(This story is sponsored by the City of Vancouver.)
To listen to Angela Danyluk list all the reasons she’s excited about the upcoming Herring Day in False Creek is to marvel at the way one of Vancouver’s most well-known waterways has changed over time.
“What’s interesting is that a lot of people see False Creek now and, like most humans, we tend to think what we see in front of us is the state that area has always been in,” says Danyluk, a senior sustainability specialist with the City of Vancouver. “That’s just not the case, especially with False Creek. It went from a mudflat ecosystem that supported sturgeon and fish and clams and oysters to an industrial heartland."
The waterway’s history will be part of the in-person and family-friendly Herring Day, which takes place on Fisherman’s Wharf in False Creek from noon to 3 p.m. this Saturday (April 2). Participants will have the chance to not only check out the herring spawning in False Creek, but to also interact with environmental groups working in the area. The event will help spotlight Vancouver’s Sea2City Design Challenge by displaying the early design concepts, created by two multidisciplinary design teams who have been exploring ways Vancouver can adapt to rising sea levels and coastal flooding in False Creek.
The initiative is crucial to the future of the area thanks to global climate change, which has us in a time of atmospheric rivers, heat domes, forest fires, and floods. Launched by the City last year, the Sea2City Design Challenge aims to, from both a planning and ecological perspective, reimagine the shoreline of False Creek for future generations, paying special attention to climate adaptation and the reality of rising sea levels.
Those providing invaluable input include not only those from the area’s Host Nations, but also local, national, and international experts. Also important to the city is gathering ideas and feedback from the citizens of Vancouver. And that’s something Danyluk and her peers are looking to do with Herring Day.
The event is to celebrate the fact that herring—after a decades-long absence—have indeed re-established themselves in the inlet. That started a decade ago when Squamish streamkeepers began laying nets on the ocean floor, giving the fish something to attach their eggs to.
“The herring started coming back, which is really phenomenal, because in the Salish Sea they are a keystone species,” Danyluk says excitedly. “They are really important to the ecosystem—kind of like the foundation.”
If she’s excited about that return, it’s because for years it seemed like it would never happen.
“In the ’70s we have stories of fishermen taking their boats into False Creek for the purpose of letting them just sit in the water,” she continues. “Because the water was so toxic, it would clean the hulls of the barnacles and the seaweed. And now we have herring spawning in False Creek, and more sea life than what we used to. False Creek water quality still has a ways to go in terms of improvement—I’m not going to downplay that. But it is changing, and will continue to change in the future, especially with sea-level rise.”
Change has long been a part of False Creek, which, before the arrival of Europeans, once stretched all the way to what we know as Clark Drive. The area—part of the unceded traditional homelands of xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) people—was stewarded by local First Nations for centuries.
Reconciliation is a major component of the Sea2City Design Challenge, with the city working closely with members of the Host Nations as an important way to not only learn about False Creek over the centuries, but to also decolonize and Indigenize civic processes and planning.
The ultimate goal of the Sea2City Design Challenge is both raising public awareness and coming up with solutions for how rising sea levels and climate change will continue to impact coastal areas of Vancouver.
That includes False Creek, which, starting with Expo 86, began to evolve for the better after more than a century as an environment-polluting ground zero for sawmills and manufacturing.
Today, that area is marked by a beautifully winding seawall which connects residential neighbourhoods made up of condos, schools, daycare centres, parks, shops, and restaurants. Those neighbourhoods look out onto an ever-busy, highly Instagramable waterway used for everything from kayaking and rowing to sailing and dragon boat racing. As False Creek has become a magnet for Vancouverites, it’s also seen wildlife return, including not only herring, but seals, ducks, herons, and even the occasional grey whales and orcas.
With so much progress made after some dark industrial years, the challenge for the city is to make sure that False Creek continues to adapt to the world around it. For a quick reminder why that’s important, consider the major climate change events that have hit the West Coast over the past few years. There was last summer’s record-breaking heat dome and province-wide forest fires, which were then followed by catastrophic flooding after the fall brought pounding atmospheric-river rainfalls. False Creek hasn’t been spared, with high winds and king tides contributing to the flooding of part of its seawall this past January.
In a best possible world, the city will start implementing an action plan in 2030 to ensure False Creek is prepared for whatever climate change throws at it in the decades to come.
“That gives us sufficient time between now and then to do more studies to figure out what’s possible, and also to do fundraising,” Danyluk says. “The city alone can’t pay for what we need to come up with.”
And part of the reason that the city is going to need us all pulling on the same rope is that False Creek isn’t the only place in Vancouver where life is going to look different in the years ahead.
“We can take the learnings of False Creek and then apply them elsewhere,” Danyluk notes. “Coal Harbour is very similar in terms of topology. So we can save some time and effort by focusing on False Creek first. It’s a great part of the city, but it’s also a great proxy for the rest of the city to learn from.”
And learning is something we all need to do, she continues, not just from experts, but also from each other at community outreaches like Herring Day. The world is changing. And the time to prepare for that is now, starting with finding out more about public values in terms of adaptation approaches for flooding and sea level rise. In the past, dikes, levees, and dams were seen as go-tos. It’s time to look forward to the future.
“We need to come up with a range of responses on the land and in the water,” Danyluk says. “While the solutions are typically very technical, there’s still lots of scope for the public to be involved. We want to figure out what people value so we can use their ideas.”
And, as a bonus part of the Sea2City Design Challenge planning process, celebrate one of the West Coast’s most important fish this week with Saturday’s Herring Day open house at Fisherman’s Wharf.
“We still don’t know a lot about herring, and why and where they spawn,” Danyluk marvels. “There are only a few places in the Salish Sea where they spawn on a regular basis, and one of those places is False Creek. There are 160 nets that are out on Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Squamish streamkeepers estimate there are a couple-million eggs per net. So it’s pretty wild they’ve come back.”
For more information on Herring Day and the Sea2City Design Challenge, go to www.vancouver.ca/sea2city.