Published: April 30 2014
VANCOUVER — The sandpipers are right on schedule, hundreds of thousands of them touching down on the mudflats just south of the city.
The “peeps” are here to refuel, some almost doubling their weight in just a few days. Then the tiny aerial acrobats liftoff continuing their marathon journey to their breeding grounds in the Arctic.
The world’s western sandpipers migrate up the Pacific coast touching down at the Fraser Delta each spring. They arrive like clockwork to slurp up the gooey biofilm on the mudflats — goo that has created a rather sticky issue for a massive port expansion planned just south of Vancouver.
Port Metro Vancouver believes its megaport, known as Roberts Banks Terminal 2, and the “peeps” can coexist.
It could break the migratory chain, “a nightmare scenario” that could endanger the shorebirds, says Roger Emsley, executive director of Against Port Expansion, one of several groups opposed to the port’s plan.
Given the potential for “its significant adverse environmental effects” federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq has referred Roberts Banks Terminal 2 to an independent review panel.
The new terminal would take six years and between $2 and $3 billion to build. It is part of the massive $22-billion Pacific Gateway Project expanding freeways, bridges, railways and port facilities south of Vancouver and strengthening the “corridor of choice between Canada and the high-growth Asia-Pacific markets,” as Ed Fast, the federal minister of international trade, likes to put it.
The problem is the port expansion is also on the ‘corridor of choice’ for birds that fly thousands of kilometres from the Southern U.S., Central and South America to breeding grounds in Russia, Alaska and northern Canada.
The Fraser River Delta provides “critical feeding, breeding and wintering habitat” for more than a million migratory birds, according to a recent Environment Canada report that describes the tidal mudflats at Roberts Bank, in front of the proposed terminal, as a “vital stopover site.”
“Roberts Bank, as part of the Fraser River Delta, contains the richest and most important ecosystems for supporting water bird abundance and diversity in Canada,” Environment Canada says in the report sent in December to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency that is managing the upcoming review.
It says the nutrient-rich biofilm, or “sublime slime” as one federal scientist has described it, that forms on the mudflats and acts like an energy drink for migrating birds is key.
“Biofilm fields over the intertidal mudflats at Roberts Bank fuels the long distance migrations of Western Sandpipers and Dunlin (another shorebird) to their Alaskan breeding grounds, making this area essential to the successful migration and reproduction of these species,” the report says.
Roberts Bank already has a coal port and a terminal for shipping containers that are connected to the mainland by a five-kilometre causeway cutting across the tidal mudflats — facilities build before anyone recognized the global ecological significance of the area and its mud.
The plan for Roberts Bank Terminal 2 is to create another artificial island 1.5 kilometres long and 700 metres wide to handle enormous ships up to 400 metres long and carrying as many as 18,000 shipping containers. It’s estimated about 1,850 trucks and five trains a day would shuttle cargo to and from the new terminal that would almost double the current capacity to move containers though Port Metro Vancouver, already Canada’s largest port.
Along with the threat of accidents and spills, there is concern the artificial island could alter the flow of currents and nutrients that lead to biofilm production. Environment Canada has called for a “precautionary” approach given the “scientific uncertainty of the cumulative effects.”
Port officials say they believe they can build the terminal without harming the birds.
“There is no question that Roberts Bank is critically important,” says Cliff Stewart, vice-president of infrastructure delivery for Port Metro Vancouver. “We are committed to ensuring that any potential impacts of the project to the environment generally, including shorebirds, are avoided or mitigated.”
As part of the environmental assessment process the port has teams studying the birds and biofilm. “We are trying to figure out what it is exactly the birds are doing while they are out there,” says Stewart.
“Millions of dollars” worth of studies are underway that he says will be made public before the review hearings begin, likely next year. Stewart says the biofilm is important, “but it is not in any way, shape or form the only thing that is important.”
Studies, co-authored by Environment Canada researchers, indicate biofilm can make up 70 per cent of diet of the migrating sandpipers.
“For western sandpipers, biofilm is the whole meal,” says Emsley, on a recent visit to Roberts Bank, which is now alive with birds. “If the biofilm goes then the birds go, we simply cannot afford to risk it.”
Emsley also takes issue with the way Port Metro Vancouver is now leading the environment impact studies. “There is no independent science in this,” he says.
Stewart counters that the scientists and engineers doing the studies are professionals. “These guys and gals tell us what is, not what they think we might want to hear,” he says.
VANCOUVER — Environment Canada biologist Mark Drever has his spotting scope and camera focused on the migrating shorebirds touching down in the Fraser Delta.
But he is not allowed to speak with reporters about the birds he sees.
“I’d be glad to answer your questions but the interview would have to approved first by Environment Canada’s media office,” Drever said when approached by Postmedia News on a dyke along the Fraser River Delta, while surveying the birds from his Environment Canada truck.
Postmedia asked the department’s media office in Ottawa for permission to interview Drever. “We will not accommodate your interview request,” media officer Danny Kingsberry replied by e-mail from Ottawa. Kingsberry would not explain why.
The refusal to let Drever speak about the birds is “Orwellian” and further evidence of the Harper government’s “war on science,” says Roger Emsley, who heads the group called Against Port Expansion. He, like many observers, finds Environment Canada less accessible than it used to be.
While Drever is not talking he is lead author of a report, published in March, suggesting there is much to learn about the shorebirds that stream through the Fraser Delta on their way to and from their Arctic breeding grounds.
Counting the tiny birds that swoop around in huge flocks is a challenge. They lift off en masse at the first sign of eagles, peregrine falcons or other raptors. And how long individual birds spend feeding on the Fraser Delta mudflats is a big unknown.
“Finding an efficient, reliable way to estimate lengths of stay for migrating shorebirds remains an important conservation research question,” says Drever’s report in the Journal of Field Ornithology.
The total western sandpiper population on the Pacific flyway has been estimated at 3.5 million birds, with Drever and his colleagues reporting about 600,000 a year stop on Roberts Bank, located in front of a proposed port expansion. The number can fluctuate widely from year to year with more than 1.5 million recorded in 1994.
Dunlins, another small shorebird believed to number about 550,000, also frequent the mudflats with about 200,000 of them intermingling with the sandpipers on Roberts Bank during the northward migration.
Many more of the birds are believed to frequent other areas of the Fraser Delta, which the report calls “a globally significant stopover site.”
“It is possible that entire flyway populations of both species may be found on the Fraser River Delta during migration, underscoring the overall importance of the entire estuary,” says the report.
But it says the biofilm found on the mudflats at Roberts Bank is a huge draw for the birds. They slurp up the mucousy mixture rich in carbohydrates and microbes that forms on the mudflats. “The dependence of so many birds on this habitat underscores the importance of ensuring that biofilm be present during the migration,” the report says.
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