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National Marine Conservation Areas of Canada

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Canada’s National Marine Conservation Areas System Plan



Member of the family Alcidae, swimming and diving marine birds who prefer open waters. All species are short-necked and stout-bodied and resemble small penguins. Includes the puffins, murres, guillemots, murrelets, auklets, razorbill and dovekie.

Algae / Kelp

«Algae» are the simplest plants, having no true stems, roots or leaves; may be singled-celled (such as diatoms) or quite large (such as the «kelp» and other seaweeds). Live in salt or fresh water.


Refers to species which ascend freshwater streams from the sea to spawn, such as Atlantic and Pacific salmon, Arctic charr, smelt, etc.


An elevation of the sea floor covering a large area above which water depth is relatively shallow, but safe for navigation.

Barrier beach / Barrier island

A «barrier beach» is a sand or gravel bar which is exposed even at high tide and is separated from the coast by a lagoon. A «barrier island» is similar, but generally consists of several ridges and commonly has dunes, vegetated zones and swampy areas extending toward the lagoon. Long offshore deposits of sand lying parallel to the coast are also called barrier islands.


  1. A generally circular sea floor or lake-bottom depression of variable extent.
  2. A sheltered body of water connected to a larger body of water by one or more passages (i.e. Foxe Basin).
  3. Total area drained by a river or lake and their tributaries -- drainage basin or hydrographic basin (i.e. Great Lakes Basin).

Bay / Gulf / Cove / Embayment:

A «bay» is an indentation of the shoreline of seas, lakes, or large rivers. Usually smaller than a «gulf» (a large inlet of the sea penetrating far inland), and larger than a «cove» (small, rounded indentation of the shoreline of seas, lakes or rivers). An «embayment» is an indentation of the shoreline forming an open bay or a configuration resembling a bay.


The gently sloping shore of a body of water which is washed by waves or tides, especially the parts covered by sand or pebbles.

Benthic; Benthos

  1. Of, or relating to, the «benthos» — aquatic organisms, both plant and animal, which live on or near the bottom of a body of water, such as sea weeds, clams, anemones, sea stars, polychaetes, etc.
  2. Of, or relating to, one of the two main divisions of the aquatic environment and consisting of all the floor of the oceans or lakes where benthos occurs – opposed to pelagic.


The quantity (weight) of living organisms in a given area or volume.


Mixture of salt water and fresh water - usually associated with estuaries.


The rupture of the ice cover into various sized pieces which are then carried away by currents; usually associated with the onset of warmer weather.


(from the latin cetus for "large marine fish"). Refers to the order of mammals, primarily marine (a few freshwater species exist) with nostrils on top of their heads. They spend their entire lives in a water environment and cannot long survive outside of it. Includes whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Channel / Passage

A «channel» is a narrow stretch of water, either an inlet or a connection between two bodies of water, while «passage» refers to a narrow stretch of water between land masses and joining two larger bodies of water.


A high, steep face of rock and/or unconsolidated material; above or below the surface. Used to describe sea cliffs (on the coast), mountain cliffs and river banks.

Coast; Shore / Coastal

Zone of indeterminate width where land and sea (or other extensive tract of water) meet and considered the boundary of land. In the strict sense the «coast» is that part not directly influenced by waves and tides, while the «shore» is influenced by waves and tides. «Coastal»: on or near the coast.

Colony; Colonial / Rookery

An area where many individuals of the same species assemble to breed. Most seabirds breed in colonies, mostly on cliff faces and islands, often with several other species. Sea lions are also «colonial» (breeding in colonies called «rookeries»), as are walrus and most species of seals.


An association of plants and animals living in equilibrium in a given biological environment (i.e. a group of species adapted to a specific type of habitat, such as rocky bottom, sand, deep waters, etc.)

Continental shelf

That part of the submerged coast which gradually slopes seaward, with depths to 200 m. Widths vary considerably around the world. Most of the productivity in the oceans occurs here.

Continental slope

That part of the sea bed which lies between the edge of the continental shelf and the oceanic basins. It slopes steeply to depths of 3000 m or more.


Hill or ridge with a steep face on one side and a gentle slope on the other.

