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Snow geese take to the air at Garry Point Park, in Richmond, B.C., on Jan. 10, 2021. The B.C. Ministry of Environment estimates 100,000 of the birds reside in the Fraser River Delta every winter.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Margaret Munro is a Vancouver-based journalist.

The hawk spied a vole scurrying through the marsh grass and swooped down for the kill, steps from the busy dike trail. People stopped and marvelled. Then most carried on. But not all. Several photographers were soon heading out into the marsh with their long-lensed cameras, some getting within metres from the raptor with the rodent in its talons. The light from the west was perfect, so why not close in for the perfect shot?

Wildlife photographers who think a camera gives them licence to go anywhere have long been a problem, and there is mounting concern over their brazen behaviour at the Roberts Bank Wildlife Management Area. A half-hour drive from downtown Vancouver, the sweeping marshland at the mouth of the Fraser River is a globally important refuge for upward of a million birds – and a magnet for nature photographers.

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Clad in rubber boots and camo gear, the photographers have become so numerous they have beaten paths out into the wetlands past British Columbia Environment Ministry signs telling people to stay on the trail and to not disturb or harass the wildlife.

The human traffic has gotten so bad the mayor of the nearby municipality of Delta recently asked the province for help controlling “users venturing off the dike into the foreshore marshes” and “not respecting wildlife.” Letters of protest and posts on social media have also denounced the avian “paparazzi” and urged the NDP government to better protect the marshes, which are under provincial jurisdiction.

The photographers’ behaviour is typical of a broad social indifference that has left the Fraser estuary so battered it is classified as “in danger.” Individuals, companies and governments say they care about protecting the river delta and its ecosystem, but all too often put their interests ahead of the needs of the 100 endangered and threatened species – from barn owls to killer whales – that depend on the estuary for survival.

The Fraser River in Chilliwack, B.C., as seen on May 16, 2018, is the largest and most important estuary on Canada’s west coast.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Estuaries are among the richest and most dynamic ecosystems on Earth. The Fraser River, which carves its way through Coast Mountains on its way to the Salish Sea, created the expansive delta that sweeps from Vancouver south to the U.S. border. It is the largest and most important estuary on Canada’s west coast.

Hundreds of thousands of migrating shorebirds stop on their marathon flights from South and Latin America to breeding grounds in Alaska, and they do not drop in for the scenery. They come to refuel on slimy energy-rich biofilm that grows on the tidal mudflats. Hawks, falcons and owls, some flying in from as far away as the Arctic, turn the estuary into the raptor capital of Canada during the winter as they hunt for small mammals, fish and other birds. Tens of thousands of snow geese from Russia’s Wrangel Island converge on the delta in the fall and spend months rooting around the marshes. And every year more than two billion young salmon swim down the Fraser River (which historically supported the largest wild salmon runs in the world) and use the tidal marshes as a nursery, before heading out to sea.

Coast Salish people have lived for thousands of years on the delta, which served up a natural banquet of sturgeon, trout, salmon, elk, deer, shellfish, ducks, geese, berries, roots and aquatic tubers. When explorer Simon Fraser paddled down the river in 1808, the estuary was surrounded by towering rain forests and the braided channels of the river swept freely across the estuary, bathing – and sometimes flooding – the lowlands with nutrients and freshwater.

The landscape has been transformed in 200 years. Grizzlies and elk are long gone and less than 30 per cent of the wild habitat remains. The rest of the floodplain has been drained and diked to make way for farms and the sprawl of Metro Vancouver, which now encompasses 21 municipalities.

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Flying into Vancouver International Airport gives a bird’s-eye view of the impact – an urbanized wedge that begins 100 kilometres inland and extends all the way to the edge of the tidal flats. Roads and railways criss-cross the estuary and more than 500 kilometres of dikes snake along the river to protect farms, homes, malls, warehouses, greenhouses and golf courses. The arms of the Fraser River, now constrained and tamed by causeways, jetties and dredging operations, flow past sewage treatment plants, cement factories and log booms.

Metro Vancouver is now home to 2.7 million people, with another million expected by 2050, and some of the most expensive real estate in Canada. Subdivisions and condos keep rising – some of the most recent on ironically named Orca Way, Hawk Lane and Osprey Drive – and industrial interests and activities in the estuary are more imposing than ever.

Amazon recently moved into a massive new 10-acre warehouse that erased habitat used by dozens of birds, including barn owls, a threatened species. Construction is under way on a new $150-million tank farm for Vancouver International Airport, a riverside complex to handle the first tankers loaded with jet fuel to ever enter the river.

Tens of thousands of snow geese from Russia’s Wrangel Island converge on the delta in the fall and spend months rooting around the marshes.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Even more contentious is the Port of Vancouver’s plan for a $3.5-billion expansion of a shipping terminal that already looms large over the estuary, with 137-metre-tall gantry cranes that resemble Imperial Walkers from Star Wars. The port expansion, which awaits federal approval, would widen the existing five-kilometre-long causeway slicing across the wetlands and create an artificial island to accommodate Post-Panamax cargo ships, which can measure more than 400 metres long.

