Georgia Strait Alliance is the only citizens' group focused on protecting the marine environment in and around the whole Strait of Georgia – Canada's most at-risk natural environment, and the place where 70% of British Columbians live, work and play. We are committed to a future for our region that includes clean water and air, healthy wild salmon runs, rich marine life and natural areas, and sustainable communities.

July 30, 2013

Want to be a Bright Birder? It's Easier Than You Think!

Mallard Duckling, Skaha Lake, Penticton. Photo by M. Wilson

So you want to try birding (that's bird watching, not bird hunting). Here's what you'll need to get started:
  • Binoculars (optional)
  • Bird identification book (optional)
  • An area where you can find birds (includes your backyard)
Pretty easy huh? Birding is a great hobby for all ages. It's free to do, and you can find birds anywhere in the world. With over 400 species of birds in Canada alone, it's a hobby that's always evolving and will keep you entertained for years to come, especially if you like to travel (for example, Brazil has over 1800 bird species, 234 of which are endemic, meaning they live there and nowhere else in the world).

As far as our Stewards of the Strait pledges are concerned, Bright Birders are in short supply. Which I find strange, because I'm sure that almost every person in British Columbia has at one point gone birding, though perhaps unknowingly. Did you see that American Robin digging for worms in your lawn? How about that Red-tailed Hawk soaring high above your office? You just went birding. Congratulations!

Now as a Bright Birder, there are some very important guidelines that we here at the Georgia Strait Alliance recommend you follow while you're viewing the birds. These guidelines will ensure that you not only keep the wildlife as safe and calm as possible, but it will also maximize your enjoyment of the hobby. There's nothing worse than getting too close to a bird and scaring it away before you have time to identify it, am I right?

Great Blue Heron, Stories Beach, Port Hardy. Photo by M. Wilson
If you want to try your hand at some genuine birding, here are the rules to follow (these guidelines have been adapted from the American Birding Association's Code of Birding Ethics):
  • Observe and photograph birds without knowingly disturbing them in any significant way. Avoid chasing or repeatedly flushing birds.
    • Not only will this keep the birds safe, but it will ensure you enjoy the birds' natural behaviours for as long as possible.
  • Only sparingly use recordings and similar methods of attracting birds and don't use these methods in heavily birded areas.
    • This one is very important. Birds use their calls to attract mates and guard their territories. If you use recorded bird calls to attract birds to you, not only are you likely stressing them out, but you could be doing them genuine harm (you may cause them to lose mates or territory, and no one wants to do that!).
  • Keep an appropriate distance from nests and nesting colonies so as not to disturb the birds or expose them to danger.
    • Obviously, any mother with a giant intruder near her babies will not be impressed. Don't scare mum!
  • Refrain from handling birds or eggs unless engaged in recognized research activities.
    • Don't touch anything! Besides, birds are famous for carrying lots of diseases, mites, and ticks. If you do touch a bird, clean your hands thoroughly afterwards.
  • Stay on existing roads, trails and pathways whenever possible to avoid trampling or otherwise disturbing the fragile habitat.
    • This will keep the entire ecosystem safe and pristine. The birds will thank you!
  • Leave all habitats as they were found.
    • This rule applies to all recreational outdoor activities. If you stop for a picnic, make sure you bring EVERYTHING back with you. This includes everything from sandwich bags to cigarette butts. And except for maybe the occasional feather, don't bring anything back with you, no matter how beautiful that empty bird's nest is.
Unidentified Sandpiper, Fishing boat off Ucluelet. Photo by M. Wilson
Lastly, now that you're a pro at responsible birding, don't forget to teach others what you've learned. If you see someone in a local park who isn't following these guidelines, it could simply be because they just don't know any better. Imagine how good you'll feel helping others to become as responsible as you!

So there you are, you are now ready to go out and discover the amazing and diverse world of birds. Please stop by our Stewards of the Strait website and sign our Bright Birder pledge. This will ensure that we here at the Georgia Strait Alliance know that there are people out there who care for the well-being of these amazing animals. While you're there, sign a few of our other pledges as well, I'm sure there's at least one that applies to you!

Enjoy your new hobby!

- Mikaela

July 23, 2013

Make your Own or Enter To Win –Toxic Smart Products!

Enjoying a lovely sunset last Tuesday at Parksville Summer by the Sea Market, Outreach Coordinator Mikaela and I were struck with a brainwave –what if we crafted a selection of Toxic Smart cleaning products, and collected natural soaps and scrubs from market vendors to create prize packs? We drifted from vendor to vendor, and were amazed by their overwhelming generosity –we collected no less than three natural bars of soap, lavender essence oil and bath salts in just ten minutes of asking!

