Trying to stop the bleeding

Friends of Shoal Harbour hope to prevent “death by a thousand cuts”

Hugh Richards

Winning the hearts and minds of the public — including the municipality and its politicians — is at the fore of ongoing efforts by the Friends of Shoal Harbour to raise awareness of the impact people have on one of the oldest migratory bird sanctuaries on the Pacific coast.

Human impact on this habitat was raised most recently with the construction of a sea wall on private property in Roberts Bay. It raised the spectre of how small changes can have a long-term impact on habitat — the so-called death of a thousand cuts. Many homes on the bay have sea walls to protect against erosion, a fact that proponents of better habitat preservation say change the way the environment behaves, potentially harming wildlife.

Yet, members of Friends of Shoal Harbour Society say while volatile issues such as a single sea wall may raise the public’s awareness about the sanctuary, it never really lasts long enough to get people’s buy-in to protecting the environment that they love to enjoy.

“Our main goal is to raise public interest through events like our All Buffleheads Day in October,” says Hugh Richards, chair of FOSH. “This [debate over the sea wall] is not the best method of generating long-term public interest.”

So, instead of rattling too many cages and being confrontational, most members of FOSH want to take a more gentle approach, offer people fun things to do and help educate them about the bird sanctuary and how they can continue to enjoy its beauty and natural environment.

That said, the society is aware of long-term impacts of development and growth in North Saanich and Sidney that will affect the sanctuary, home to thousands of migratory birds, not to mention local sea life.

“Public education and awareness is our hope,” said Sue Staniforth, a biologist, environmental educator and consultant and FOSH member.

“People live here because it’s a spectacular space,” she continued. “Often though, it’s out-of-mind and people’s activities, while not meant to be malicious, have an impact.”

FOSH hopes people will grow to value the sanctuary and the places, like Roberts Bay, that form small parts of it, because the two levels of government that are supposed to be watching over them are no longer doing so. Instead, the responsibility to protect such places is falling more often to local municipalities or citizen groups.

Environmental scientist Farrell Boyce says the provincial and federal governments have been stripped to the bone and cannot provide support or field work in individual cases.

“That puts the onus on the municipalities,” he said, “and their support will be key to any successes we might have.”

First, however, FOSH members hope to create new partnerships with other community groups and citizens — and from there, a lager public voice can have a greater influence over local municipal policy and be more involved in day-to-day decision making.

“We are trying to hit on the idea of better consultation and notification of stakeholders in and around the sanctuary,” Boyce said. “There is a public interest here and more information has to get out.”

In the case of the new sea wall, the approval process was handled by Town of Sidney staff and did not go through the council, nor was it a decision made in the public eye. That’s why it took people by surprise, no more so than FOSH member and biologist Kerry Finley, who lives on the bay and reacted strongly to the new sea wall.

Town of Sidney Chief Administrative Officer Randy Humble told the News Review “staff approved the building permit application based upon the application being made and the fact that it met the Town’s approval requirements – along with the other levels of government.”

The work the Town asked for — official property surveys, arborist and engineers’ reports — represented a level of care, said Humble, that looked at the many issues at hand. The Town also verified its actions with the federal and provincial government agencies responsible.

“The Town’s bylaws and policies do not discount the environmental habitat value of Roberts Bay or the Shoal Harbour Bird Sanctuary, rather the Town’s bylaws and policies supplement the protection given to this area by the federal and provincial levels of governments,” Humble stated in an email. “The Town’s bylaws and policies work in concert to provide protection in the Town’s area of jurisdiction, which is upland of the foreshore.”

In correspondence with the News Review, a spokesperson for Environment Canada said the new sea wall falls outside of its jurisdiction.

“Information about the site has been reviewed with Environment Canada staff and officials with the Town of Sidney and the BC Ministry of Forests Lands and Natural Resource Operations,” stated Environment Canada media spokesperson Mark Johnson in an email. “Environment Canada understands that the Town of Sidney has reviewed the design of the seawall to meet engineering requirements and minimize impacts on vegetation. The seawall is outside the boundaries of the Shoal Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary so Environment Canada is not pursuing further review of this seawall project.”

Taking all of this as a given, Boyce said the acrimony over the project might have been avoided if stakeholder groups like FOSH were invited to comment.

“There needs to be a plan, a guide put in place,” added Staniforth.

Richards said the public as well would be more satisfied if they felt due process was considered — something they can only get if they can be involved in some way.

“That kind of notification process, as part of local planning, would achieve a lot in avoiding those kind of hassles,” said Richards.

FOSH is moving ahead with its long-term plans of researching the total interest in the Shoal Harbour Bird Sancutary — looking at everything from tourism and research, to development and the marine industry and its historical role in the area. They will continue to reach out to the public at special events and hope to generate more interest in the sanctuary.

“The core group of FOSH has great experiences, knowledge and passion,” said Boyce. “But we are realists. We’re dealing with real issues, not politics and we have to be patient.”

Friends of Shoal Harbour

The Friends of Shoal Harbour (FOSH) society grew out of the group, Concerned Citizens for the Coast (CCC) which was formed in 1991 in Sidney. FOSH has had society status for a little more than one year.

It is made up of area citizens, like-minded in their dedication to the ongoing stewardship of the Shoal Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary, which has been in place on the coast of Sidney and North Saanich since 1931. The sanctuary has a water area of 147 hectares, split between the two municipalities. Impacts include marinas, which cover 16 per cent of the sanctuary water area in Sidney; 23 per cent in North Saanich.

To help promote their activities and education about the sanctuary, FOSH hosts All Buffleheads Day in October (the 15th this year, with more events planned – watch the PNR for details), highlighting one of the more prominent bird species to stopover on their annual migration.