Figure 1: Graph of Trends in Canadian Bird Populations (NABCI, State of Canada’s Birds Report (2019)
Figure 2. Maps of Remaining Old Growth and Southern Killer Whale Critical Habitat
“To me the land does not stop when it dips into the ocean.”
– Nicolaisen in Robert Macfarlane Underland (2019)
At a time when the failure of BC’s government to live up to to its electoral promises on the environment has become so notorious that it makes national headlines with titles such as: “A change in government fails to alter B.C.’s environmental path,”[i] the recent announcement that BC will not be implementing a “Species at Risk Act” anytime soon[ii] comes as the coda on a dystopian rhapsody.
Talk of a “ BC Endangered Species Act” may just be that. Species protected by the Federal endangered species act (Species at Risk Act), receive little protection from mining and forestry interests in BC, as the recent loss of endangered whitebark pines indicates,[iii]
The continued absence of an enforceable regulatory instrument to protect species at risk in BC comes at a time when data show that we are facing an unprecedented biodiversity collapse. For informed scientists, the data are clear. Since 1970 wildlife populations around the world have collapsed by 60%. In Canada, 50% of wildlife species are currently in decline.[iv] Recent work documents accelerated plant extinctions.[v] In BC the continued collapse of caribou populations, and the provincial inability to initiate a recovery plan,[vi] are indicative that the environment is not the government’s priority. Resource development continues to be the top priority.
This abdication of environmental leadership comes at a particularly critical time for the web of life, which decades of unsustainable exploitation, pollution, overfishing, and economic pillage have brought to a perilous brink.
In the wake of a succession of disturbing UN IPCC reports issued this fall and over the past 3 months, Environment Canada has released a report indicating that Canada is warming twice as fast as the global average.[vii] Although the problems posed by global development and climate change have been known for about 50 years, the sense of the inevitable extreme urgency of the state of the planet has started with Global Outlook 6,[viii] and includes a more recent assessment of the concerns that this presents for human health.[ix] There seems to be a growing realization that climate change is no longer a remote future concern, but a present everyday reality whose progress seemingly outstrips our collective ability to respond.
In early May the IPBES report confirmed that we face the potential loss of over one million species in a biodiversity collapse accelerated by climate change.[x] Additionally it is becoming clear that there is a logical correlation between the decline in 75% of insects, 75% of insectivorous birds and 75 to 80% of wetlands. An increasing number of municipalities have been declaring “climate emergencies”, and now even the national government has joined in.[xi] (Whether that declaration is mere political posturing is a separate question.) There seems to be a growing public realization of this simple fact: “the system” has failed and continues to fail. This awareness is particularly sharp among a younger generation that faces a 10 to 12 year horizon in which to turn around a global climate emergency, which is related to a wetland emergency and a forest emergency. Things have finally reached a point at which mainstream media is willing to admit that the “new normal” is abnormal.[xii]
In a time of global ecological crises, how exactly is BC responding?
The answer to that comes daily in the form of broken political promises and government actions that place polluters and environmental vandals above the law. Just as Canada seems to have a problem with “the rule of law,” as illustrated by the Lavalin scandal, so does BC. The progress of the environmental crisis is intimately related to the deterioration of “rule of law”, as highlighted by the special rapporteur to the United Nations.[xiii]
No event in BC brings this out more than the response by both NDP and Liberal governments over the past 5 years to the Mount Polley Mine. The parent company of the Mount Polley Mine, Imperial Metals Inc., continues to operate as a respectable corporate citizen. In spite of public outrage, it receives further license to continue to discharge heavy metals into Quesnel Lake. Over the past five years Imperial Metals has never faced any fines, penalties or charges.[xiv] The Ministry of Environment has even retroactively altered and amended mining plans and permits to enable the offender to escape any public prosecution whatsoever. In fact, in the face of a lack of government will to press charges, private prosecution undertaken by Chief Bev Sellars was taken over by the Office of the Attorney General, so that government could drop said charges, and continue to protect Imperial Metals.[xv]
In keeping with the analyses of University of Victoria’s “West Coast Law, ” BC does not seem to enforce its own environmental laws, and has a policy of not allowing private environmental prosecutions that might enforce them. Given that the government treats citizen’s directly affected by corporate misdemeanors as “special interest groups”, it deems that it has the exclusive right, to determine what is and is not “in the public interest.” On this basis, it also deems that it has the right to disregard public concerns and interfere in the legitimate pursuit of justice, contrary to normal public expectations.