Dabbling duck / Diving duck

«Dabbling ducks» are a group of ducks which ordinarily feed in shallow water by submerging most of their body, leaving their tail sticking straight up above the water. They also feed on land. «Diving ducks» are excellent swimmers and feed by diving. Compared to dabbling ducks, the legs of diving ducks are set farther back on their body and they need a running start along the surface of the water before rising into the air, while the dabblers take flight by springing directly up from the water. Dabbling ducks are represented by species such as the mallard, teals, widgeons and pintails, while diving ducks include canvasback, redhead, scaups and mergansers, as well as the sea ducks.


The usually triangular shaped deposit of clay, silt, sand, gravel or other such material transported by a river and dropped at its mouth.

Drumlin / Esker / Moraine

A «moraine» is a low, smoothly rounded, elongated oval hill, mound, or ridge built under the margin of an active glacier, shaped by its flow and left behind as it melted. An «esker» is a long, narrow, sinuous ridge of sand and gravel which was once the bed of a stream flowing beneath or in the ice of a glacier and was left behind when the ice melted. A «moraine» is a mound, ridge, or other distinct accumulation formed from debris or fragments of rock material deposited chiefly by direct action of glacier ice.


A mound, ridge or hill or wind-blown sand which can be several metres in height, either bare or covered with vegetation.


A plant and animal community and its environment functioning as an ecological unit in nature.


A small whirlpool in a watercourse or in the sea, running contrary to the direction of current or tide.

Erosion; Erode

The gradual wearing away of soil, rocks, etc.,by glaciers, running water, waves or wind.


The mouth of a river where tidal effects are evident and where fresh water and salt water mix.

Eutrophic / Mesotrophic / Oligotrophic

A «eutrophic» lake or river is characterised by high productivity and biomass. It is rich in dissolved nutrients, often shallow and seasonally deficient in oxygen. This fertilization can be a natural process or one brought on by human activity, the latter often having a negative impact on the ecosystem. A water body is termed «mesotrophic» if its production is considered moderate. The term «oligotrophic» describes a lake or river with low productivity, deficient in plant nutrients, rich in oxygen throughout its depth and with good water clarity.

Fault; Faulting

A fracture in the earth's crust accompanied by a displacement of one side of the fracture with respect to the other. The movement producing this displacement is termed «faulting».

Fauna / Flora / Avifauna / Ichthyofauna

«Fauna» refers to animal life; the animal species of a particular area. The «flora» or an area is its plant life. Can also designate a subset of the total fauna; «avifauna» specifically refers to the bird fauna of an area, «ichthyofauna» is the fish life of a region, benthic fauna refers to the species of the benthic zone, pelagic fauna refers to species of the pelagic zone, etc.


A stretch of open water, unbroken by islands or land masses, which the wind blows across; long fetches cause water to pile up, resulting in large waves when these masses of water finally hit land.


A deep, long, narrow inlet into the coast, with more or less steep sides and a shallow sill at the mouth which inhibits full water exchange with the sea. In effect it is a glacially-eroded valley inundated by the sea.


Those fish species whose body is strongly compressed and have both eyes on one side of the head, such ashalibut, flounder, sole and plaice.


Movement of the earth's crust which results in a bend (fold) in layers of rock.

Glaciation; Glacier; Glacial / Ice sheet / Ice shelf

«Glaciation» refers to the formation, movement and retreat of «glaciers» (a large body of land ice moving slowly down a slope or valley or spreading outward on a land surface) or «ice sheets» (thick glacier covering a large area - over 50,000 km² - and moving outward in all directions). «Glacial»: Of, relating to, or produced by glaciers, such as glacial deposits. An «ice shelf» is a thick and extensive sheet of floating glacier ice, permanently attached to a land mass and bounded on the seaward side by a steep ice cliff.

Groundfish / Pelagic fish

«Groundfish» are those fish species which live near or on the bottom, such as cod, haddock and flatfish, as opposed to «pelagic fish» which live primarily in the water column, such as tuna, herring and salmon.


A rock, island, or beach where pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, walrus) gather out of the water; usually aresting area. Most are used regularly.


A projection of usually high land jutting out into a body of water, such as a cape or promontory.


Elevated or mountainous land.


