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.

May 12, 2014

Where salmon and shipyards are neighbours

What North Vancouver's MacKay creek can teach us about urban shorelines

What gets two dozen environmentalists, scientists and planners to cram into a school bus on a cold and rainy Saturday morning? The prospect of exploring the latest urban stream restorations in the city, of course!

You would be forgiven for considering this field trip a decidedly geeky exercise, but as one of the people in the bus, it turned out to be a remarkable experience. It was the second leg of a Forum organized by Evergreen that brought together a wide range of people working on urban watershed issues, from storm water management to “daylighting” lost streams in the city.

The trip brought to mind the fascinating natural processes that are going on in the middle of a bustling city, sometimes in little green oases that are boxed in between roads, buildings and industrial lands. And it showcased how, amidst all the urban and industrial activity, we can restore some of the ecosystems we thought we lost if we bring the right people and the right resources together.

Two good news stories are unfolding at the mouth of MacKay Creek
Photo: Sebastian Merz
Standing above North Vancouver’s MacKay Creek, Ken Ashley, Director of the BCIT Rivers Institute explained to the group of—now visibly shivering—keeners how the creek’s estuary had recently been put back into a state that resembles more closely what it used to be. And that is in part thanks to its industrial neighbours, Seaspan’s shipyard, which is just gearing up to fulfill a multi-billion-dollar contract to build new Coast Guard vessels. Seaspan partnered with the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation to use funds from a “creative sentencing award” for the restoration of the estuary right behind the shipyard.

Like many other estuaries, the mouth of MacKay creek had been reduced to a straight channel with riprap armouring and a large concrete weir that interrupted many ecosystem functions. The weir, for example, prevented Chum and Coho salmon as well as cutthroat trout from returning to the stream to spawn.

In September 2013 work started on removing the weir and re-grading the creek’s tidal benches so they would be able to support saltmarsh vegetation. Logs were placed to provide shelter for fish and wildlife, and students from nearby Bodwell High School put shovels to the ground to help plant native species. Two months later—yes, only two months later—salmon were back in MacKay Creek, as if they had just been waiting for the weir to come down. In fact, that is pretty much what they had been doing, Ashley explained. Year after year, the salmon returned only to get stuck in front of the barrier and to be rounded up by opportunistic harbour seals.

It’s encouraging to see two good news stories unfold in such close proximity. The major shipbuilding work on the one hand that will bring jobs and economic opportunities to the community, and the return of the salmon on the other, literally a few meters away. It’s encouraging for Georgia Strait Alliance as we are working on our Waterfront Initiative that tries to enable exactly this type of balancing between different uses of our shorelines. Striking this balance won’t always be easy, and the results may not be as immediately visible as those in MacKay creek. Urban ecosystems remain urban, and it is often difficult to return them to their natural state because of practical limitations or because we have specific ideas of what nature in the city should look like—another lesson the Urban Watershed fieldtrip taught us.

But the fact that it is difficult and that there are so many diverse interests is precisely why GSA’s Waterfront Initiative is facilitating collaboration between stakeholders and partners with a wide range of perspectives on the waterfront.

What is your connection to the waterfront? 
Photo: Sebastian Merz
In April, we convened the first Waterfront Network Forum, a day of rich and engaging dialogue on what the future of the shoreline may look like. We will be posting more information on the outcomes on our website very shortly. Over the coming months, we will continue the conversation with our growing network and—importantly—with citizens. We want to hear from the city’s people how they use the waterfront and what they want its future to look like. In October, we will invite the public to celebrate our shoreline, with a range of exciting activities. Don’t miss out and stay in the loop on our website and on Twitter and Facebook.

And if you happen to travel along the North Shore’s Spirit Trail sometime soon, check out what’s happening at the MacKay estuary. Another piece of good news is that it will likely be much warmer by then.

May 8, 2014

Cross border conference sees hope & the challenges ahead

When I think about the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference, which took place last week in Seattle, I find it ironic that a cross-border conference could make me feel so many opposing feelings. I left feeling hopeful and deeply concerned, energized and exhausted, frustrated and thrilled, ready to act and wondering how. We live in a spectacular region, and so many people love it and are ready to work to make that happen – but we need to really get our heads together to figure how we do that – and now.  You know, those kinds of feelings!

