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The Gully Marine Protected Area (MPA)


Charts, diagrams and contact information on this website are provided for information purposes only and should not be used for fishing, navigation or other purposes. Please refer to the MPA Regulations or contact your regional Fisheries and Oceans Canada office for official coordinates.



The Gully MPA

The Gully MPA

Dataset for all MPAs available.

Video: The Gully Marine Protected Area: A Diversity of Life and a Sanctuary for Whales

Video: The Gully Marine Protected Area: A Diversity of Life and a Sanctuary for Whales


East of Nova Scotia’s Sable Island; Scotian Shelf Bioregion.

Approximate size (km2) contribution to Marine Conservation Targets

2,363 km2

Approximate % coverage contribution to Marine Conservation Targets


Date of Designation

May, 2004

Conservation Objectives
  • Minimize harmful impacts from human activities on cetacean populations and their habitats;
  • Minimize the disturbance of seafloor habitat and associated benthic communities caused by human activities;
  • Maintain and monitor the quality of water and sediments of the Gully; and
  • Manage human activities to minimize impacts on other commercial and non-commercial living resources.


The Gully MPA Regulations prohibit any activities that disturb, damage, destroy or remove living marine organisms or any part of their habitat, unless the activity is listed as an exception in the Regulations or approved by the Minister.

Environmental Context

The Gully is located approximately 200 kilometres off Nova Scotia to the east of Sable Island on the edge of the Scotian Shelf. Over 65 kilometres long and 15 kilometres wide, the Gully is the largest underwater canyon in the western North Atlantic. The movement of glaciers and meltwater erosion formed the canyon approximately 150,000 to 450,000 years ago, when much of the continental shelf was above the current sea level.

The Gully ecosystem encompasses shallow sandy banks, a deep-water canyon environment, and portions of the continental slope and abyssal plain, providing habitat for a wide diversity of species. The Gully’s size, shape, and location have an effect on currents and local circulation patterns, concentrating nutrients and small organisms within the canyon.

The Gully is home to the endangered Scotian Shelf population of Northern bottlenose whales and is an important habitat for 15 other species of whales and dolphins. Tiny plankton, a variety of fish such as sharks, tunas and swordfish, and seabirds inhabit surface waters, while halibut, skates, cusk and lanternfish can be found as deep as one kilometre. The ocean floor supports crabs, sea pens, anemones, brittle stars, and approximately 30 species of cold-water corals.



The Gully is a deep submarine canyon formed by erosion caused by the movement of glacial ice and meltwater approximately 150,000 to 450,000 years ago, when much of the continental shelf was above the current sea level.

The Gully ecosystem encompasses shallow sandy banks, a deep-water canyon environment, and portions of the continental slope and abyssal plain, providing habitat for a wide diversity of species. The Gully’s size, shape, and location have an effect on currents and local circulation patterns, concentrating nutrients and small organisms within the canyon.

The region around the Gully also supports a number of commercial fisheries and is important to the oil and gas industry.

This Marine Protected Area is home to an endangered Scotian Shelf population of the northern bottlenose whale and is an important habitat for 15 other species of whales and dolphins. Some species, like the northern bottlenose whales, are year-round residents of the Gully and are known to dive from the surface waters to the deepest parts of the canyon, sometimes staying underwater for more than an hour while they search for food.

Surface waters of the Gully are home to tiny plankton, a variety of fish such as sharks, tunas and swordfish, and seabirds. Halibut, skates, cusk and lanternfish can be found as deep as 1 kilometre below the surface. The ocean floor includes crabs, sea pens, anemones, brittle stars, and the highest known variety of cold water corals in Atlantic Canada, with approximately 30 species identified to date. Cold-water corals cling to boulders along the slopes of the canyon.

Even after decades of research in the Gully, many mysteries remain, making it a place of great interest for continued research, monitoring, and conservation efforts.

