What has a mix of fresh and salt water, is a hotspot for biodiversity, and has major cultural & economic significance? Well if you asked this question to the 500-or-so elementary students that visited the Squamish River Estuary a couple of weeks back, they would all shout out “Estuary!”. These students got to experience the ways in which estuaries are embedded in our local communities and their significance for wildlife in BC. These young students showed insightful knowledge about estuarine characteristics (some kids could even identify detritus and amphipods!), different approaches to protecting our shorelines, and ways to balance human development with the natural world.
We had the privilege to get invited to this event by the Squamish River Watershed Society (SRWS), a non-profit organisation that has been quite successful in environmental conservation and restoration in the Squamish watershed. Since 1999, the SRWS has been monitoring and maintaining the Squamish River Estuary that is located beside downtown Squamish in an area where the fresh water from the Squamish river merges with Howe Sound’s salt water. This water mixing creates a highly productive area that offers a feeding, breeding, wintering, and migration habitat for many waterfowl, shorebirds, and fish species. It’s also the home to a variety of mammals such as black-tail deer, black bears, cougars, coyotes, and many small rodents.
Not only is this a great area for bird watching and wildlife conservation, but it’s an ideal location to inspire future wetland and environmental stewards! Prior to 2003, this area looked strikingly different than the lush and rich ecosystem that we see today. Past developments and mercury contamination stripped the area of its biodiversity and threatened the fish and wildlife that remained in the estuary. Recognising an urgent need for conservation, representatives from the government, Squamish Nation, industries, and communities collaborated in developing a management plan that balanced conservation with industrial and commercial interests. One of the major projects was the protection and restoration of native eelgrass (Zostera marina) beds. This initiative continues to this day and we’ve been lucky to be a part of it! In early spring of 2012, we joined a team of volunteers along with the SRWS in planting 1,500 shoots of eelgrass (read about it here). Today, the Squamish Estuary Wildlife Management Area encompasses 673 hectares and is a great example of the power of cooperation and balanced, sustainable living (which is an excellent message to teach to young students).
So I loosely return to my original question: What is an estuary? We’ve already established that it’s an area where fresh water meets salt water, but it also assumes other critical roles. Besides offering a habitat for a diverse list of wildlife, this estuary filters pollutants and improves the water’s quality before it enters the Howe Sound. They also protect our shorelines from erosion and act as a flood control mechanism. Through a series of creative activities, the young students left the Squamish River Estuary with a thorough understanding of these estuarine functions and the importance of a balanced landscape. They also learned about the intangible significance of this estuary as they listened to stories from Squamish Nation elders about the cultural benefits of this area, which allowed them to understand the relationships between the people and the land.
Here’s a few interesting facts about estuaries and eelgrass in the Squamish area:
- In 2010, a Grey Whale was spotted in the Squamish River Estuary – the first time in a century!
- The Squamish River Estuary is nationally recognized as an Important Birding Area.
- Around 80% of commercial fish and shellfish depend on eelgrass during some part of their life.
- Eelgrass produces oxygen.
- Eelgrass has been widely used as food by First Nations people, eaten either fresh or dried in cakes.
If you would like to learn more about the Squamish River Estuary, the SRWS has compiled a couple of informative movies which can be viewed on there website here! A big thanks to Edith Tobe and Kim Slater of the SRWS for their amazing work in spreading environmental conservation and inspiring the next generation of wetland stewards! Check us out on Twitter (@BCWFWetlands), Facebook, and Flickr for wetlands-related news in BC or if you’d like to share your conservation stories with us!
Our participation in this event was made possible through the financial support of Wildlife Habitat Canada and Shell.