From whales to eagles and trees: everything is connected in the Skeena River Estuary

I recently attended a workshop to discuss the impacts of development proposed around the Skeena River estuary. “The incubator for the whole system,” was how one fisherman described the estuary – and he’s right. Estuaries connect freshwater and ocean ecosystems. They provide a nursery habitat for salmon, foraging for waterfowl, and abundant food for countless invertebrates and forage fish, such as capelin, herring, or anchovy. These in turn form part of marine and terrestrial food chains, from whales to eagles to trees…then back again. Without healthy estuaries, the systems they support – ecological, economic, and cultural, will collapse. No wonder large estuaries like the Skeena’s are known as “breadbaskets” on the North Coast.

Map of the Skeena River watershed
Map of the Skeena River watershed © WWF-Canada

The Skeena River estuary is also smack dab in the middle of BC’s current development boom, with multiple LNG plants proposed for construction in the near vicinity, increased shipments of other products like coal, grain, potash, and containers. New infrastructure calls for dredging and construction of underwater pipelines, resulting in destruction to parts of this habitat. The wake of ships disturb eelgrass beds – which provide very important “nursery” areas for marine species – and the chances of accidents involving vessel collisions and potential spills increases. Public access for recreation is compromised and the many fisheries in the region – crabs, shrimp, and of course, salmon – have to contend with the increased traffic.
With so much going on, it should be obvious that we need to understand the cumulative impact of these pressures, and manage conservatively to ensure the estuary stays healthy and functioning. This was precisely the subject of a day-long workshop hosted by WWF-Canada in Prince Rupert on May 29th.
Grounding Cumulative Effects in the Skeena Estuary brought together over 50 experts including community interests, scientists, industry, and First Nations resource managers for an in-depth discussion on the challenges and potential solutions. This was a timely opportunity to showcase a hot-off-the-press publication of work between WWF and the Centre for Ocean Solutions: Cumulative Effects in Marine Ecosystems: Scientific Perspectives on its Challenges and Solutions.
Participants in the WWF-led workshop discuss potential impacts on the Skeena River Estuary © Mike Ambach / WWF-Canada
Participants in the WWF-led workshop discuss potential impacts on the Skeena River Estuary.
© Mike Ambach / WWF-Canada

One response to the challenge of cumulative effects is through Marine Planning – an approach based on long-term thinking to making decisions about the amount and type of development that should or shouldn’t take place.  WWF has been deeply involved in efforts to develop a Marine Plan for the North Coast region, and these efforts continue. At the same time, we participate in the regulatory review of environmental impact studies to ensure that the research and conclusions of these studies are sound.  Where they are not, we push hard to have project proponents sent back to the drawing board, as recently occurred with a proposed LNG project that failed to account for its impacts on the estuary. As well, WWF is working to advance the science of cumulative effects of key stressors such as ocean noise.
But the biggest challenge for conservation is one that needs your help: we need the leadership and political will to push policy to catch up to the science. You can help by adding your voice to those calling for Protection for the Great Bear Sea.
Skeena River
Skeena River watershed, British Columbia, Canada. © Mike Ambach / WWF-Canada