Fraser River species at risk as estuary under continued threat

Estuary extinction crisis

More than 100 animal species in the Fraser River estuary could be “functionally extinct” within the next 25 years, unless an overarching, multi-government plan is put in place to save them, a new University of British Columbia study warns.   

“We’re advocating for a new type of co-governance, which has First Nations front and centre alongside the province, municipalities and the federal government, because estuaries are falling through the cracks in terms of jurisdiction,” says senior author Dr. Tara Martin, a professor of conservation science at UBC.

The Fraser River estuary – which encapsulates Richmond – spans the region between Vancouver and the Canada-US border, and east towards Chilliwack. It is “one of the richest in all of North America,” said Martin.

Of the more than 600 species that live in the estuary, the study found 102 are at serious risk, including southern resident killer whales, five species of salmon, green and white sturgeon and migratory birds such as the western sandpiper.

When it comes to the challenges facing these species, it’s “death by 1,000 cuts,” said Martin, including intensification of agriculture, urban density, increased industrial activity, loss of natural habitat and climate change.

Projects such as the Trans Mountain pipeline and Roberts Bank terminal expansion were also found to jeopardize the future of many at-risk species.

“We can’t single out any one threat, it’s the combination of multiple threats over the last century, which has created this extinction crisis,” Martin said.

The study found that, under a business-as-usual approach, two-thirds of Fraser River estuary species are predicted to have a less than 50-per-cent chance of survival over the next 25 years.

The plan includes strategies such as aquatic habitat restoration, green infrastructure and transport regulation, fisheries regulation and aquatic disease control, and public and private land management.

All-in-all, researchers estimate the plan would cost $381 million over 25 years – about $15 million per year.
“That’s around $6 per person, or one beer or latte per person, per year, in the Lower Mainland,” said Martin.

“If you look at all the other co-benefits that we would get if we save the species – we save a viable fishery which is worth around $300 million a year; we save a whale-watching industry worth $26 million a year; we create over 50 full-time jobs to implement all of these management strategies,” said Martin.

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