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Waterfowl winter refuge Fraser River Delta risks being lost forever

The American Wigeon's population is declining due to habitat loss © Andrew A Reding / Flickr

This winter, like every winter before it, thousands of ducks, geese and swans will gather to weather the cold at Fraser River Delta, Canada. But for how long? With a shipping terminal mega-expansion on the horizon, our Canadian Partners are campaigning to save this vital habitat – and you can help.

By Jessica Law

Sign the petition to help protect Fraser River Delta

The value of a tract of land can look very different depending on what your priorities are. If you’re a business mogul, you’ll know the Fraser River Delta as Canada’s ‘Gateway to Asia’ – a major transport and trading hub serviced by industrial shipping, rail and road networks. But for millions of migratory birds, this fertile estuary has a far more important role as the gateway to their breeding grounds on the arctic tundra.

Every year, thousands of waterfowl and waders stop to rest and refuel on their spring migration, feasting on crustaceans, molluscs and ‘biofilm’ – slimy sheets of microbes that are found on the vast mudflats of the Fraser River Delta. Most of the global population of Western Sandpipers Calidris mauri stop here during spring migration. The fatty acids found in biofilm are a vital nutrient source for this tiny wader, giving it the energy to journey another 3,000 kilometres and start breeding. It’s safe to say that without the Fraser River Delta, the entire species could be at risk.

During late summer and early autumn, the delta becomes an important hideaway for moulting grebes and sea ducks, at their most vulnerable (and least glamorous) time of year. Then in winter, the banks of the estuary become carpeted with the plump, downy outlines of swans, ducks and geese huddled against the cold. Two percent of the world’s American Wigeon Mareca americana population overwinter at Fraser River Delta – this small, compact duck upends itself in search of aquatic plants or grazes on marshland and farm fields. Although familiar and widespread, its population dropped by 65% between 1966 and 2015 – with loss of habitat a major factor.

Geese resting on Iona Beach, Fraser River Delta © Birds Canada
Geese resting on Iona Beach, Fraser River Delta © Birds Canada

But these wetlands don’t just offer year-round hospitality to migratory birds – they also acts as a gateway inland to Canada’s largest migration of wild salmon. And as well welcoming adult salmon heading upstream, the delta is also an important salmon “nursery”, where juvenile Chinook Salmon Oncorhynchus tshawytscha feed and grow before setting off on their first trip to the Pacific Ocean. This has knock-on benefits: adult Chinook Salmon are the primary food source for the highly threatened southern resident Killer Whale Orcinus orca population, now down to around 75 individuals.

And that’s not to mention the gateway to happiness and wellbeing it has provided to humans, inspiring countless Canadian citizens to love and respect the natural world.

Given this information, you may be shocked to learn that this area of rare ecological importance has already lost 80% of its natural habitat. Now, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority is proposing a mega-expansion of a shipping terminal at Roberts Bank: a proposal which has been criticised by a federal review panel as having significant adverse effects on the delta’s species. BirdLife Partners Nature Canada and Birds Canada, along with local NGO BC Nature, are campaigning for those in power to put in place a Fraser Estuary Management Plan before any more development can occur, and are calling for public support. It’s up to us to decide what kind of gateway we’d like Fraser River Delta to be.

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