Large mass of land ice which has broken off or "calved" from the end of a glacier and floats in the sea with the currents. In general, only 1/10 of an iceberg is visible above the surface. Over the past 50 years, an average of 380 icebergs, ranging in size from a few thousand tons to over 10 million tons, have floated south of the 48th parallel every year, less than 10 of largest of these making it onto the Grand Banks before melting. Less than 5% of icebergs originate in the Canadian Arctic - the remainder come from Greenland and follow the currents.

Ice field

  1. An extensive mass of land ice.
  2. An extensive area of pack ice, consisting of floes (free-floating piece of ice), which is greater than 10 km across.

Native; Indigenous

Refer to species which grow or live naturally in a particular region or environment, as opposed to an «introduced»(exotic) species brought in from elsewhere either accidentally or intentionally.


Elongated body of water extending from a sea or lake.

Intertidal / Supratidal / Subtidal

The «intertidal» is that part of the coast which is affected by the rise and fall of the tide; the region above high water is the «supratidal» zone and that below low water (always submerged) is the «subtidal» zone.

Invertebrate / Crustacean / Mollusc / Echinoderm

An «invertebrate» is an animal without a backbone - about 95% of all animals on earth. Includes everything from one-cell organisms like amoebas, to sponges, corals, anemones, worms, «crustaceans» (group of invertebrates which include shrimps, lobsters, amphipods, isopods, barnacles, copepods, crabs, etc.); «molluscs» (group which includes clams, oysters, squids, octopus, snails, chitons, nudibranchs and their relatives) and «echinoderms» ("spiny skin" - group which includes sea stars, sea urchins, sand dollars, sea cucumbers, etc.)


Very small island.


A shallow body of water which is partly or completely separated from the sea by a narrow strip of land.

Landfast ice / Pack ice / Ice edge

Sea ice which forms and remains attached to the coast is termed «landfast ice»; it may be formed directly from sea water or by freezing of pack ice and it may extend a few metres or several hundred kilometres from the coast. Also called fast ice. «Pack ice» is a term used in a broad sense to include any area of sea ice other than landfast ice. Normally applies to broken and separate blocks of ice (floes) which tend to make navigation very difficult. Occurs in various concentrations from open pack where the floes are generally not in contact with each other, to close pack ice where the ice blocks tend to be in contact. The «ice edge» is the demarcation at any given time between the open sea and sea ice of any kind, whether landfast or pack.


General term for low-lying land or an extensive region of low land, especially near the coast and including the extended plains or country lying not far above tide level.


Of, or relating to, the ocean or sea; normally implies a salt water environment.

Marine mammal

Any mammal which spends most of its life in the sea. Includes the whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions, walrus and polar bear.

Migrate; Migration; Migratory; Migrant

To «migrate» is to go from one place to another. «Migration» applies to any type of regular movement. It covers large scale annual movements such as those of «migratory» birds between nesting and wintering grounds; of whales between summering and wintering areas; of fish between feeding and spawning grounds. Migration also applies to the daily vertical movements of some of the larger zooplankton as they move from deep to shallow water and back again. A «migrant» is one who migrates.


Process which breaks down the stratification of a body of water, ensuring the homogeneity of part or all of the water column in terms of temperature, salinity and nutrients. Mixing can be brought about by currents, wind and wave action, upwelling, etc.

Moult; Moulting

In birds, refers to the periodic shedding and replacement of feathers. Most adult birds of Canadian species moult twice a year. Birds generally undergo a moult of body feathers before the breeding season (into their colourful breeding plumage) and a full moult after the breeding season (into their duller winter plumage). Also applies to crustaceans who shed and replace their shell or external skeleton as they grow.

Nursery area

In fisheries biology, an area where young fishare known to concentrate.

Offshore / Inshore / Nearshore

The «offshore» is at some distance seaward from the shore; specifically said of the zone of variable width extending from the breaker zone to the edge of the continental shelf. The offshore zone is seaward of the inshore and near shore zones. The «inshore» is located near the coast or shore and is often used synonymously with «nearshore», though, in general, the latter is considered to include the waters very close to shore, taking in bays,coves, inlets, fjords, etc. and the former extends out to the seaward side of coastal islands. The inshore zone is considered to be seaward of the nearshore zone, but landward of the offshore zone.


