – call GSA or People for Puget Sound to arrange for a speaker.

·        We’re looking for good quality photos taken within the area (land/seascapes, underwater, wildlife or human activities) and additional biological and anecdotal information.

For more information or to help, contact

GSA’s Howard Breen or 250-247-7467 or

People for Puget Sound’s Mike Sato, or 360-336-1931.