 But what is “Toxic Smart”, and why is Georgia Strait Alliance so keen to promote these products? I’ll share some of our reasoning:

Our Toxic Smart program promotes simple and often cost-effective ways citizens can reduce their use of toxic chemicals, benefitting your family and the environment. We do this by providing education on chemicals commonly found in your home or garden products (check out this Toxic Smart Glossary to put the chemicals on your product labels to the test) and providing simple, natural alternatives to commercial products.Our online education booklets, What Does Clean Really Mean?  What's Your Poison? and Solving the Solvent Problem share more information on common chemicals and natural solutions for your home, garden and workshop -worth the read!

It seems obvious that natural fresheners and cleaners are a safer choice than many commercial products, but what does exposure to common chemicals do to our families and environment? Take ammonia, hydrochloric and sulphuric acids for example. These chemicals are often found in commercial glass or drain cleaners, yet exposure to their fumes puts us at risk for eye, lung, nose or throat irritation, not to mention chemical burns, headaches and nausea (gross!). 

One can only imagine what happens to our marine environments when they come in contact with such chemicals via sewage into nearby lakes, rivers and streams. Phosphates, for instance, found in many commercial laundry and dishwashing detergents can cause a spiral of negative effects on fish and aquatic life. By creating a build-up of nutrients in the environment, phosphates induce excessive growth of algae (“algae blooms”), which in turn depletes oxygen and well… doesn’t end well for aquatic organisms. 

Now that I’ve got your brain whirring about what’s really stored in all those bottles and tubes tucked under your kitchen sink, how about I share a couple simple recipes for you to try on those stubborn sticky stains, and dusty summer air filling your living room (our heat wave along the Georgia Strait is still going strong!) I’ll even test them out to save you the trouble.
Tools and ingredients for Toxic Smart Recipes
(Photo by M. Spencer)

1     1) All Purpose Cleaner
      Next time you’re traipsing down your local grocery store cleaner aisle, ask yourself: do I really need this specialized cleaning product? Often the answer is no –a well-crafted All Purpose Cleaner can do the job on a variety of surfaces, like counters, floors, walls, tiles and woodwork. I tried the baking soda and water mixture (below) on all five surfaces, and was very pleased with the squeaky clean result! And I can hear all the aquatic life downstream from our Nanaimo office splashing their approval :-)

 Dissolve 60ml baking soda in 1 litre of hot water, mix and use.
Or try mixing 125ml pure soap (such as Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap) with 4 litres of hot water. To help cut grease, add 60ml reconstituted or strained, freshly squeezed lemon juice.

Note: I’m not one for the smell of vinegar, but you may also try mixing equal parts vinegar and salt to get those surfaces sparkling.  

2) Natural Glass Cleaner
As I mentioned above, ammonia is a very toxic chemical for both humans and our environments. Unfortunately, many commercial glass cleaners mix ammonia with water, dye it a “cleaner” colour like blue or green, and can sell their product without a ‘Poison’ warning label! To avoid using ammonia in your homes, try this recipe for sparkling glass.

* Add 65ml vinegar OR 15ml lemon juice to a one litre spray bottle, then fill with warm water. Polish with newspaper (this helps avoid streaks).

Note: I used a terry cloth to test polish some glass mirrors and windows, and was also pleased with the result (just wipe gently).

Try out these recipes and let us know what you think! Do they clean as well as commercial cleaners, or perhaps free your conscious knowing that your cleaning practices are healthier for your home and the environment? As always, you can converse with us on Twitter, Facebook, or submit comments and videos to our Communities Atlas.

If you’d like to enter to WIN some of our Toxic Smart products (packaged so nicely in GSA labelled spray and cream bottles) and a lovely assortment of local, natural bath and body products you can either…
*        Submit a name entry to our Name our Mermaid Contest. Outreach Coordinator Mikaela and I will be attending many more events and festivals around the Georgia Strait, so stop by our table and enter or submit your name by e-mail to We’ll automatically consider you for the basket!
*         Sign one or more of our Stewards of the Strait Pledges, in person or online. We’ll automatically consider you for an in person entry, but if you sign our online Pledge please send a separate e-mail to, with the Subject Line “SOS: Toxic Smart Entry.” One entry per person please!