Every two years, hundreds of scientists, policy makers and members of civil society gather together to share, discuss and plan for how we will protect our shared waters of the Salish Sea. I’ve had the privilege of attending 6 of these conferences over the years and I was thrilled this year to be joined by 3 other GSA staff – Michelle Young (Clean Marine BC), Alexandra Woodsworth (Energy and Shipping) and Sebastian Merz (Waterfront Initiative). Together we gave 3 talks and spoke to dozens (possibly hundreds!) of people about our work, our vision and our concerns.

Here are just a few of our shared thoughts, impressions and memories about the conference we’d like to share with you:
  • The Pacific North West is the ‘thin green line’, the last frontier and ground zero for one of the most monumental environmental battles ever seen, and at a pivotal moment for all life on the planet. There is a huge volume and variety of energy proposals pushing to get out to the Asian market, and this is the worst place in the world for them to want to do this. 
  • Simply put – we need to start thinking about this as one region, no border, when it comes to fossil fuel transport. We’re still not there yet and this highlights a real gap in communication and our organizing efforts, if we want to protect the entire Salish Sea. 
  • We need to address development proposals in a much more integrated fashion. We heard how so many proposals sound exactly the same — insert # of jobs, mitigating measures here, etc, etc. Adjustments and tweaks are really not enough given cumulative effects of all development; we need a fundamental paradigm shift.
  • A recurring theme – Canada lags behind the US: 
    • Canada is lagging behind the US on dealing with derelict vessels, recreational vessel sewage discharge, and funding for pump-out facilities.  When will we step up?
    • Washington's efforts around engaging citizens in oil spill response as compared to BC's (comparatively nothing) was incredible — they have a whole website run by Department of Ecology for training. Not so in BC.
    • There are a large number of NGOs involved in protecting Puget Sound and in doing research. We have great NGOs in BC, but our impression was that the Sound gets a lot more attention than the Strait does up here.  That has to change.
    • Where were the Canadian federal scientists?  We were so impressed by the number of interesting presentations from NOAA researchers and staff. The quality of the research and the freedom with which they were allowed to speak was a sharp contrast to Canadian federal scientists, many who were not able to attend due to travel budget limitations (or other reasons). Our impression is that science and communication is supported in Washington, a stark contrast to what is going on in Canada with the gutting of DFO and other agencies.  
  • At a science conference, social sciences are equal partners.  The social science panels were very interesting and very popular. Integrating social science approaches into an ecosystem conference seems to have struck a chord – and is necessary to creating a sustainable region.
  • Asking communities what they want.  We saw several presentations on redevelopments and conservation which keyed in on the challenge and opportunity of engaging the community in a real way – you know, as if we really wanted to know what they thought!  Phillip Levin is doing great work on how to build community support for conservation, including asking people how much development they want and how much they are willing to pay to restore ecosystems. Mike Stoner from the Port of Bellingham talked about the re-development of the waterfront and how the community wants jobs, housing and nature on the waterfront. We set the bar high when we ask people what they want – and shouldn’t we always?
  • We have to start being able to account for our natural capital at a local level. Right now municipalities have no proper way of doing this other than, for example, accounting for your freshwater resources by accounting for your water pipes and other infrastructure. Being able to account for natural capital directly could help make conservation easier and more attractive.
  • We were inspired by the overall feeling of hope and all the amazing work that people are doing, all of the brilliant minds coming together. One talk was on public eco-art and science based collaboration — using art, infrastructure and science to turn public works into beautiful, clean, functional and thought provoking spaces. Going beyond mitigating measures to a whole new level, using science based solutions to turn a negative into a positive (rather than less of a negative). That’s the kind of revolutionary ideas we need!
And that’s just some of what we heard.
In addition to the conference itself, we were greatly pleased by the media pick-up — including stories about at risk species and fossil fuel transport.  It’s so important for the communities of the Salish Sea to see what their scientists and policy leaders are doing in the region and we hope this is the start of a more robust conversation.

So, here is our word cloud for the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference: Hope – hard work – brilliant minds – thin green line – pivotal moment in history – need for change – Canada lagging behind US in laws, in leadership, in investment – more cross border thinking – government science/research in US compared to Canada, investment in science – social and natural science – asking communities what they want – accounting for natural capital – safety on paper vs safety on water.

We love where we live. We need to protect where we live. Knowing that so many feel the same way is so hopeful. I guess I’m not conflicted after all.