Status, trend, data, and/or actions provide contradictory or inconclusive information. Actions are needed to move into positive status and trend and avoid negative status and trend.

B.C.’s growing population is increasing development pressure along B.C.’s coastline, particularly in the province’s more densely populated south. This growth is highlighting the need for a cohesive system of tracking the cumulative effects of development – both positive and negative – in coastal communities.

Authors: Raissa Philibert and Karin Bodtker, Coastal Ocean Research Institute, an Ocean Wise initiative

Reviewer:This article had no technical reviewers.

Photo Credit: a.dombrowski, Flickr via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

What’s happening?


Figure 1. Annual population change (percent) between 2011 and 2016, mapped by census subdivision. Source: Statistics Canada.

In British Columbia, development on land is expected to have some impact on the marine environment. Coastal development is often driven by or related to population growth. The population of coastal B.C. has been growing at a rate of up to nine percent per year in some areas, especially in larger municipalities, and has been decreasing in some rural areas (Figure 1). Based on a B.C. inventory of major development projects, commercial and residential projects (underway and proposed) are concentrated in areas of high population density, while industrial projects (generally with higher costs) are currently concentrated on the North Coast. Potential impacts on the marine environment will vary with development type and local environment sensitivity.


Why is it important?


Coastal development generally involves some human-made structure(s) near the coast and sometimes includes modification of the shoreline. Development can be industrial, commercial, community-focused, or residential. At any scale, coastal development is important to plan for because it comes with benefits and with environmental impacts.

The benefits of coastal development range from economic to social and cultural, and can result in new jobs, greater community wealth, and improved access to the waterfront. New development often funds research, environmental studies, and community improvements such as infrastructure adaptations for expected sea level rise and increased public transit.

On the other hand, development along the shoreline interrupts the natural ecosystems’ land-sea connection and can alter marine circulation patterns, shade eelgrass beds, reduce biodiversity, increase erosion, degrade nearshore and intertidal habitat, reduce coastal seafood production, and introduce pollution and contaminants. Social and economic costs of coastline development include potential loss of property value due to flooding or sea level rise, and loss of wilderness value and access to the marine environment as more shoreline becomes developed. To complicate the tallying of benefits and impacts, some development is actually redevelopment, which may lead to remediating environmental impacts through land-use change. For example in Howe Sound, a former chemical plant at the Squamish waterfront was converted to residential use and required remediation prior to redevelopment.


First Nations Connections


Access to marine resources and coastal spaces is essential for the wellbeing of First Nations communities in B.C. Increasing coastal development, intensifying activity and competition for space and resources can put First Nations’ access at risk. A recent study reviews how resource access and spatial access affect the wellbeing of coastal communities, including First Nations, and identifies factors that support or undermine access. The paper goes further to propose research priorities and recommend actions.

What is the current status?


Population growth and population density indices are used by governments to determine services and infrastructure needs with more residential development expected in areas of rapid population growth. In Northern B.C., the population decreased since 2011, except in Haida Gwaii and the Central Coast (Figure 1).

Figure 2. Major projects within coastal development regions as of November 2017. Source: British Columbia Major Projects Inventory.

One way of investigating current and proposed development in coastal areas of B.C. is through B.C.’s Major Project Inventory (MPI). The inventory, compiled by the B.C. government, lists construction projects with an estimated capital cost of $15 million (CAD) or greater ($20 million or greater within the Lower Mainland–Vancouver area). These projects are classified as commercial, industrial, infrastructure, institutional, or residential projects. In November 2017, 679 out of 974 projects (70 percent) listed in the MPI were located within the coastal development regions (Figure 2). Included are proposed projects, projects underway and recently completed projects. The MPI does not, however, estimate the likelihood of proposed projects proceeding. According to the Business Council of British Columbia, many of the proposed projects in the MPI have been cancelled.

In the south of B.C. where the population is growing, residential and commercial projects are more numerous than in the province’s north (Figure 2). In contrast, industrial development projects, which are not necessarily driven by population growth and often require higher investments, are more numerous in the North Coast region. Twenty-six out of the 56 projects listed in the MPI for the North Coast region are proposed industrial projects with a total capital cost of $201 billion. This represents a significant proportion of the estimated total of $351 billion for all of the projects (proposed, completed and underway) located within the three coastal development regions. Even though several oil and gas projects were cancelled in the third quarter of 2017 (and are not shown in Figure 2), this sector still represents about half of the proposed projects in the North Coast.

Figure 3. Location and purpose of shoreline tenures in B.C. as of January 2018. Source: GeoBC, Tantalis – Crown Tenures.

Shoreline development can be quantified by studying foreshore land use according to Land Act Tenures. These are Crown land dispositions issued for specific purposes and periods of time under an agreement between an individual or company and the provincial government. Approximately 29 percent of the B.C. coastline is “tenured” and a further five percent was subject to a tenure application as of January 2018 (Figure 3). The permitted purpose of tenures varies and not all have a negative impact or result in man-made structures on the shoreline – quite the opposite in the case of tenures for protection and reserves (covering almost 16 percent of B.C.’s shoreline). Currently 5.3 percent of the coastline is tenured for commercial and industrial use, while 3.6 percent is residential. From the bird’s-eye view that Figure 3 affords, patterns reveal themselves. Clusters of commercial and industrial tenures occur on the North Coast, the west coast of Vancouver Island, and along the shores and inlets of Johnstone Strait; protection and reserve tenures are concentrated in the Central Coast; and residential tenures are prevalent along the southeast shores of Vancouver Island. Understanding these patterns can help to predict and understand the different types of impacts to the marine environment in different regions, including where protection seems to be concentrated.

What can you do?



Individual and Organization Actions:


Government Actions and Policy:

  • Prioritize studies to further understand the effect of shoreline development on marine circulation patterns, shading, biodiversity,  erosion, habitat degradation, seafood production, pollution and contaminants.
  • Develop and promote an inventory of best practices for developers and update it regularly.
  • Apply new and proven methods to assess development projects. For example, innovative tools to provide decision support for  complex planning problems are becoming more available and more accepted.
  • Taking ecosystem service values into account when evaluating the trade-offs of proposed development is one way to proceed.
  • Add marine values to the B.C. cumulative effects framework.
  • Collate and make available pre-proposal data from environmental and social research.
  • Support jurisdictions that want to work together to develop comprehensive land and marine use plans cooperatively.
  • Implement a trust fund from development proceeds to fund environmental mitigation and remediation.
  • Plan for construction of key facilities and infrastructure to occupy previously developed shoreline, if feasible.
  • Make sharing of pre-proposal data from environmental and social research mandatory.
  • Develop targets for ecosystem health, goals for sustainability indicators, and limits for environmental impacts.

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