Happy cleaning,


July 17, 2013

New Outreach Activity: Bitumen and Water Don't Mix

M&M just finished another great weekend, with beautiful sunshine to keep us company! On Saturday we went to Victoria to celebrate Mountain Equipment Co-op’s Paddlefest, an amazing event where beginner to expert paddlers were showing off their moves in the calm waters of Willows Beach. Then we finished off the weekend with a relaxing trip to Cedar, where we enjoyed a busy day at the Farmers’ Market, one of our favourite local markets. We had lots of interest at our booths all weekend, but for this week’s blog, I’d like to introduce our new activity, which we unveiled on Sunday.

With last week’s launch of GSA’s Save the Salish Sea campaign, it only seemed fitting to create an activity that would show what might happen if there were to be a spill of tar sands oil into the Georgia Strait. So we developed a visual aid to highlight the risks. Just what would happen in the event of a heavy oil spill on BC’s south coast? Unfortunately, we don’t have definitive answers at this time because an independent, comprehensive risk analysis has never been performed for a heavy oil spill in the Georgia Strait – despite the fact that tar sands oil is already being shipped through our waters. We can only hypothesize what could happen here based on independent scientific studies performed in other geographical areas and in a lab environment. These studies have shown very interesting – and controversial – results, which are summarized below. But first, just what is being pumped to our coast? The answer: diluted bitumen.

The Alberta tar sands produce thick oil called Bitumen, which has the consistency of peanut butter. In order for this oil to be able to flow through a pipeline, it must first be diluted with a diluent, usually a less dense form of oil or gas (such as natural gas condensate, which is extremely toxic and flammable). Once diluted, the bitumen (now referred to as Diluted Bitumen) can flow easily through the pipeline and becomes less dense than water. The diluent is itself a danger, containing toxic chemicals such as benzenes, paraffins, naphthene, or heavy metals.

When exposed to natural weathering such as wave action and UV radiation from the sun, spilled diluted bitumen has been shown to separate. In other words, the diluent evaporates into the atmosphere, and as a result the diluted bitumen becomes less and less dense, sinking to the bottom or becoming suspended between the surface and the ocean floor. This can cause a host of other difficulties. If spilled oil sinks in the ocean, it becomes much harder to clean up. Manual removal using booms and other collection devices can’t be used beneath the surface, and viscous bitumen is resistant to chemical dispersants. In other words, as an Environment Canada scientist put it, our existing spill response technologies are unlikely to be successful at significantly controlling a spill of diluted bitumen. Diluted bitumen has also been shown to bind to sediments in the affected water body, which make it heavier and can cause it to sink faster. Because of the Fraser River, the waters on BC’s south coast are full of very fine river sediments.

Heavy oils such as bitumen are known to have serious effects on the overall health of the environment. Some impacts that could result from an oil spill in BC waters include: death of plants and animals, harm to people living nearby, and destruction of habitat including breeding habitats. Oil of any type is extremely persistent, and studies have shown that oil can remain in the environment after 30 years, and may even persist for as long as a century.

        Photos by: M. Wilson

Our interactive display aims to visually represent how diluted bitumen may separate over time and cause the heavy bitumen to sink. Have a look at the pictures above; the blue stuff is plain old water with a little food colouring. In a bottle we mix vegetable oil (representing the diluent) with a much thicker herb salad dressing (representing the bitumen). The oil is less dense than the water so it floats on top, while the dressing is denser so it will sink in the water. However, when the oil and dressing are mixed together and poured into the jar on top of the water, the mixture floats on top. Soon after adding the mixture, the dressing starts to separate from the oil and sinks, leaving the oil floating on top. After a few minutes, a few gross blobs of dressing rest on the bottom of the jar, representing the bitumen that could stay on the sea floor and wreak havoc on the invertebrates and delicate kelp species that live there. Of course our experiment happens at an accelerated time scale and doesn’t account for wind and wave action and other factors that would affect a diluted bitumen spill in the ocean – but it does highlight the basic fact that bitumen is denser than water, and is a great way to get people talking about the risks of shipping tar sands oil.

If you’d like to see this experiment yourself, drop by our table at any of our events and say Hi (you’ll find me in Courtenay this Saturday and in Vancouver on Sunday, see our events page for more details). Or if you want more information about the proposed pipeline expansion and what you can do about it, check out the Save the Salish Sea website or the Georgia Strait Alliance website. Thanks for dropping by!

- Mikaela

July 11, 2013

Save the Salish Sea!

I am very excited to announce the launch of Save the Salish Sea, our new campaign in collaboration with the Wilderness Committee to protect our unique corner of the ocean from the threat of fossil fuel expansion.