Of, or relating to, the open sea, particularly that area beyond the continental slope (pelagic region). However, also generally applies to any offshore environment, rather than coastalor inshore, as in seabirds with a pelagic distribution. Also used to indicate that which is found in the water column (pelagic fauna: pelagic fish, whales, jellyfish, plankton) as opposed to on the seabed (benthic species such as groundfish, starfish, clams, kelp).


Isolated, more or less conical hill containing an ice core and occurring in areas of permafrost; both on land and submerged.

Plankton / Phytoplankton / Zooplankton

«Plankton» are marine and freshwater organisms with limited swimming capabilities and which therefore drift with the prevailing currents. Generally microscopic but can also include large organisms such as jellyfish. Divided into «phytoplankton» (plankton which are plant organisms, mainlyunicellular diatoms and other microscopic algae, which form the base of the food chain in marine systems) and «zooplankton» (animal plankton, i.e. copepods, egg and larval stages of most fish and invertebrate species).

Polynya / Shore lead

«Polynyas» refer to any non-linear shaped openings enclosed in ice; they are areas which contain very little ice or only thin ice and which are formed by various combinations of tides, winds, currents and upwellings. If it occurs in the same position every year, it is called a recurring polynya. Some recurring polynyas are open throughout the ice-bound winter, while others may freeze over during the coldest months but open up in the spring, well before breakup elsewhere. Both polynyas and «shore leads» (fracture in the sea ice which forms between pack ice and the shore) are ice-edge ecosystems and are biological hotspots, based on an intense bloom of microscopic plants and amphipods (tiny shrimp-like animals), making them some of the richest sea areas on earth. They provide seabirds and marine mammals with a refuge in winter as well as feeding areas in spring and fall. When harsh winters prevent the opening of polynyas, the results are often disastrous; in 1964, the Cape Bathurst Polynya failed to open and 100,000 ducks died on the ice.

Productivity; Productive

Production of plant and animal matter. Primary productivity refers exclusively to plant production, by both phytoplankton and larger plants such as seaweeds, and forms the base of the food chain in marine systems. Secondary productivity is animal production (zooplankton, fish, birds, mammals), which generally depends on the amount of primary production.

Raised beach

An ancient beach raised to a level above the present shoreline by uplift or by changes in sea level.


Rocks rising to or near the surface of a body of water, posing a hazard to navigation.

Relict population

An isolated population of a species once found over a wider area but now reduced to pockets of suitable habitat over much or part of its former range due to large-scale climatic changes or changes in sea level which have geographically separated it from the rest of its species.

Relief / Landform

  1. «Relief» applies to the lie of the land (or seabed) as determined by the inequalities of the terrestrial surface. The relief of a particular area can be described as complex, regular, etc., based on the variety of «landforms» — natural features such as mountains, troughs, valleys, shoals, etc. — found there.
  2. The «relief» of a region is a measure of the difference in elevation between its high and low points (ex. underwater: the relief of an area with a bank at a depth of 100 m and an adjacent basin which is 1200 m deep, is 1100 m; on land: the relief of an area where there is a cliff 300 m above sea level (0 m) is 300 m).


Species which lives in an area year-round; does not migrate.

Retention time

A measure based on the volume of water in a lake and the mean rate of outflow. It represents the amount of time it takes for a substance introduced into a lake to flow out of it again. This is especially important where pollutants are concerned.

Salt marsh

A coastal marsh periodically flooded by saltwater.


  1. Action of a powerful current or ice in hollowing out or digging into the seabed or the shore.
  2. Action of moving glaciers as they scrape, hollow out and smooth the surface rocks over which they pass; glacial scouring.


General term applied to any bird that spends much of its life on or over salt water. Includes the gannets, loons, cormorants, gulls, terns, shearwaters, alcids, kittiwakes, fulmars, petrels, albatrosses, etc. as well as certain ducks, notably sea ducks.

Sea cave / Sea arch / Sea stack

A «sea cave» is a cave formed by wave action; generally at sea level and affected by tides. As erosion continues and punches a hole through the cave, this forms a «sea arch», such as the Percé Rock in Quebec. If the roof of a sea arch collapses, leaving a rocky islet or pillar near a coastline, it becomes a «sea stack», or flower pot.

Sea duck

Refers to a group of diving ducks which spend the winter on salt or brackish waters. Includes the eiders, scoters, harlequin duck, old squaw and red-breasted merganser.

