What’s next for the Fraser Estuary after the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 decision?

Orcas swimming near the Deltaport terminal at Roberts Bank, BC (Photo: Peter Hamilton/Lifeforce ©)

Spring is usually a beautiful, vibrant time in the Fraser River Estuary, but this year it also brought the dark cloud of federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault’s approval of the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 (T2) expansion project. Since it was proposed, the project has raised serious concerns about increased pollution, underwater noise, and impacts on fish and marine mammals such as the region’s critically endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKWs).

The federal government tried to justify the decision, telling us it was reassuring that they had placed so many conditions on the approval (370!) – in other words, “Don’t worry, except for these 370 problems we’re trying to address, this is a great project.”

If you’ve been following this project from the Port of Vancouver you will know that there are already applications before the court to challenge the decision, from within Canada and across the border. If you aren’t familiar with the terminal expansion project and its adverse environmental effects, this letter from scientists working in and around the Fraser Estuary is a good summary.

Whether or not the project proceeds, this is not the time to look away from the largest estuary on the Pacific coast of North America. It’s still full of life: millions and millions of salmon, migratory birds and other species rely on its marine and fresh waters. And there is so much we can do to protect this web of life.

Recommendation 68

As part of the environmental assessment process for the terminal expansion, the Review Panel distilled years of submissions from government agencies, First Nations, industry representatives, community members and others into a 600-plus-page report, including 71 recommendations. The Review Panel’s report and recommendations were considered by the federal government in making its final decision, and informed the 370 conditions that must be met in order for the project to proceed.

Recommendation 68 from the Review Panel urged the federal government to put in place intergovernmental management programs for the Salish Sea and the Fraser Estuary. These programs would bring together representatives from Indigenous and non-Indigenous governments and agencies across jurisdictions to collaborate on the long-term management of the region.

There’s no time to lose. A recent study from UBC researcher Lia Chalifour found that if the status quo management practices continue, none of the 19 populations of Pacific salmon in the Lower Fraser have more than a 50% chance of thriving in 25 years. It is also well understood that it’s not just large projects like the Port expansion that cause significant harm – it’s also death by a thousand cuts from many, many smaller decisions that lead to small but cumulative changes on the land and in the water.

In response to Recommendation 68, the federal government claimed that it is laying the foundation for these programs with an existing series of initiatives that are primarily collecting baseline information and seeking to understand cumulative effects. However, it isn’t clear if this patchwork adds up to the information needed to equip a management program to restore ecosystem health. Plus, several of the initiatives are reaching the end of their funded terms.

It also isn’t clear that the federal government has learned any lessons from the history (and failures) of past management programs in the Fraser Estuary.

Lessons from the Fraser River Estuary Management Program (FREMP)

It isn’t exactly news that colonial practices have caused serious problems in the Fraser Estuary. Urban and industrial development in the region have led to pollution, loss of wetlands and habitat, fish and wildlife declines, hardened shorelines, blocked access to waterways in the floodplain, and other ecological challenges.

By the late 1970s, responding to public concerns about impacts of industrial, agricultural and urban development on the Fraser Estuary, the federal Ministers of Fisheries and Environment and the BC Minister of Environment formed a Steering Committee and prepared the Fraser River Estuary Study (FRES). This study informed the eventual development of the Fraser River Estuary Management Program (FREMP), which operated from 1986 to 2013, when its funding was ended by the Harper era federal government.

The goal of the FRES was “to develop a management plan which recognized the importance of the Estuary both for human activities such as urban-industrial and port development, and for preservation of ecological integrity.” To administer the plan, the FRES authors also recommended that existing programs and agency mandates be coordinated through a framework arrangement, rather than creating a new entity with the burden of addressing the diversity of interests and actors in the Estuary.

At the same time, the authors of the study – who were themselves senior government bureaucrats and scientists – understood that there still needed to be some mechanism of ultimate accountability, both political and ecological, for regional objectives. What they proposed was an estuary council of political leaders, combined with a defining commitment to what they termed “ecological integrity.”