Management and Conservation

Management and Conservation

Managing the Gully

The Gully MPA Management Plan (2017) supports the MPA Regulations and provides guidance to DFO, marine users, the public and other regulators on protecting and managing the Gully’s ecosystem. Conservation priorities for the Gully include:

  • Protecting whales and dolphins from the impacts of human activities,
  • Protecting seafloor communities and habitat from alterations caused by human activities,
  • Maintaining or restoring the quality of the water and sediments of the canyon,
  • Protecting aquatic species.

What does DFO do to protect the Gully’s ecosystem?

  • Ecosystem Monitoring: DFO monitors the Gully and collects and analyzes data.
  • Monitoring of Human Activities: Shipping, fishing, research, tourism, and oil and gas activities occurring in and around the Gully MPA are regularly monitored and analyzed to ensure human use of the area remains compatible with the conservation objectives of the MPA.
  • Compliance Promotion: Activities to promote compliance include development of best practice guidelines, recognition and adoption of industry codes of practice, and promotion and development of stewardship initiatives. For example, DFO has worked with the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board (CNSOPB) to develop protocols and policies to help guide the environmental assessment and operation of oil and gas activities that may have an impact on the Gully.
  • Education and Outreach: DFO’s ongoing efforts to promote the Gully MPA have included speaking engagements at schools, museums, and national and international conferences, and the development of a range of educational materials such as videos, displays at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, a brochure, and even a Gully colouring book!
  • Gully MPA Activity Approvals: DFO permits research, monitoring and educational activities in the MPA provided they are consistent with the conservation objectives and do not cause unjustifiable disturbance, damage, destruction or removal of Gully ecosystem components. View information on how to apply to conduct an activity in the Gully MPA.
  • Evaluation and Reporting: A review of Gully MPA management was conducted to measure DFO’s progress towards meeting the commitments laid out in the Gully MPA management plan and other Oceans Act MPA program guidance and policies. The findings were released in 2012 and were used to inform the review and revision of the Gully Management Plan.

Surveillance and Enforcement

As the lead federal authority for the Gully, DFO has the overall responsibility of ensuring regulations and conservation measures are respected and enforced. DFO is responsible for enforcement activities under the Oceans Act, the Fisheries Act, the Species at Risk Act, and other federal legislation as it pertains to fisheries conservation, environmental protection, habitat protection, and marine safety.

Surveillance activities include aerial patrols as well as collection and monitoring of fisheries intelligence from sources such as observer reports, fishing logbooks and vessel position reports from the automated vessel monitoring system (VMS). DFO also provides leadership and coordination for the surveillance, monitoring, and enforcement activities of other government partners who support the MPA. This includes coordination and information sharing with Transport Canada, Environment Canada, and the Department of National Defense.

Conservation Milestones

Conservation interest in the Gully has grown considerably over the last several decades. Government agencies, researchers, marine industries and conservationists have taken significant steps, as listed below, to recognize and protect this unique canyon.

The northern bottlenose whales of the Gully became the focus of research by Dalhousie University scientists.
Oil and gas proponents established a tanker exclusion zone around Sable Island and the Gully.
Parks Canada selected an area encompassing the Gully and Sable Island as a Natural Area of Canadian Significance.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) designated the Gully Whale Sanctuary to reduce ship collisions and limit noise disturbance.
Canadian Wildlife Service workshop discussed the need for a conservation strategy for the Gully.
The population of northern bottlenose whales found in the Gully was assessed as "vulnerable" by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).
The Environmental Impact Statement for the Sable Offshore Energy Project, west of the Gully, identified the canyon as a 'unique ecological site' and 'valued ecosystem component'.
The Sable Gully Conservation Strategy was released, including goals and recommendations for planning and management.
The Gully was announced as an Area of Interest (AOI) for consideration as an Oceans Act MPA.
ExxonMobil Canada drafted The Gully Code of Practice as part of its Environmental Protection Plan for the Sable Offshore Energy Project.
The Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board adopted a Gully Policy stating that no new oil and gas activity would be permitted in the Gully AOI.
Public consultation was conducted to get feedback on the MPA design and proposed regulations.
The population of northern bottlenose whales found in the Gully was reassessed as "endangered" by COSEWIC.
The Gully Advisory Committee was established.
The final Gully MPA Regulations were published and the Gully MPA was designated.
The population of northern bottlenose whales found in the Gully was listed as "endangered" under the Species at Risk Act.
The Gully MPA Management Plan was published.
A framework of indicators for monitoring the Gully ecosystem was drafted.
The Recovery Strategy for the endangered population of northern bottlenose whales found in the Gully was posted on the Species at Risk Public Registry.
A workshop was held to review existing data, protocols, and procedures for Gully ecosystem monitoring.
Ten year anniversary of the designation of the Gully as a Marine Protected Area. A Progress Report is available that provides the management and research highlights over the last decade.
The Gully Marine Protected Area : 10 years of progress
The second edition of the Gully MPA Management Plan was published.
Research and Monitoring

