The Fraser River delta’s designation as a UN “Wetland of International Importance”, or “Ramsar Site”, was welcome news to conservationists. It has taken 40 years. Even now, the designation omits Roberts Bank, a major part of the wetlands frequented by marine mammals, including endangered orcas, and providing feeding habitat for hundreds of thousands of migratory shorebirds and waterfowl, and hundreds of resident herons. Roberts Bank is the location of the Tsawwassen B.C. Ferries terminal. It is also the site of Port Metro Vancouver’s proposed Terminal 2, a giant expansion of the existing Deltaport container facility, for which “project definition consultation” got underway in October. A world-class wetland, at risk from imminent development, has been passed over for protection.
Wetlands, global and local, are in trouble. According to a report from the recent United Nations Convention on Biodiversity in Hyderabad, India, 50 percent of the world’s wetlands have disappeared since 1900. Wetlands regulate climate, store carbon, buffer the land from storms and floods, and provide wildlife habitat. Coastal wetlands produce a quarter of the Earth’s biological productivity, and yield 90 percent of the world’s fisheries. The Ramsar Convention’s deputy secretary general, Nick Davidson, speaking at Hyderabad, was unequivocal: “Business as usual is no longer an option....If we continue to undervalue wetlands in our decisions for economic growth, we do so at increasing peril for people’s livelihoods and the world’s economies.”
Yet the increasing loss of wetlands seems to have little impact on public policy. The drawn-out process of the Fraser delta’s Ramsar designation illustrates the snail’s pace of government conservation action.
By 1971, when the first UN Convention on Wetlands of International Importance met in Ramsar, Iran, the global loss of wetlands was already very high. In B.C.’s Lower Mainland, marshes and bogs had been drained and diked, the Fraser constrained into fixed channels, and port causeways thrust into the outer banks, disrupting the natural flow of river water and tides. As an initial conservation move, convention signatories committed to listing their most important wetlands, now over 2,000 in 163 countries. Canada was relatively slow to react, only signing the convention 10 years later, and designating B.C.’s first Ramsar Site in 1982. This was the 586-hectare, federally-owned Alaksen National Wildlife Area, which includes Reifel bird sanctuary. The provincially-owned coastal wetlands at Roberts Bank, Boundary Bay, and Sturgeon Bank were left out in the cold.
Another five years passed, and a Canadian Wildlife Service report argued strongly for Ramsar designation of the Fraser delta, showing that it far exceeded all the criteria, by 60-fold for shorebirds and 30-fold for waterfowl. The report concluded: “no comparable sites exist along the Pacific coast between California and Alaska. There is no other site in Canada that supports the diversity and number of birds found in winter in the Fraser River delta.”
More than 20 years after the initial Ramsar meeting, only one percent of the most important estuary on the Canadian Pacific coast was protected. Most of the delay was at the provincial level. In the early 1990s, the late Barry Leach, a naturalist closely involved in the creation of Reifel bird sanctuary in Delta and Serpentine Wildlife Management Area in Surrey, was among those who persistently requested that the provincial government designate Boundary Bay both as a WMA and a Ramsar Site. He met with constant rebuffs. However, public pressure, backed by a strong grassroots environmental movement, eventually caused a greener viewpoint to prevail. The Boundary Bay Regional Park was created on part of the old Spetifore property, Boundary Bay and Sturgeon Banks WMAs were declared in 2002, and much of Burns Bog was purchased for an ecological conservancy area in 2004. Roberts Bank WMA took considerably longer to be gazetted, despite the cause being strongly taken up by the Boundary Bay Conservation Committee, a local environmental group. First proposed by B.C. Ministry of Environment staff in 1996, Roberts Bank was only designated a WMA this year, and portions of the wetland remain excluded.
Fast forward to October 2012, and Ramsar Site designation finally takes place, 41 years after the original convention. The site is 20,682 hectares of wetland, encompassing Sturgeon Bank, Boundary Bay, Mud Bay, Semiahmoo Bay, Serpentine, South Arm Marshes, and Burns Bog. The only key wetland area missing is Roberts Bank. The lack of its provincial WMA designation prior to 2010, when the Ramsar application was initiated, is now blamed by politicians for Roberts Bank’s omission from the new Ramsar Site. This questionable bureaucratic anomaly must be swiftly corrected, as it makes no sense ecologically.
What difference will the Ramsar designation make? That remains to be seen. Although it is not supported with legislation in Canada, it draws the eyes of the world to our shores. The recognition of Burns Bog as part of the Ramsar Site has already had an impact on developer MK Delta Lands Group. A recent public meeting on a proposed large-scale development on bog lands immediately to the east of the ecological reserve, was rescheduled “in order to incorporate some of the broader based thinking being undertaken with the North Delta Area Plan review and the recent Ramsar designation for large parts of Delta’s wetlands.”
Business as usual is no longer an option when the world’s wetlands are in peril.
Anne Murray is a writer and naturalist, and the author of two books on the Fraser River delta—Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay and A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay—both available at bookstores and from Nature Guides B.C. She blogs at natureguidesbc.wordpress.com.