As noted in the FRES, any plan to restore and sustain the Estuary must respect the needs (and limits) of the ecosystem:

The concern is that the Estuary’s resilience will not last unless man protects it. Any natural system has a breaking point, beyond which the life-supporting characteristics of the system suddenly disappear; this kind of catastrophic change can be irreversible. No-one knows how close the Estuary is to this point…

The basic characteristics of the regional ecosystem—its capability for self-renewal, its carrying capacity, productivity and other aspects of environmental quality—can be a guide in determining where, how and what activities and interventions by man will be permitted.

Unfortunately, the program that eventually emerged (FREMP) included the coordination ideas from FRES, but not the accountability. Informed observers like biologist Otto Langer have noted that FREMP had successes in getting agencies to work together, and improved transparency with some level of public participation in its processes. It also collected valuable information about ecosystems in the Estuary.

But FREMP had some fundamental shortcomings:

  1. FREMP had no political oversight or accountability for the impacts of its decision-making, beyond the existing mandates of the agencies and governments that participated;
  2. FREMP did not address ecological integrity in the Fraser Estuary, i.e. the idea that there should be enforced limits to human activity that would ensure that the ecosystem remained healthy and productive was not taken up, and ecological recovery did not occur;
  3. None of FREMP’s functions were implemented in law. It was held together by a series of Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) among participating government entities. When political winds shifted it was easy to remove funding and close up shop; and
  4. First Nations were not among the FREMP MOU partners.

Applying the lessons of FREMP

If we are going to protect the ecological processes of the Fraser Estuary, the federal government is going to have to take Recommendation 68 more seriously and learn from the failures of past management efforts.

We need legal standards and management practices that offer fundamental protections to ecosystems, that allow them to recover and persist for the long term. These standards and practices are missing from the current federal, provincial and local government regulation of the Fraser Estuary.

Recognize the leadership of Indigenous nations

In contrast to the relative inaction of Crown governments, Indigenous nations have taken significant steps in recent years to protect the Fraser Estuary. For instance, Tsleil-Waututh Nation is leading work that has resulted in new provincial water quality standards for Burrard Inlet, and have also achieved some localized, but significant success in restoring clam harvesting in their territories.  

First Nations in the Lower Fraser and the Lower Fraser Fisheries Alliance are working on fish habitat restoration initiatives across the region, as part of ongoing activities to address the salmon crisis in the Lower Fraser. These and other examples, combined with the obvious failures of federal and provincial laws, suggest that Indigenous leadership and Indigenous laws should be at the heart of management programs for the Fraser Estuary and Lower Fraser regions going forward.

Make governments legally accountable for ecosystem health

We also need political accountability from the federal and provincial governments. It isn’t enough just to fund monitoring programs, or restoration projects, even if these are helpful. There need to be legal commitments to achieve measurable objectives for ecosystem health and recovery in the Lower Fraser. For example, the European Union just passed regulations making legally binding commitments to restore degraded lands, which will cover all degraded ecosystems by 2050.

Such binding commitments could be part of biodiversity legislation being developed by both federal and provincial governments. Such commitments also need to be included in law to support BC’s Coastal Marine Strategy, which the province is currently developing with coastal Indigenous nations. BC has already designated five Wildlife Management Areas in the Fraser Estuary, mostly in intertidal areas – although it has done little to actively manage these WMAs – and this could form the foundation for new co-management arrangements.

Ensure long-term funding for estuary management

Lastly, in order to be successful long term, Fraser Estuary management needs to be reliably and adequately funded. This includes both for activities and for long term development of human capacity, like Indigenous guardian programs, and with links to academic and training institutions. This is another reason for management that is based on legal commitments: unless there is statutory mandate and government-to-government agreements, funding can disappear in the next budget cycle along with all the work it supported.

T2 or no T2, there is work to be done

The fate of the Roberts Bank terminal expansion is still in the air as we await the outcome of judicial reviews of the project’s approval. However, whether this project proceeds or not, we know we need to do a lot more to ensure one of the world’s great estuaries maintains its health for generations to come.

In keeping with Recommendation 68, this is going to require better management frameworks that coordinate government actions, recognize Indigenous leadership, enforce standards of ecosystem health, keep governments accountable and are properly funded.

To borrow from an old phrase: The best time to protect the Fraser Estuary was 50 years ago. The second best time is now.  

Top photo: Orcas swimming near the Deltaport terminal at Roberts Bank, BC (Photo: Peter Hamilton/Lifeforce ©)

Deborah Carlson, Staff Lawyer