Research and Monitoring

Decades of scientific activity in the Gully were instrumental in its designation as a marine protected area (MPA). These activities continue in the MPA and they play a critical role in its management. Research increases our understanding of the physical, chemical and biological processes important for the Gully ecosystem. Research also contributes to our knowledge of the human history and socio-economic importance of the MPA. Monitoring is conducted to provide managers with accurate and timely information on the state of the ecosystem and related threats.

Research and monitoring efforts in the Gully MPA are collective and involve universities, government agencies, industry and non-government organizations. Researchers are encouraged to communicate the results of their MPA work to a broad audience including the Canadian public and the international community. Here we profile some of the research and monitoring that has occurred in the Gully. To learn more about these and other scientific undertakings, see our list of publications.

Foundation Science

When the Gully was being assessed as an MPA candidate, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) coordinated a compilation of existing knowledge. The resulting Science Review was published as a Research Document and summarized with a Habitat Status Report in 1998. Some information gaps were filled by research projects conducted at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography between 1999 and 2001. These and other ongoing studies confirmed the Gully’s significance as a diverse and highly productive ecosystem with a remarkable variety of habitats for fish, mammals, seabirds and bottom dwellers. The Gully Ecosystem report captured the state of knowledge in 2002 and made the case for special protection under Canada’s Oceans Act.

Seabed Mapping

The Canadian Hydrographic Service and the Geological Survey of Canada undertook multibeam surveys in the Gully between 1996 and 2006. Depth measurements are now available for about 90% of the MPA. Geologists used additional data sources to interpret and classify seabed characteristics. Three map sheets were produced: one each for topography, surficial geology and slope. All are available for online viewing and download. These maps reveal the true size and shape of the canyon. They also depict structural seabed features and the composition of the seafloor. For additional information on Gully maps and their applications, see a brief habitat mapping profile published in Marine Ecosystems and Management.


Scientists at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography have been studying the physical, chemical and biological properties of seawater in the Gully for decades. Much has been learned about circulation patterns, chemistry, nutrients, microbes and plankton. Water characteristics are now sampled twice a year in the Spring and Fall at fixed stations in the MPA during the Atlantic Zone Monitoring Program. In addition to these ship-based measurements, water column data for temperature, salinity and current were collected by sensors deployed in the Gully for 15 months during 2006-7.

Benthic Research

Marine scientists started documenting seabed organisms in the Gully as early as the 1880s when deep-water coral catches were common in the offshore fishery. Contemporary benthic ecologists study seabed communities using cameras and sampling instruments lowered from ships. Researchers employ systems like CAMPOD and VIDEOGRAB to study the floor of the Gully. Access to sophisticated underwater vehicles like ROPOS (Remotely Operated Platform for Ocean Sciences) has extended optical surveys and specimen sampling to canyon depths reaching 2.5 kilometres. A 2007 video collection of Deep Sea Discoveries includes bottom footage recorded in the Gully. The MPA also features in Oasis of the Deep: Cold Water Corals of Atlantic Canada.