In BC environmental offenders are demonstrably exempt from the rule of law. Public concerns and interests are waived away making victims of environmental misdemeanors, second class citizens. The recent announcement by the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, that the the closure of the contaminated waste site in the Shawnigan watershed will be closed but that over 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soil will remain, and that no penalties will apply, not only leaves the site open to re-opening under an administration, it also creates a two-tier approach to watershed management. Whereas Victoria’s residents are entitled to water from pristine watersheds paid for by the provincial government, rural residents, like Shawnigan, are only entitled to the potential dangers of watersheds contaminated with Victoria’s waste.[xvi]
Polley Mine and Shawnigan not the only high profile instance of “legal protectionism”[xvii] currently under public scrutiny. After decades of public, First Nations and environmental concerns and mounting scientific data, over the levels of selenium, and other heavy metals emanating from the Teck Resources coal mines in the Elk Valley, for which the Horgan government is proposing to issue more permits, American senators have had to intervene and demand that BC enforce its laws and respect international treaties.[xviii]
Not too surprisingly, the subtext of this legal protectionism is the fact that BC government officials and Canadian commissioners on the International Joint Commission do not respect the importance of objective scientific data. Politics take precedence over science, and law. Therefore it comes as no surprise that American representatives have justifiably lodged official complaints that Canadian commissioners have been knowingly suppressing data. [xix] This seemingly regular practice seems to be a regrettable socially and politically acceptable occurrence:
In brief, this means that the science behind BC’s environmental laws is also tacitly considered to be dispensable. Governments that pay lip service to the law, also pay lip service to science, and deliver neither to the public.
Laws are relatively simple. They constrain proximate causes of harm and the intentions driving them. If we stop to consider the difficulties inherent in twentieth-century legal precedents related to the prosecution of point source and non-point source pollution the magnitude of the problems we now face is staggering.[xxi] Environmental problems that were theoretically solved by legislation decades ago, continue to be the subject of legal quarrels, as illustrated by subtle applications of the Clean Water Act. [xxii] Problems posed by the complex legacies that drive climate change, forest and wetland emergencies are daunting. In the absence of clear government leadership and respect for the rule of law, they become intractable.
Legally, we think in simple short-term proximate relationships. The problem that this poses is well illustrated by the recent discovery by Dr. Josh Kurek that the DDT legacy of forest spraying in the Atlantic provinces and contiguous states between 1958 and 1968 still endures. The unclear implications of this and the limited ability of human beings to deal with the time-frame has been well-articulated by Dr Jon Smol of Queen’s University:
“There’s this legacy effect 50 years later in the aquatic ecosystem that has important implications for lake ecology. Nature is slow to pardon our mistakes and we’re overly optimistic.
“Governments think four years,” Smol said. “CEOs, at best, seem to think in 90-day cycles.
“Ecosystems don’t keep a political or industrial timetable. Things happen on much longer time cycles.”[xxiii]
We focus perhaps too optimistically on nature’s resilience to overcome the insults which our naive industrial age has inflicted. Characteristically, we overlook the processes which this legacy of these insults has disrupted or set into motion. As Smol and Kurek point out DDT kills grazers and may be behind toxic algal blooms that have plagued freshwater lakes since the international DDT spraying programme. However, it is wrong to think of this problem as just a DDT problem. It is symptomatic of the cavalier way in which we continue to treat our environment as collections of objects on the landscape for us to dispose of, as though our actions have no consequences. As Kurek notes:
“You could substitute DDTs with plastic pollution, with greenhouse gases, with salting on our roads — any contaminant that you put in our environment over a massive region is going to have tremendous effects and sometimes surprise effects.”
We are not equipped for the “surprises” left by legacies. If we focus only on nominal reductive categories, we are misled into believing that systems are by definition “resilient.” In so doing, we overlook the processes associated with them, and how the modifications we make set into motion other heretofore unknown or unsuspected processes. We tragically dismiss the potential fragility of complex ecosystems that can, and often do, produce “surprise effects” and “unknowns” that are now rapidly mounting as climate change alters entire ecosystems.
In the cycle of natural events that track the passage of seasons in British Columbia, the annual March return of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) seen blowing off Amphitrite Point normally inaugurates the return of gentle weather. This year the return has been marred by the death of about 140 gray whales (at last count) whose carcasses have washed ashore from Baja California to the coasts of the Bering Sea.[xxiv] These 140 whales are a sub-sample of total losses out of a total population of some 2,000 migrating individuals. Losses are estimates to be at a minimum of 280 individuals, given that a similar number is likely to have just died and sunk, without being washed ashore and recorded. That suggests that grey whale mortality since the beginning of the migration in February is at least 14% of the total population. Disturbingly mortality appears to be related to starvation and the effects of climate change on ocean productivity.
These numbers are not unique to grey whales. They seem to be symptomatic of the developing state of entire food-chains. Thousands of common murres and tufted puffins have been washing up dead at St. Paul’s island, also showing signs of starvation.[xxv] In this respect, the fate of the Southern Killer Whales should serve as a canary in the coal mine, as starvation has long been the usual source of mortality for that endangered species. There is an ongoing cascade of wildlife population collapses from caribou to shore bird to chinook salmon to orcas. This phenomenon is only a uniquely “whale problem” if we partition ocean ecosystems from terrestrial ecosystems. To do so overlooks the natural processes that they share, which make our home what it is: an ocean-planet.
Although some terrestrial birds appear to be rebounding, the latest NABCI numbers from The State of Canada’s Birds (2019)[xxvi] indicate a 40% decline in shorebirds that depend on coastal productivity and a 57-59% decline in insectivorous birds that depend on grassland and wetland insect productivity (Figure 1). As noted by the authors of this latest report declines in shoreline, grassland and aerial insectivorous birds are driven by coastal land impacts, development and agricultural practices.
