10 Jul 2019

Canada delta in danger from trading port expansion

Fraser River Delta is one of British Columbia’s most vital habitats for migratory shorebirds, and the site of a major discovery about how shorebirds feed. Two BirdLife Partners, Bird Studies Canada and Nature Canada, are joining forces with BC Nature to halt plans for a huge trading port on-site.

The delta is home to 40,000 Snow Geese © Bird Studies Canada
The delta is home to 40,000 Snow Geese © Bird Studies Canada
By James Casey, Bird Studies Canada

Sign the petition to get this site the protection it desperately needs


The Fraser River is the longest river in British Columbia, Canada, consisting of a 240,000 km² watershed encompassing Rocky Mountain glaciers flowing down to a fertile delta front on Canada’s western coast. The lands and waters of the estuary are the unceded territory of the indigenous Coast Salish people who have lived in the region since time out of mind.

Despite having already lost almost 80% of its natural habitat, the Fraser estuary today continues to support millions of birds and Canada’s largest migration of wild salmon. In this sense, those living in and around the estuary are blessed with a unique richness of wildlife. During a well-timed walk along this coast, lucky visitors can happen upon 100,000 Dunlin Calidris alpina, or 40,000 Snow Geese Anser caerulescens.

The importance of the Fraser estuary is well known amongst the scientific community. It has been designated an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area, a Ramsar Wetland of International Significance, and a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Site of Hemispheric Importance in an effort to ensure Canada provides the level of protection this site deserves. And in any other part of Canada, this would be enough to secure its position as a National Park. However, the delta mouth’s strategic location - opening into the Pacific Ocean – has instead seen the estuary grow into a major transport and trading hub, and it is now known as Canada’s ‘Gateway to Asia’.

The pressure on the remaining habitats is now immense, with piecemeal development occurring across the entire estuary with no overarching legal framework to protect it. The warning signs of ecological collapse of are there for all to see: populations of several birds are declining, and along the coast local Killer Whale populations are on the borderline of functional extinction. Further up the river, even the wild salmon populations are now threatened. And the situation may soon get even more desperate. A massive container port expansion is being proposed that would sit smack in the middle of the estuary: the Robert’s Bank Terminal 2 project.

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Ironically, it was here on the Fraser estuary that we learned the true value of coastal mudflats to wading birds: in 2005, the coastal ecologist Dr Bob Elner, who had spent many hours watching Western Sandpipers Calidris mauri at Roberts Bank, realised the birds consumed huge quantities of biofilm – basically, a coating of microorganisms that sat on top of the mud. This has triggered a much more detailed look at the proposed development. In particular, authorities are examining how this project might alter the function of the larger estuary that provides space and nutrients for hundreds of thousands of migrating shorebirds.

The Roberts Bank Terminal 2 project is just one example of how Canada is putting the Fraser estuary at risk without a firm conservation plan to maintain its function. However, Canada’s movement to deliver on its commitments to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and a recent financial commitment to restore salmon habitat in the Lower Fraser give us hope. Our Preserve Our Living Delta campaign calls on the Canadian government not to approve any new industrial projects until a comprehensive conservation strategy for the Fraser estuary is in place. Existing projects should be managed to restore biofilm, migratory bird stopover areas, and salmon habitat.


We urge as many of you as possible to sign the petition to enable this to happen and help Canada uphold its global responsibilities.