Whale Studies

Researchers in the Biology Department at Dalhousie University began studying whales of the Gully in 1988. The resident population of endangered Northern bottlenose whales has since become the focus of cetacean research in the MPA. Academic and government scientists monitor population trends and study the behaviour of these beaked whales using photo-identification techniques and acoustic recorders. We now understand that these animals spend much of their lives in complete darkness near the bottom of the canyon where they hunt and feed on squid. An award-winning student video explains how researchers place hydrophones on the seabed to capture the echolocation clicks made by these deep-diving specialists.

Multispecies Bottom Trawl Surveys

Government research vessels have undertaken trawl surveys in the Gully for more than 25 years as part of a region-wide fish and invertebrate monitoring program. The survey protocol for each station involves towing a trawl net along the bottom for 30 minutes. On average, each tow travels 3.3 linear kilometres sampling an area roughly one-tenth of a square kilometre. Everything caught in the trawl is identified, weighed and measured. Sex, age and condition are recorded and stomachs are routinely collected for prey analysis. Additional tissue samples support genetic and contaminant studies. The Gully was withdrawn from the regional survey plan in 2008 pending a review of fragile habitats and the development of a protocol to meet specific MPA monitoring needs.

Multispecies Pelagic Trawl Surveys

Beginning in 2007, scientists made 4 trips to study the animals living in the water column of the Gully. Samples were taken at depths between 250 and 1750 metres using a midwater trawl with a mouth opening of 6 by 12 metres. These were the first Canadian deep-water surveys in over twenty years and some of the first globally to sample at such depths within a canyon. Catches were dominated by small non-commercial species such as lanternfish and krill. Juvenile squid were also collected amongst the 500-plus species sampled. Specimen photos from this relatively unknown realm are displayed in our Photo Gallery. Ongoing analysis is expanding our knowledge of the food chain that supports the canyon’s large predators.

Seabird Surveys

The Canadian Wildlife Service places biologists on research vessels to survey birds on the open ocean. Many scientific expeditions to the Gully have benefitted by having a seabird specialist aboard. Observers with the Eastern Canada Seabirds at Sea program keep watch in the wheelhouse and follow a monitoring protocol during transits and oceanographic transects. Visual scans for birds are also conducted when vessels are stopped or station keeping. Since 2006, over 1500 kilometres have been surveyed in the MPA. The data indicate that 24 bird species use the MPA. Observations confirm the Gully’s national importance as an offshore foraging area.

Hydrocarbon Exploration Monitoring

Applied research and monitoring have been prompted by uncertainty surrounding the environmental impacts of oil and gas exploration near the Gully. The Centre for Offshore Oil and Gas Environmental Research coordinated an interdisciplinary study in 2003 as part of an effects monitoring program for a pair of nearby seismic surveys. As reported in the study published by the Environmental Studies Research Funds, this major collaborative project involved mammal observations as well as underwater measurements of exploration noise and biological sounds. Year-round monitoring of ambient canyon acoustics has continued under a partnership with Dalhousie University.

Contaminant Monitoring

Oceanographic processes and retention within the Gully may make it susceptible to the accumulation of contaminants that can cause negative impacts. Government, industry and academic sampling programs have targeted various components of the Gully ecosystem over the years. Water samples, sediment grabs and animal tissues have all been examined for a variety of chemicals. The Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat convened a series of workshops to examine what was known of the potential risks. That process resulted in a Research Document and a Science Advisory Report addressing the state of knowledge and monitoring needs.

Ecosystem Monitoring

Monitoring a range of indicators and threats is necessary to ensure the MPA is meeting its stated conservation objectives. A recommended approach to ecosystem monitoring was prepared by the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat in 2010. A Research Document formed the basis for a peer review workshop where a suite of indicators, strategies and protocols were examined. Twenty-nine indicators were recommended for the ecosystem and an additional 18 were advanced for pressure monitoring. The workshop and its major recommendations are summarized in a Science Advisory Report.

