HALIFAX - The federal and Nova Scotia governments are moving to provide permanent protection for Sable Island, an ecologically sensitive spit of land about 290 kilometres southeast of Halifax in the Atlantic Ocean.
Studies are underway to determine just what form that should take, federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice announced Monday as he signed a memorandum of understanding with the province.
"Fundamentally, this is a public choice about whether we proceed with a national park designation or wildlife habitat designation," said Prentice.
"It's really a question of the degree of protection and the highest protection is offered by Canada's National Parks Act."
Sable - roughly 3,400 hectares of shifting sand held together by vegetation and ocean currents - is 41 kilometres long and about 1.5 kilometres wide.
Known as the graveyard of the Atlantic, the island is home to about 400 wild horses whose ancestry traces back to some of the 223 ships known to have wrecked off the island.
It is also home to several species of migratory birds, holds the world's largest concentration of grey seals and is a focal point for natural gas exploration and production.
The fishing industry has long held the island's grey seal population - currently estimated at about 300,000 - responsible for the inability of diminished groundfish stocks to rebound.
Anything that affords the seals greater protection would be a problem for organizations such as the Nova Scotia Fish Packers Association.
Spokesman Denny Morrow said the group wants to make sure its voice is heard before any decision is made.
"As the number of grey seals have increased over the past 15 years, we just see the number of parasites (worms) increase in groundfish," said Morrow.
"Even if we could fish in the moratorium area we couldn't use what we catch."
Morrow also said that new research and other information shows that the herds tend to gather in shallower water where groundfish usually spawn.
"If you've got a lot of fish-eating predators in places like Brown's Bank, Lahave Bank and Sable Bank - important cod spawning areas - do you really expect the fish to collect there?"
Prentice said he accepted that some fishermen had concerns about the way forward and committed to widespread consultation before a specific option is chosen.
"This is the largest grey seal rookery in the world, as I understand it, and there are fisheries issues that relate to that and we need to hear from people about it," he said.
Prentice said if the island were to be brought under national parks designation, culls would still be permitted.
"We are cognizant of the animals that are there and want to make sure that the populations are left in a natural balance. Culls happen in other circumstances. That would be a consideration here as well."
Prentice said either designation would not impact on any offshore gas production or exploration and would not relate to any of the surrounding marine environment.
John MacDonell, Nova Scotia's Natural Resources Minister, said the move to safeguard Sable Island would help the provincial government in its pledge to protect at least 12 per cent of Nova Scotia's land mass.
MacDonell said anyone currently seeking to visit the island needs special permission to do so and he appreciates that a parks designation could mean more traffic.
"We kind of have this jewel that we'd like people to see but we don't want them there to destroy it," he said.
"It would have to be carefully regulated."
MacDonell said he thinks a lot of Nova Scotians who have never been there would like a chance to experience the island's isolated beauty.
"And I am one of them."