Endangered Species

Interview with Georgia Strait Alliance

125 marine species are at risk in and around the Georgia Strait, but the Georgia Strait Alliance (GSA) is wanting to change that and help protect their critical habitat.

Christianne Wilhelmson, M.Sc., Executive Director of the Georgia Strait Alliance, shared some thoughts with me Monday about what’s happening.

GSA was formed 27 years ago, when a lot of people were starting to feel concern for the Georgia Strait. At the time, no one was speaking out about it, but action was taken and the GSA has been advocating for protection of the waters ever since.

75% of BC’ers live in the Georgia Strait area, and therefore influence the connected waters, rivers and streams. In the first years of the Georgia Strait Alliance’s work, pulp and sewage pollution were paramount. Today, there is less pollution, but new challenges have arisen and there is always work to be done.

According to Christianne, the government tends to make short term decisions that affect the next budget cycle, and their emphasis is not on benefitting creatures or communities.

She notes that protection on paper doesn’t equate to protection of the water. Sometimes, they need to take the government to court on behalf of the whales when the government is not listening to the traditional and local knowledge. The Alliance sometimes works with Ecojustice and presents 100% science-based facts, but the bottom line is that if the government is not willing to take action, we may lose the species that are so precious to our province.

The orca whales sit at the top of the food chain and if they suffer extinction, this will have a significant impact on other marine life and negatively impact the tourism industry as well as other industries that rely on these animals. As well as this, there would be spiritual and community losses.

The Georgia Strait Alliance does work in a number of areas. They partner with scientists in the field, who together with First Nations people, provide information that supports what the Alliance advocates for. Salmon, an important part of the food chain, need to become protected in accordance with scientists from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Species in Canada (COSWIC) who have recommended that salmon be protected under the Species at Risk Act..

The population around the Georgia Strait and the Salish Sea are growing exponentially, and around 9 million people now live along the shorelines in Canada and the US. Solutions are not just about stopping pollution or making the Strait quieter or about taking action such as closures of fisheries. The Alliance aims to attack problems with solutions that will ensure individuals have a say and can push the government to do their part to protect the waters.

There needs to be a variety of solutions in place, because the ecosystem is complex. The reality is that ecosystems don’t follow artificial lines like borders.

The waters are definitely changing, but it’s not all bad news. Herring are returning, which in turn attracts whales which is great for the ecosystem.

However, the southern pod of orca whales are endangered and things like ship traffic and pollution can negatively impact their health and population. The story of the orca is complex, but the economy is the driver, and this has been the focus of the group for the last 15 years.

300 people including managers, scientists and officials met at a government sponsored conference in October to discuss the issues at hand. Unfortunately, the only tangible outcome was new regulations stating that boats need to stay 200 meters away from the southern whales.

The Georgia Strait Alliance doesn’t just work to protect the whales. But, if the whales are protected, then other life gets protected too including fish and marine life. As a result, people also get protected because the fish we consume from commercial fish catches are less polluted so it’s much better for our health.

Science supports some tough decisions, which sometimes get broad support. Last Fall, there was a temporary voluntary slowdown of ships in the Haro Strait, and 60% of ships followed the suggested lower speed. Christianne notes this needs to be made permanent, but it’s great that the shipping community is showing leadership.

The Alliance tries to tackle the most impactful things, but they need community support to make a big impact and create their desired change. Increased funding would enable them to hire more people and do more, provide communities with options of what they can do and involve them more in the conversation and action. In the words of Christianne, “There is so much we can do and can mobilize.”

There are plenty of ways people can push for more action. Sign up for the Georgia Strait Alliance newsletter to find out more.

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Alison Wheatley

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