Vessel Traffic Monitoring

Threats posed by shipping activities have been a longstanding concern for management of the MPA. The remote offshore location has made monitoring a particular challenge. Monitoring and surveillance is being undertaken in partnership with the Canadian Coast Guard and Transport Canada. Aerial patrols have been supplemented in recent years by mandatory ballast water exchange reporting and positional data collected from satellites. A retrospective of vessel traffic in Atlantic Canada presents monthly maps and statistics for Gully transits.



In May 2004, regulations were enacted to formally designate the Gully Marine Protected Area (MPA), and provide legal protection for the canyon ecosystem.

The Gully MPA Regulations establish the boundary and management zones. The MPA is 2,364 square kilometres, and is divided into three management zones.

  • Zone 1 encompasses the deep canyon environment, which includes important habitat for cold-water corals, dolphins and whales. This zone is very sensitive to human impacts and has the highest level of protection.
  • Zone 2 includes the canyon head and sides, feeder canyons and the continental slope. This area contains a high diversity of marine life, and has a high level of protection with a limited number of permitted activities.
  • Zone 3 includes the sand banks adjacent to the canyon, which are prone to regular natural disturbance. The natural variability of the ecosystem in this zone provides management with some flexibility to permit more activities, provided they do not damage or destroy species assemblages or their habitats.

The Gully MPA Regulations make it an offence for any person to:

disturb, damage or destroy in the Gully Marine Protected Area, or remove from it, any living marine organism or any part of its habitat [sec. 4(a)].

These general prohibitions apply to the entire water column and include the seabed to a depth of 15 metres. The Gully is connected with the broader Scotian Shelf ecosystem via currents and movements of marine organisms. As such, the Regulations also prohibit activities in the vicinity of the MPA that result in the disturbance, damage, destruction or removal of organisms or habitats within the Gully MPA. The Regulations identify certain activities that are permitted in the MPA provided they operate under relevant legal conditions. These are:

  • Commercial hook-and-line fishing for halibut, tuna, shark and swordfish in Zones 2 and 3
  • Vessel transit (in compliance with the Canada Shipping Act)
  • Search and rescue, environmental emergency response and clean up
  • Activities related to national security, sovereignty and public safety


As per section 7 of the Gully MPA regulations, any person involved in an accident that is likely to result in any disturbance, damage, destruction or removal in the MPA of any living marine organism or any part of its habitat; must, within two hours after its occurrence, report the accident to the Canadian Coast Guard (1 (800) 565-1633). In addition, a description of all environmental emergencies and other incidents should be submitted to DFO using a standardized reporting template as soon as possible after the incident.


Violations of MPA Regulations can carry penalties of up to $100,000 for an offence punishable on summary conviction, and up to $500,000 for an indictable offence. A conviction may result in additional fines and imprisonment. Violations may also result in charges under the Fisheries Act and other applicable legislation, such as the Shipping Act and the Species at Risk Act. Convictions can result in fines and imprisonment under these Acts.

Critical Habitat

In 2010, Zone 1 of the Gully MPA was legally declared under the Species at Risk Act as Critical Habitat for the endangered Scotian Shelf population of Northern bottlenose whales.

Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement

Activity Application

Activity Application for the Gully MPA

Certain activities are allowed in the Gully MPA if a proponent submits an activity plan to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and it receives Ministerial approval.

Foreign researchers interested in conducting marine scientific research within waters under Canadian jurisdiction must request approval by writing directly to Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. The request is then evaluated for approval under Canada’s Foreign Vessel Clearance Request process. DFO reviews research requests as they relate to the Department’s mandate for marine science, resource management and conservation. In cases where research requests involve the Gully MPA, DFO reviews the proposed activities against the conservation and management objectives of the site.

Learn more about the activity plan process



  • Management Plan (2017)
  • Gully Marine Protected Area Monitoring Indicators, Protocols and Strategies (2010)
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  • Cameron, G.D.M., E.L. King and D.C. Campbell. 2008. Surficial geology and sun-illuminated seafloor topography, The Gully, Scotian Shelf, offshore Eastern Canada. Geological Survey of Canada, Map 2123A, scale 1:100000.
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