Anne Murray: Fraser River estuary under-appreciated as bird hot spot
As the trees blossom in Vancouver, hundreds of thousands of birds are migrating through the area each week on their way to the interior and northern regions of the continent. Among them will be many shorebirds, such as tiny western sandpipers, which weigh less than a granola bar and measure barely 17 centimetres long.
They are making an astonishing 11,000-kilometre journey from their winter home in South America to their nesting area in Yukon and Alaska. They will pause for just a couple of days each, to feed on the beaches and mud flats of Boundary Bay and the mouth of the Fraser River. Sandpipers are just one of many species that occur in globally significant numbers in our local wetlands, making the Fraser River estuary the top-rated important bird area in Canada and a global hot spot on the continental Pacific coast.
Thanks to jurisdictional wrangling and short-sighted political leaders, the importance of the estuary as a migratory bird stop-over has been consistently under-celebrated, under-protected, and under-valued.
Most countries are keen to celebrate their natural assets with international designations that draw attention to the attributes of their wildlife and landscapes. One such designation is that of Ramsar site, named for the 1971 Ramsar Convention in Iran that began recognizing and conserving wetlands of international importance. One hundred and fifty-nine countries, including Canada, have ratified the convention, and 1,888 wetlands have been listed worldwide. You can visit Ramsar sites in Peru, Australia, and, yes, Iran.
Canada has been slow to complete its list. Despite the vast size of our country and wetlands, fewer sites are listed than in Ireland, Denmark, or Mexico. Nearly 30 years after the launch of this initiative, Boundary Bay and the Fraser River estuary have not been listed, despite exceeding the threshold for designation by 60-fold for shorebirds and 30-fold for waterfowl. The provincial government has so far proved resistant to the designation despite energetic lobbies by local conservationists. Only the federally owned Alaksen National Wildlife Area on Westham Island has been granted Ramsar status, while the much larger, provincially owned Boundary Bay Wildlife Management Area, Roberts Bank, Sturgeon Bank, and South Arm Marshes, and jointly owned Burns Bog all await the provincial government’s approval. Surely, 2010 would be an auspicious date to celebrate these examples of B.C.’s natural heritage on the world stage by listing them as Ramsar sites.
Mere designation does not protect habitat, however, and we need to see much greater protection of the Fraser River estuary wetlands and floodplain. Their value has been recognized ecologically for decades, yet the last few years have seen an onslaught on the remaining upland habitats and greatly increased disturbance on the marine environment. It is no surprise that population numbers of many shorebirds, salmon, and other species have crashed since 1990.
One example of the many problems facing the estuary is the way that port infrastructure on Roberts Bank has radically changed the ecology of the river mouth. Causeways and training walls block sedimentation, causing destabilization of sand banks at the active front of the delta, and prevent the natural braiding of river channels. They impede tidal flow, altering the salinity balance of the estuary, encouraging the growth of non-native eelgrass on previously unvegetated tidal flats, and increasing the risk of eutrophication. Artificial lights shining around the port disrupt the circadian rhythms of marine species from crabs and fish to birds and whales. Waters in the estuary and lower reaches of the Fraser are warming due to lower glacial run-offs and industrial developments on the banks, which is affecting the viability of salmon, oolichan, and sturgeon that require very precise ranges of water temperature. The port expansion has also led to the construction of container depots and highways, such as the South Fraser Perimeter Road, which are gobbling up thousands of acres of good farmland, impacting Burns Bog and steadily turning the banks of the Fraser River into an industrial wasteland.
The conservation response of both federal and provincial governments has been weak—relatively small sums of money spent on so-called “enhancements” or “mitigation”, often in areas that are already reasonably good habitat, and nothing done to truly compensate for or reduce the impact of these enterprises. One idea would be to bridge parts of the causeways on Roberts Bank to allow tidal flushing. This engineering approach would be expensive but effective, as shown by a smaller but similar project that breathed new life into a dying estuary at Delkatla Slough at Masset. For good measure, Deltaport should bury the overhead wires along the causeway that are a lethal hazard to migrating shorebirds.
We also need to address the under-valuing of the Fraser Estuary’s ecological, recreation, and tourism benefits. For example, politicians of every stripe seem to be totally unaware that birding and wildlife tourism are huge revenue generators in North America and around the world. Participants spend close to US$46 billion in the U.S. annually, equivalent to the combined amount of revenue from all spectator sports, all amusement parks and arcades, casinos (except casino hotels), bowling centres, and skiing facilities. If nothing else persuades a politician to save habitat for birds and other wildlife, this economic argument surely should.
Anne Murray is the author of two books on Lower Mainland nature and ecological history: Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay and A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay.