DELTA FORCES

Can na­ture and de­vel­op­ment co­ex­ist on the Fraser River Delta, the eco­log­i­cal hot spot that’s home to ever-ex­pand­ing Metro Van­cou­ver?

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - By Mar­garet Munro with pho­tog­ra­phy by Ben Nelms

Can na­ture and de­vel­op­ment co­ex­ist on the Fraser River Delta, the eco­log­i­cal hot spot that’s home to ever-ex­pand­ing Metro Van­cou­ver?

THOU­SANDS OF SNOW GEESE rise in a swirling white cloud and a wave of gut­tural honk­ing re­ver­ber­ates across the Alak­sen Na­tional Wildlife Area, a 349-hectare patch of wet­land, woods and fields on the Fraser River Delta about 35 kilo­me­tres south of down­town Van­cou­ver. Of the 54 na­tional wildlife ar­eas in Canada, Alak­sen is one of only 10 open to the pub­lic, mak­ing it, as the fed­eral gov­ern­ment says, a great place to con­nect with na­ture — and on this crisp De­cem­ber morn­ing, with a breeze blow­ing in from the sea, it lives up to that billing. Black-crowned night herons hunch in bushes along the edge of a slough, sand­hill cranes drop from the sky be­tween fir trees and a shape-shift­ing cloud of dun­lin streaks by in the dis­tance. Rap­tors are here, too, reign­ing over the marsh. Four bald ea­gles are on pa­trol scar­ing up ducks, a pair of north­ern har­ri­ers floats low over a sea of bul­rushes and a hawk swoops down to perch on a drift­wood stump in the tall un­du­lat­ing grass. “It’s a rough-legged hawk hunt­ing for Townsend voles,” says Anne Mur­ray from her po­si­tion atop a dike, binoc­u­lars up for a bet­ter look. Mur­ray would know. For decades, the Delta, B.C., res­i­dent and mem­ber of the board of di­rec­tors of Bird Stud­ies Canada has been watch­ing the more than 250 species of birds that can be seen here. And she is one of their fiercest de­fend­ers, a vol­un­teer care­taker of the Fraser River Es­tu­ary Im­por­tant Bird and Bio­di­ver­sity Area, or IBA, one of the most im­por­tant avian refuges in the Amer­i­cas. It at­tracts up to 1.4 mil­lion birds a year — from the more than 500,000 west­ern sand­pipers that can drop onto its mud­flats in a sin­gle day dur­ing spring mi­gra­tion to the snow geese, ducks, loons, grebes, plovers and rap­tors that use it as a balmy refuge when the snow falls in the rest of the coun­try. “No other site in Canada sup­ports such a diver­sity and num­ber of birds in win­ter, and no com­pa­ra­ble site ex­ists along the Pa­cific coast be­tween Cal­i­for­nia and Alaska,” says the Cana­dian Wildlife Ser­vice. But the es­tu­ary hosts more than just birds. It also pro­vides vi­tal habi­tat to 80 species of fish and shell­fish and sup­ports some of the great­est salmon runs on Earth. Mil­lions of salmon bound for spawn­ing grounds swim through the es­tu­ary ev­ery year, and 600 mil­lion to a bil­lion young salmon seek shel­ter in the ti­dal marshes, where they feed and ac­cli­ma­tize to salt wa­ter be­fore head­ing out to sea.

Atop a two-storey bird-watch­ing tower in the Ge­orge C. Reifel Mi­gra­tory Bird Sanc­tu­ary, which is in­side the IBA and over­laps the Alak­sen Na­tional Wildlife Area, Mur­ray takes in a sweep­ing view of the es­tu­ary that helps make Metro Van­cou­ver a global eco­log­i­cal trea­sure. To the north, be­yond the flocks of geese, the city is framed by snow-capped moun­tains. To the west are the mist-shrouded Gulf Is­lands and the deep-green wa­ters of the Strait of Ge­or­gia, home to or­cas, sea lions and dol­phins. Up here, it’s pos­si­ble to imag­ine that Van­cou­ver can co­ex­ist with na­ture. In re­al­ity, threats to the es­tu­ary loom on al­most ev­ery hori­zon.