The Salish Sea is one of the world’s most spectacularly beautiful and ecologically rich bodies of water, stretching from the north end of the Strait of Georgia to Puget Sound in Washington State. Here, hundreds of rivers meet the sea, creating a unique coastal environment that supports a huge variety of marine life, including wild salmon and endangered killer whales. Tourists, businesses and residents alike are drawn by the region’s mild climate, unique geography, fantastic quality of life and the stunning natural beauty of the Salish Sea.

Map courtesy of Wilderness Committee
All of this is at risk. Right now, plans to triple the capacity of Kinder Morgan’s pipeline running from the Alberta tar sands to the BC coast, and to dramatically increase coal shipments from our ports, risk turning the Salish Sea into a superhighway for fossil fuel exports.

If these projects are approved, BC will be responsible for millions of tonnes of extra carbon emissions and go from being a green leader to a global climate change export hub. And the magnificent Salish Sea will be under the constant threat of a catastrophic oil spill that would devastate the marine environment, coastal communities and BC’s entire economy for decades to come.

Save the Salish Sea is a new rallying point for concerned citizens: a place to find out more about fossil fuel development in the region, come together, and take action to protect the Salish Sea. So please take a moment to explore our new website, and if you have a bit more time, write an email to Premier Christy Clark asking her to stand up to the federal government and take back our power to say ‘no’ to projects like Kinder Morgan that aren’t in the best interests of British Columbians.

For us here at GSA, Save the Salish Sea is a natural extension of our efforts to protect the Georgia Strait from the threat of increased tanker traffic. We want to highlight the combined impacts of fossil fuel exports in the region, both to our local waters and our global climate, and contribute to the national conversation about how we make the transition to a clean energy future. By banding together with allies from all corners of the Salish Sea, we are building on our strong history of working across the Canada-US border to protect our shared waters, and ramping up the pressure on decision-makers in both countries.

We love feedback, so please get in touch with any thoughts, questions or ideas about the campaign. Now that we’re off and running, we’ll be holding a series of town hall meetings and other events across the Salish Sea this summer and fall, so stay tuned to our events calendar to find one near you - I hope to see you there!

July 9, 2013

Are YOU a Caring Kayaker?

As strong coastal winds whipped under a blanket of summer sunshine, our volunteer Jessie and I began our set-up at Jericho Beach for Mountain Equipment Co-op’s Vancouver Paddlefest last Saturday. While we did have our fair share of weather and equipment challenges, we were SO pleased to see so much responsible recreational activity taking place in English Bay. Jericho was teeming with new and experienced kayakers, paddleboarders, and canoers, and we are happy to say that many of them paused in their paddling to come greet us at the Georgia Strait Alliance display, taking our Caring Kayaker Pledge!

A sea of kayaks paddleboards and canoes! (Photo by R. Spencer)
We started our day with a few set-backs, but nothing the clipboard crew of MEC organizers couldn’t handle. Unable to enter our downtown Vancouver office to grab our tent, table, and chairs, Jessie called me calmly that morning to say “So…we might have a slight problem.” Not letting it throw off our game, we decided it was best for her just to come to Jericho, and we would find a way to get replacement equipment! After an hour of calling, asking, and politely standing next to MEC’s pile of extra tables and tents, one of the clipboard crew granted us with some equipment. Let the pledging and paddling begin!

A steady stream of folks decked out in wet suits, life jackets and beach attire stopped by our display on the sand to see what Georgia Strait Alliance was all about. We took the opportunity to promote our eight Stewards of the Strait Pledges -simple but effective ways you can ensure your recreational and living activities are more respectful of the marine environment. As this was a day of water sports, Jessie and I greeted passers-by with our Caring Kayaker Pledge.

Did you know that Caring Kayakers keep 100m from marine mammals and bird colonies?

Or that they keep their garbage contained, respect other paddlers, and report environmental problems to the proper authorities?

Jessie shows off the Stewards of the Strait Pledge Card
(Photo by M. Spencer)
As we tackled our windswept tent and packed up after another successful MEC Paddlefest, we reflected on our conversations with kayakers, boaters, and outdoor enthusiasts. Ultimately, many of them had the same interests as Georgia Strait Alliance -to promote the sustainability of Georgia Strait, its adjoining waters and communities. As recreational users of this exquisite water body, we agreed it is our responsibility as Stewards of the Strait to give back what we take from our marine experiences. Whether this is participating in a shoreline clean-up, or being a respectful kayaker, there are endless ways to show our adoration of the ocean and preserve it for future generations. Want to share why you love the Georgia Strait? Submit a comment or video clip to our Communities Atlas, or perhaps find us on Facebook and Twitter, we would love to hear from you!

Keep on kayaking :)