Sea level

The height of the surface of the sea, essentially 0 m, used as reference for elevation on land (above sea level), as well as depth on land or at sea (below sea level).


Undersea volcanic peak having a height of over one kilometre.


An oscillation in water level from one end of a lake to another due to rapid changes in winds and atmospheric pressure. Most dramatic after an intense but local weather disturbance passes over one end of a lake.


Elevation of the bed of a body of water which reaches just below the surface and is therefore dangerous to navigation.


Any of a suborder of birds (Charadrii) that frequent the shore. Includes the plovers, surfbirds, sandpipers, turnstones, curlews, willet, whimbrel, dowitchers, knot, yellowlegs, oystercatchers, dunlin, godwits, sanderling, avocet, stilt and phalaropes.

Spawn / Spawning ground

To «spawn» is to deposit eggs, especially in aquatic animals;«spawning grounds» are areas where fish are known to breed.

Spit / Tombolo

A «spit» is a long, low, narrow projection of sand or gravel, or a small point of land, extending into a body of water from the shore, while a «tombolo» is a sand or gravel bar connecting an island with the mainland or another island.

Staging area; Stop-over / Stage

A «staging area» or «stop-over» is an area where migrating species, notably birds, always stop and feed for short periods, putting on fat before continuing on their migration. To «stage» is to stop at one such area.

Stratification ; Stratify

The tendency for distinct layers of water to form as a result of vertical changes in temperature and/or salinity and therefore in the density of the water. Upwelling, currents, winds and changes in surface water temperatures destroy this layering, mixing the waters, thus permitting the exchange of nutrients and enhancing productivity.

Tidal current / Current

  1. Portion of a water mass which moves in a given direction (i.e. Labrador Current, Gaspé Current);
  2. Regular movement of water in a given direction. «Tidal currents» are a horizontal displacement of water related to the tide. Where these waters are channelled through narrow passages, the currents can become quite strong, first in one direction as the tide comes in (the flood) and then reversing as the tide falls (the ebb).

Tidal flat / Mud flat / Sand flat

A «tidal flat» is an area of marshy, muddy, sandy or mixed sediment land which is exposed as the tide falls. A «mud flat» (or mudflat) is a muddy tidal flat devoid of vegetation, while a «sand flat» is a tidal flat where sand is the main sediment type.

Tidal rip; Rip

Turbulent water where tidal currents meet.

Tide; Tidal / Tidal range

The «tide» is the alternate rise and fall of the surface of the sea, twice a day in most regions, caused by the gravitational pull of the moon, and the sun to a lesser degree. High tide is the culmination of the rise of the ocean surface (flood tide) and on land corresponds to the highest point reached by the sea, while low tide is represented by how far out the water goes as the sea surface falls (ebb tide). The «tidal range» is the difference between the height of water at high tide and that at low tide in any given place.


A long depression of the ocean floor or lake-bottom characteristically flat-bottomed and steep-sided.


High land especially at some distance from the sea – plateau.


Elevation of any extensive part of the earth's surface relative to some other part, as in mountain building or the rebound of the earth's crust following the retreat of the glaciers.


To move upward; is the process by which subsurface water moves towards the surface, either replacing surface water transported offshore by winds, or as a result of deep currents brought to the surface by marked changes in depth. Upwelling areas tend to be very productive.

Water bird

General term applied to any bird that lives part of its life in or around water, especially the swimming and diving birds (seabirds, waterfowl and wading birds (herons, egrets, bitterns, shorebirds)).


General term applied to ducks, geese and swans.

Water mass

Term used in oceanography (the study of oceans) to describe sea water with characteristic temperature and salinity properties which can be recognized at different depth sand at great distances from its point of origin, such as Arctic water, Atlantic water, Pacific water.


Habitat containing much soil moisture, as in tidal flats, swamps, salt marshes, etc.

Whelping patch / Whelp

A «whelping patch» is an area where certain species of seals congregate to bear their young. To «whelp» is to give birth.

Whirlpool / Gyre

A «whirlpool» is a rapid circular movement of water, producing a depression in the centre into which objects are drawn. A «gyre» is a surface current moving in a circle and covering a large area of ocean.

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