The Port of Vancouver is also proposing the first ship-to-ship LNG marine refuelling service on the West Coast of North America in partnership with FortisBC. The energy company is in the midst of an $800-million expansion of its riverside Tilbury LNG (liquefied natural gas) terminal in the estuary, and has proposed a further $3-billion expansion that is under federal and provincial review. And in nearby Burrard Inlet, the marine terminus for the $12.6-billion TransMountain pipeline carrying oil from Alberta will add more tankers to the increasingly busy waters in front of the estuary.

Relentless development and human encroachment is a common fate for estuaries. People, initially attracted by the natural riches, often overconsume, overpopulate and overwhelm. Many of the world’s biggest cities, including Tokyo, Jakarta and New York, sit on estuaries that were once havens for wildlife. The Fraser Delta still is, as the photographers trampling through the marshes for iconic shots of short-eared owls and rough-legged hawks can attest.

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Vancouver is a young city and there is still a chance to save and rewild key components of the estuary. But time is running out for the ecological hotspot that is designated as a Ramsar Wetland of International Significance, and a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Site of Hemispheric Importance.

Bird Life International has classified the Fraser estuary as being “in danger.” And a recent study, led by University of British Columbia researchers, says more than 100 species that rely on the estuary are at risk. “If we don’t act quickly, many species, including species of salmon and the southern resident killer whale, are likely to be functionally extinct in the next 25 years,” says senior author Tara Martin, a UBC professor of conservation science.

The tragedy is that humans no longer need to live on estuaries. People can live almost anywhere and society has evolved – some might argue devolved – so that few of us have to hunt and gather food to survive. Truth is, left to fend for ourselves, most of us would be lucky to last for a week outdoors. We’ve come to depend on warm homes, running water and food that comes wrapped in cellophane. As many city dwellers know, life can be sweet 10 storeys up in a concrete tower, preferably one with WiFi and a nice view.

Yet we collectively continue to eat away at the last wild lands on the Fraser estuary, which provide critical habitat and food for sandpipers, orcas and salmon. Why? Because it’s easier and cheaper to build on the flat open expanses than on mountainsides. It’s more expedient to expand existing ports and pipelines than to relocate to less biologically sensitive areas. It is more profitable to redevelop old industrial land into riverside condos than to return it to marshland. And it is politically easier to reinforce dikes to protect low-lying subdivisions than it is to restrict housing and allow water and wild things to reclaim the land.

Such mindsets have dominated since the 1800s when Fort Langley was established on the banks of the Fraser River (1827) and Vancouver became a city (1886).

But the pandemic has made clear that, when threatened, we can change behaviour – quickly and abruptly. And scientists and ecologists say it is long past time for some sharp turns in the way we live in order to protect the biosphere. If not for the sake of the wild creatures that are just holding on, then for the sake of the human species in the long run.

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Authorities have for years been sounding the alarm over habitat loss, extinction, climate change, pollution and relentless spread of invasive species. Few are as eloquent or as emphatic about the need to protect the biosphere, its lifeforms and lifeforces as biologist Edward O. Wilson, professor emeritus at Harvard University. “The ongoing mass extinction of species, and with it the extinction of genes and ecosystems, ranks with pandemics, world war, and climate change as among the deadliest threats that humanity has imposed on itself,” Prof. Wilson says.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has embraced the role of environmental advocate. He has promised to conserve a quarter of Canada’s natural land and ocean habitats by 2025, and to make the country a global champion for international conservation targets.

Forthcoming decisions on development and management of the Fraser estuary will put Mr. Trudeau’s commitments to the test. In March, 2020, a federal environmental assessment panel concluded the planned Port of Vancouver expansion would have significant adverse effects on wetlands, on chinook salmon that depend on the estuary and on the endangered southern resident killer whale that rely on the salmon. A federal decision on whether to allow the port expansion into this fragile ecological web is expected this year.

Scientists and environmentalists have also stepped up the pressure on government to rein in the piecemeal development and management of the estuary, saying Ottawa needs to sit down with the province and First Nations to develop a Fraser Estuary Restoration and Management Plan before making decisions on any new industrial projects.

The recent UBC study, which concludes there is an “urgent need for action” to protect and restore the estuary, assessed 102 species ranging from tiger beetles to sturgeon. It found two-thirds of the species have less than a 50-per-cent chance of surviving in and around the estuary over the next 25 years. Most threatened are the 75 remaining southern resident killer whales, which share their waters with oil tankers, freighters and cruise ships.

The study pegged the cost of better management at $381-million, or $15-million a year. Lead author Laura Kehoe notes the price of improving the odds of survival for most of the species in the estuary would be less than $6 a year per person in Greater Vancouver.

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The default is to allow continued erosion of the delta’s web of life. In that case, there will be photographs to remind future generations of the ecological riches that this generation squandered.

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