By James Casey, Fraser Estuary Specialist, BC Program, Birds Canada
Mitigating and adapting to climate change have emerged as defining challenges of our time. Climate change adaptation is always featured in the recommendations I make to decisions makers in the course of my work to conserve bird habitat in the Fraser River Delta Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA).
Climate adaptation in a coastal setting such as the Fraser River Delta includes two core elements: first, maintaining the ecological function of coastal wetlands, and second, protecting upland areas as potential future coastal habitats with the predicted sea level rise. These are examples of what is known as “Nature-Based Solutions to Climate Change”, and deal mostly in how we manage the flow of water. These two recommendations would benefit a range of bird species as well as aquatic animals such as salmon. Maintaining ecological resilience requires our community to adopt a nature-positive relationship with the Fraser River Estuary.
A typical coastal wetland in the Fraser Delta IBA (Northern Shoveler in Serpentine Fen) Photo: Kris Cu
Governments are currently deciding how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of climate adaptation funding. Despite being warned by the expert community that transformative change in our relationship with nature is needed, these funds are being spent on building walls to protect our existing way of life. As sea level rises and more water flows down the Fraser River, communities are building higher and higher dikes trying to keep the water out. As with any strategy that attempts to separate humanity from nature, this approach is bound to fail in the long term. We are already seeing problems: saltwater creeping in through the groundwater and being pushed higher up the river by an ever-rising tide.
Unfortunately, shorebirds risk losing out in this struggle between a rising sea and the human desire to keep out the water. As the name implies, “shorebirds” require a shoreline for many of their daily activities. In the Fraser River Delta, the large mudflats created by eons of sediment deposit from the river are essential foraging grounds for migrating and overwintering shorebirds. As walls are built around our community and the river is further constrained, the mudflats are shrinking, and with them, habitat for a range of coastal birds.
The solution amounts to leaving room for the river and the habitats created by its natural ecological processes. A number of projects led by conservation organizations such as Watershed Watch Salmon Society, Raincoast Conservation Foundation, and Ducks Unlimited Canada are restoring aquatic habitat by reconnecting the river to its lost streams and wetlands. Similarly, work by West Coast Environmental Law and the Stewardship Centre For BC is keeping pieces of shoreline intact through alternatives to the traditional dike. We at Birds Canada have provided bird-specific data to inform these projects. But, the individual projects risk being overwhelmed by government decisions to keep building larger and higher dikes.
There are currently three high-level processes underway that are developing strategies for adaptation on the Delta. Perhaps furthest along is the Lower Fraser Flood Management Strategy. It is a process concerned primarily with managing the risk to communities from flooding. To date, the strategy largely fails to account for the creation and maintenance of habitat.
Dyke at Iona Beach Regional Park, Richmond, BC Photo: Kris Cu
An alternative and more ecologically-informed approach is being taken in the Metro Climate 2050 plan. Within the Metro Climate 2050 approach, our relationship with nature has been acknowledged. The plans being developed are considering how our built infrastructure can contribute positively to the ecological function of the region.
The last process, just getting underway, is the provincial Climate Preparedness and Adaption Strategy. The provincial strategy includes maintaining resilient species and ecosystems, but makes no mention of birds and the specific habitats they require. Here is where the birds and other wildlife of the Fraser River Delta need your support.
We at Birds Canada will continue to undertake analysis and research on how to conserve habitats for birds. But we need you to submit your thoughts to these processes about why birds need to be considered in climate change adaptation strategies. Given the scale of change occurring within the Fraser River Delta IBA, the future of the region’s birdlife is not guaranteed. If we want to continue enjoying their spectacular migrations and uplifting songs, we need to speak for the birds now. Whether you express your thoughts in an email, a call, or a letter to an editor, every action helps to ensure we leave room for the birds in our adaptation strategies. You can visit the links above (for each of the three processes) to get started.