PMV's habitat banking scheme on slippery slope

In 2012, Port Metro Vancouver (PMV) and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) signed an agreement whereby PMV will be given habitat credits to remove logs and debris from Fraser River estuary marshes.

This credit is then banked and entitles PMV to destroy an equivalent amount of habitat capacity in other areas of the estuary.

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Since there will always be wood debris on marshes as long as there are trees and wood processing plants along the river, the opportunity to 'clean' one hectare, then totally destroy another could eventually eliminate much of the food producing habitat of the river and estuary for the fish, birds and mammals dependent on it.

It has to be appreciated that we now only have remnant marsh and habitats remaining along the river. Only about 20 percent of what existed over 100 years ago remains.

Why would the federal government design a program that will nibble away at this last 20 percent? Work on this new program began in Boundary Bay late last year and DFO gave the port 66 hectares of habitat credit for removing logs from 70 hectares.

This means the port can now use 66 hectares of habitat for highly destructive projects, such as a new container port on Roberts Bank or sell to others wanting to build.

PMV has plans to do more of this questionable marsh clean-up and enhancement in good habitat areas in Vancouver, Richmond and Delta. Many of these areas have evolved good marsh or riparian (shoreline) vegetation around the wood debris through years of natural processes.

The plan to create marshes by engineering new habitat on top of what now exists is a form of habitat destruction. Often mudflats and riparian brush are replaced by marsh in the belief that this is more productive for fish.

Engineered replacement habitat to get credits to destroy other areas is irresponsible.

If removing logs could increase productivity then do it for that reason alone and not to further the goals of a PMV determined to industrialize the river and estuary with new coal ports, jet fuel terminals and container ports. What is planned next? Plans are to engineer marshes on the booming ground mudflats near Wreck Beach, the riverside treed area at McDonald Beach and an area adjacent to Westham Island. This misguided program undermines years of positive protection and restoration in the estuary. In 1988, the North Fraser Harbour Commission and the DFO Minister, Tom Siddon, signed the first harbour management agreement in Canada.

As part of the agreement, the Harbour Commission accepted marsh cleanup and protection as part of their corporate responsibility and not for habitat credits.

If they wanted to gain habitat credits they had to develop habitat where it had not existed or had been destroyed such as by the dykes after the 1948 flood.

Past programs and policies of DFO supported the principle of no net loss for habitat. What the new conglomerate PMV is doing, with the cooperation of the new DFO, is a program of half net loss.

PMV and DFO are indeed taking us and the habitat that still supports world class populations of wildlife and salmon down a slippery slope.

In 2012, the Harper government took habitat out of the Fisheries Act. It also dissolved FREMP, an overarching agency designed in the 1980s to coordinate various agencies with regulatory powers in the estuary and to ensure that development could take place without harming the environment.

Obviously that is a program of days past. To add insult to injury, the federal government has delegated the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act to PMV.

Now the port is the developer who does environmental reviews and approvals of projects they will promote and profit from.

PMV, with the help of the DFO, is now essentially free to commodify publicly held habitat and sell it in the market place.

If the port carries on with its mad rush to industrialize the estuary, future generations will wonder - what ever happened to the migratory birdlife, the salmon and the whales? The public, environmental groups, municipalities and fish and game clubs have to join forces to rein in what is now the single biggest threat to the river: Port Metro Vancouver.

Otto Langer is a respected environmentalist and retired DFO senior biologist.

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