METRO VAN­COU­VER, wedged be­tween the Coast Moun­tains and the United States bor­der, is one of Canada’s fastest-grow­ing cities. The me­trop­o­lis, which in­cludes 21 mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, is home to close to 2.5 mil­lion peo­ple, and another mil­lion are ex­pected by 2040. Mayor Gre­gor Robert­son has made bike paths, re­cy­cling and en­ergy-ef­fi­cient con­dos pri­or­i­ties in his bid to make Van­cou­ver “the green­est city in the world by 2020.” And Robin Sil­vester, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Port of Van­cou­ver, says the city can have it all — a boom­ing econ­omy, a thriv­ing com­mu­nity, a healthy en­vi­ron­ment and the “world’s most sus­tain­able port.” Laud­able goals, but crit­ics find them hard to square with the dan­gers the ever-ex­pand­ing city poses to the Fraser es­tu­ary. Huge ships loaded with jet fuel will soon start us­ing the Fraser River to sup­ply Van­cou­ver In­ter­na­tional Air­port’s new $110-mil­lion fuel de­pot, which will hold 80-mil­lion litres and con­nect to the air­port via a 13-kilo­me­tre-long un­der­ground pipe­line. And hun­dreds more ves­sels a year could soon be tran­sit­ing the es­tu­ary’s in­creas­ingly busy wa­ters to a new $400-mil­lion river­side liq­ue­fied nat­u­ral gas ex­pan­sion pro­ject, a pro­posed coal-ship­ping fa­cil­ity and, in nearby Bur­rard In­let, the ma­rine ter­mi­nus for Kinder Mor­gan’s $7.4-bil­lion Trans Moun­tain oil pipe­line ex­ten­sion. “A spill could be dis­as­trous,” says Mur­ray, look­ing out from the view­ing plat­form to the ship­ping chan­nel as a cargo ship sails by. Then she points south to the sprawl­ing Roberts Bank port, which is just out­side the pro­tected wildlife area and could soon be un­der­go­ing a $2-bil­lion ex­pan­sion. Trains and trans­port trucks stream out to an ar­ti­fi­cial is­land where 137-me­tre-high mega­max cranes re­sem­bling Im­pe­rial Walk­ers from lift cargo on and off some of the world’s big­gest ships. The Port of Van­cou­ver has al­ready trans­formed crit­i­cal bird habi­tat into ship­ping and trans­porta­tion fa­cil­i­ties and has am­bi­tious plans to in­dus­tri­al­ize a lot more. “De­vel­op­ers just keep nib­bling away — a port fa­cil­ity here, a high­way there, a fuel-farm there,” says Mur­ray. Less than 30 per cent of the es­tu­ary’s his­toric wet­lands re­main and dozens of its species — from salmon to shore­birds — are un­der threat, mak­ing the re­gion one of the most im­per­illed ecosys­tems on the con­ti­nent, a bright red spot on Birdlife In­ter­na­tional’s global map of crit­i­cally en­dan­gered sites. Robert­son, who steps down this fall af­ter 10 years as Van­cou­ver’s mayor, says the im­por­tance of the es­tu­ary and sur­round­ing Sal­ish Sea can­not be over­stated. “It’s been the lifeblood of the com­mu­nity since peo­ple first ar­rived here,” he says, stress­ing the es­tu­ary and its bio­di­ver­sity must and can be pro­tected and re­stored even as the city grows. He points to tech­nolo­gies re­duc­ing the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of sewage and trans­porta­tion in Metro Van­cou­ver and to the rewil­d­ing of small cor­ners of the city as ini­tia­tives that can be built on, but notes that fed­eral, pro­vin­cial, lo­cal and First Na­tions gov­ern­ments and de­vel­op­ers must work to­gether to make pro­tect­ing the es­tu­ary a pri­or­ity. “We need every­one at the ta­ble to en­sure things are done right and in an en­vi­ron­men­tally re­spon­si­ble way,” says Robert­son. “Right now, we have con­flict­ing agen­das,” a ref­er­ence to mega-projects such as the pro­posed ex­pan­sions of the Roberts Bank port and the Trans Moun­tain pipe­line. “The city has used ev­ery tool it has to stop the ex­pan­sion,” says Robert­son of the pipe­line. “It’s a huge threat to our en­vi­ron­ment and our econ­omy.” The pro­ject, which the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is buy­ing from Kinder Mor­gan for $4.5 bil­lion to en­sure it gets built (de­spite fierce op­po­si­tion in Bri­tish Columbia), would triple the amount of oil car­ried by the pipe­line and see a seven-fold in­crease in tanker traf­fic in the wa­ters where the Fraser River meets the sea.

ESTUARIES ARE RICH, com­plex and dy­namic ecosys­tems with far-reach­ing bi­o­log­i­cal con­nec­tions. An in­ter­na­tional re­search team only re­cently re­al­ized that an en­ergy-rich slime known as biofilm grow­ing on Metro Van­cou­ver’s mud­flats is a crit­i­cal food source for hun­dreds of thou­sands of shore­birds mi­grat­ing be­tween their win­ter haunts in Latin Amer­ica and their breed­ing grounds in the Arc­tic.

LESS THAN 30 PER CENT OF THE ES­TU­ARY’S HIS­TORIC WET­LANDS RE­MAIN AND DOZENS OF ITS SPECIES ARE UN­DER THREAT, MAK­ING THE RE­GION ONE OF THE MOST IM­PER­ILLED ECOSYS­TEMS ON THE CON­TI­NENT.

