Fraser River Estuary in Need of Urgent Intensive Care

Estuaries are some of the most at-risk places in the world – and the Fraser River estuary is no exception.

Our study found that there are 102 species at risk in the Fraser River estuary, but it’s not too late to save them.

The Issue

Historically, the Fraser River was home to the largest salmon runs in the world. These days, an impressive number of fish still frequent this rich ecosystem. Millions of juvenile salmon spend weeks to months in the estuary before embarking on their ocean migration (however most do not successfully make the return journey home). Above the water, 1.4 million birds stopover in the estuary’s shores at peak season. However, everything is not well in the Fraser – annual salmon returns and bird numbers have been declining for decades and are at record lows.

Aerial photo of the Fraser River Estuary
Fraser River estuary

This region isn’t just crucial to wildlife, humans need healthy estuaries too. Coast Salish First Nations communities have lived in, and found both spiritual and physical nourishment, from the Fraser’s natural resources for millennia. Today, this resilient and diverse estuary is host to the busiest port in Canada; home to half of British Columbia’s rapidly expanding urban population; and is particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise and continued industrial development.

The need for a costed prospectus to deliver long-term ecological resilience to this highly contested region has never been more urgent. Our study delivered exactly that. We found that there are 102 species at risk of extinction in the Fraser River estuary, and that a suite of conservation strategies from aquatic habitat restoration to better farmland management are needed to save them from extinction.

Action Plan

The comprehensive action plan that we developed is estimated to cost $381M over 25 years, or $15M a year to implement. This might sound like a lot, but it is only $6 per Vancouverite annually – the cost of one measly beer a year. It’s a drop in the ocean compared to the $26M per year that whale tourism earns in the Salish Sea and the $300M per year that fisheries in the estuary were estimated to be worth in the 1990s. If we all raised a toast to the Fraser, we could save it.

On the other hand, if we don’t take strong action to conserve the Fraser River estuary, two-thirds of the species at risk in this region are predicted to have less than a 50% chance of survival. Many of the region’s most iconic species could disappear, including the Southern Resident Killer Whale, salmon, sturgeon, and a raft of internationally recognized migratory birds.

Salmon underwater in the Fraser River Estuary

Our action plan also includes an environmental co-governance model that sees First Nation, Federal and Provincial governments working together with municipalities to implement these cost-effective strategies and ensure their success. We found that co-governance was critical to successful conservation outcomes – as it increased the feasibility of all of our conservation actions.

Our research shows that conservation combined with strong governance is a pathway for a brighter future in highly contested regions and that the return on investment likely offsets the cost of management. In a world of rapid urban sprawl and ongoing biodiversity declines, our methodology identifies the most cost-effective strategies to conserve nature in areas important to both humans and wildlife. We have the tools to conserve the many wonders of the natural world, but we must employ them while there is still time to act.

Dr Laura Kehoe is a former postdoctoral fellow in the Conservation Decisions Lab, and is now at Oxford University and The Nature Conservancy. Dr Tara Martin is Liber Ero UBC chair in Conservation, and head of the Conservation Decisions Lab.


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