04/27/2015 03:24 EDT | Updated 07/31/2015 03:59 EDT

B.C., First Nations reach coastal marine pact to protect ocean health

VICTORIA - First Nations from Vancouver Island to Haida Gwaii and along coastal B.C. have signed a marine-use partnership with the provincial government that aims to act as a guide for environmental, economic and stewardship issues along more than 100,000 kilometres of coastline.

The Marine Planning Partnership involving 18 First Nations has been in the works for more than a decade, but missing from Monday's celebration was the federal government even though it had taken part in past talks.

The federal government has jurisdiction over ocean waters, which makes it the major player in the issues of shipping, including the potential for more oil tankers navigating the coast, and fisheries, which involves the management and protection of stocks.

The plan maps out four regional marine areas along the coast, including Haida Gwaii, the North Coast, Central Coast and northern Vancouver Island. It sets out an eco-based management system that aims to ensure stewardship, environmental and economic decisions are reached by working together with minimal conflict.

"This collaboration recognizes the important role of coastal First Nations as stewards of the marine environment and as partners in supporting the health of coastal communities," said Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation Minister John Rustad in a statement.

Coastal First Nations' spokesman Art Sterritt said the partnership helps governments understand the significance of the marine environment in the lives of First Nations.

He said it also signals to the federal government the kind of collaborative agreement that can be reached when people are willing to negotiate.

"I'm optimistic the federal government is going to come in," he said. "It's incumbent on the federal government to get in on this conversation. They'll realize collaborating with First Nations is much better than fighting us."

A spokeswoman for federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea said in a statement the federal government is committed to healthy oceans and supports strong oceans management and marine protection, including investing in the Health of Oceans initiative to protect unique and vulnerable marine environments.

The statement explained why the federal government did not participate in the marine planning partnership.

"It is involved in similar initiatives with similar partners such as the Canada-B.C. Marine Protected Area network strategy, which achieves marine protection and conservation goals through a joint federal-provincial approach, collaborative decision making, and a participatory process," it said.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society said the partnership endorses a new wave in ocean management and marine conservation in Canada.

"The region needs a plan to ensure that these special places are properly managed and protected for current and future generations," said society spokeswoman Sabine Jessen in a statement.