The Fraser es­tu­ary, the largest on Canada’s Pa­cific coast, formed when glaciers re­treated about 10,000 years ago and melt­wa­ter roared out of the moun­tains, wash­ing down mas­sive amounts of sand and gravel, cre­at­ing the delta where marshes, mead­ows and forests took root. In 1808, ex­plorer Si­mon Fraser pad­dled down the river into the es­tu­ary, where he met Musqueam peo­ple liv­ing sur­rounded by tow­er­ing rain­for­est and wet­lands alive with elk, bear, cougar, fish and birds. Euro­pean set­tlers ar­rived decades later and be­gan clear­ing forests, drain­ing wet­lands and har­vest­ing fish and game that had sus­tained First Na­tions for close to 9,000 years. The trans­for­ma­tion con­tin­ues, with land in the es­tu­ary now the hot com­mod­ity. Barb Joe is an Elder and knowl­edge-keeper in the Tsawwassen First Na­tion, which traces its history on the es­tu­ary back thou­sands of years. Her great­grand­fa­ther, Chief Harry Joe, was born in a long­house in 1865, just down the road from where she lives in her peo­ple’s tra­di­tional vil­lage. Over cof­fee on the back porch of the First Na­tion’s main of­fice on a cloudy spring morn­ing, Joe points to her great-grand­fa­ther’s long­house in a pho­to­graph dated 1922. It was one of seven that sat at the base of a forested bluff in a clear­ing look­ing out to sea over ex­pan­sive marshes and mud­flats. In spring, the Joe fam­ily feasted on eu­la­chon, a her­ring-like fish so rich in oil it burns like a can­dle when dried, and so plen­ti­ful it spawned in the river by the mil­lions. Joe’s an­ces­tors hauled the fish out of the silty wa­ter, fill­ing their cedar boats as flocks of div­ing ducks and gulls dived on the eu­la­chon from above, and seals, sea lions and gi­ant stur­geon took their fill from be­low. In sum­mer, her great-grand­fa­ther ca­noed with the fam­ily to camps along the river to har­vest all five types of salmon re­turn­ing from the Pa­cific — chi­nook, coho, chum, pink and sock­eye. In fall, they har­vested ber­ries and mi­grat­ing ducks. Come win­ter, the fam­ily was back in­side the long­house, shar­ing the large com­mu­nal space built from gi­ant cedars. When Joe was born in 1953, much of the for­est had been cleared to make way for farms, but tra­di­tion per­sisted. Her fam­ily still lived largely off the land — ber­ries, ducks, geese, deer, clams, cock­les, crabs, eu­la­chon, salmon and stur­geon — and she re­calls her mother boil­ing fresh crab for pic­nics as the chil­dren warmed up by the fire af­ter splash­ing in tide pools. It’s a very dif­fer­ent place to­day. Joe points north to where a slough, which the Tsawwassen peo­ple used as a short­cut to get to the Fraser River, was filled with soil to cre­ate farm­land, forc­ing her an­ces­tors to pad­dle a longer, more treach­er­ous route through open wa­ter. Her great-grand­fa­ther’s long­house is also long gone, torn down to make way for High­way 17 to the BC Fer­ries’ Tsawwassen ter­mi­nal and a two-kilo­me­tre­long cause­way that opened in 1960. A five-kilo­me­tre­long cause­way opened in 1970, cross­ing the mud­flats to a bulk coal ter­mi­nal built on Roberts Bank that soon ex­panded to han­dle cargo. It is now one of the busiest ports in North Amer­ica. “We’ve been hemmed in on both sides,” says Joe, the din of trans­port trucks and trains echo­ing across the wa­ter. Roberts Bank, which op­er­ates night and day 362 days a year, changed cur­rents over the ti­dal flats, where coal dust and a long list of in­va­sive species have joined the crabs in the tide pools where Joe splashed as a child.

PHO­TO­GRAPHS TAKEN from the give a sense of the hu­man foot­print on the es­tu­ary to­day — a grey grid of high­ways, rail lines, res­i­den­tial ar­eas, malls, ware­houses and farms ex­tend­ing from the ti­dal flats more than 80

BARB JOE, A TSAWWASSEN FIRST NA­TION ELDER, RE­CALLS HER MOTHER BOIL­ING FRESH CRAB FOR PIC­NICS AS THE CHIL­DREN WARMED UP BY THE FIRE AF­TER SPLASH­ING IN TIDE POOLS. IT’S A VERY DIF­FER­ENT PLACE TO­DAY.

Barb Joe, a Tsawwassen First Na­tion Elder, stands on the shore­line where she played as a child ( this im­age). The Fraser River Delta looks very dif­fer­ent to Joe to­day as Metro Van­cou­ver and its port con­tinue to ex­pand and more ships than ever ply the delta’s wa­ters ( op­po­site).

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