These numbers and trends in coastal declines should give a province that is so extensively and culturally dominated by its coastline cause to heed international calls for “transformative action.”
It is therefore of some concern that BC’s NDP government has not only reneged on its electoral promises, but has renewed the clear-cutting of some of Vancouver Island’s last remaining productive old-growth forests. This should not be just a “tree-hugging” or “forest resources” issue. The destruction of the last productive old-growth forests of Vancouver Island simply highlights the extent to which BC government seems to be unaware of the biochemical process that sustain ecosystems. BC government’s destruction of old-growth is drawing large protests by people concerned with the irreversible loss of old-growth, and the cultural values associated with them.
Absent from the discussion of old-growth is the role that these coastal forests play in both regional climate control and in the productivity of coastal marine ecosystems.
The latter point is born out if we compare DFO’s map of the productive critical habitat of the endangered Southern Killers with the map of “Remaining Old-Growth Coastal Rainforest” . As Figure 2 indicates critical Southern Killer Whale habitat corresponds to Coastal Old growth distribution from Bamfield to Sheridan Point, as well as areas around Mayne and Saturna Islands. The third critical habitat are the uniquely important extensive wetlands of Point Roberts.
It is no coincidence that SKR critical habitat corresponds to the rich wet humic productive areas of both endangered wetlands and endangered Old-growth. Both are essential to the production of kelp forests, which are themselves essential to the herring cycle that maintains salmon, and in particular Chinook productivity.
In destroying one BC’s government destroys the other. It cannot claim realistically to care for whales while contributing directly to the destruction of old-growth forests that are essential to the production of humic terrestrial inputs that make their critical habitat possible.
Coastal BC, as most of Canada has lost about 80% of its wetlands. The Point Roberts wetlands are now threatened by a vast, and extremely controversial extension of Port Vancouver.[xxvii] The Point Roberts wetlands are an essentail staging ground for millions of birds annually, and are essential for the productivity of eelgrasses that are nursing grounds to endangered keystone species such as the Eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus) and Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha). While still productive, the past 50 years of development in Delta, have not been kind to these wetlands. Far from their former extension and vast productivity, in the words of Environment Canada scientists, “The Project is located in a geographic area where the documented continuing loss of wetlands has reached critical levels.[xxviii]
Both coastal wetlands and coastal old growth temperate forests have reached critical levels, largely because they were not perceived, and continue not to be perceived, as essential to the web of life and rich diversity of this province that has thus far sustained its fabled prosperity.
The productivity of wetlands and old-growth forests depends on a simple point. They both are essential sources of humic substances and aerosols. Humic substances make make metals, such as iron, bio-available to chloroplasts. Chloroplasts evolved from the concentration of microbially-produced humic substances in the biosphere that bound iron. It is impossible to produce a chloroplast without a humic chelator. In our most productive marine waters, our coastal waters, terrestrially-derived humic substances make up 85% of the total solution. The importance of the relationship between kelp productivity and forested environment has been demonstrated by the work of K. Matsunaga et al in 1999, and all work that has followed on the abstraction of humic substances through standard drainage practices in agriculture and forestry.[xxix]
Therefore, if , as we already have done, we collapse 80% of old-growth forests and 80% of wetlands, it only stands to reason that we should expect to lose 80% of kelp productivity and the complex marine life it supports. While climate change is undoubtedly a driver in the global kelp collapse that has occurred and has been well- documented over the past half century,[xxx] terrestrial development that alters inputs into the ocean also contributes to the deregulation of the marine environment’s productivity. Dead whales and dead puffins become just part of the norm to be expected from the processes which we are driving.
Coastal temperate rainforests are not just a collection of trees, they are superorganisms that put out aerosols, and control the production of massive concentrations of humic substances. They are a huge thermostat that act as a biogechemical buffer and regulator. Their atmospheric role is not unlike that of coastal mangroves that buffer lowlands from hurricanes. As has been known for some time, the terpenes and isoprenes that they release for signalling not only forms a blue radiation above them, they modulate regional temperatures and contribute to the formation of rain nuclei,[xxxi] and therefore regulate evapotranspiration and precipitation across Vancouver Island. A simple commonsense application of the Coriolis effect and the adabiatic movement of air cells learnt in first-year geography should suggest that cutting what little is left of old-growth forests is quite likely to exacerbate dry conditions in rain-shadow zone to the east.
It therefore should come as no surprise that east Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast are experiencing an extreme Level 3 drought, that has closed forestry operations and brought salmon-bearing rivers to all-time lows.[xxxii] As has long been predicted, the drought is not only shrinking glaciers, it has deregulated hydroperiods which has resulted in the drying of rivers. The successive droughts of the past years have also resulted in an accelerated death of large patches of salal (Gualtheria shallon) as well as red cedar (Thuja plicata) and Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). It is altering basic microbial processes essential to ecosystem functioning. Although a notable wave of plant deaths are attributed in a general way to the drought, it is more interesting to consider that the dry conditions dehydrate the first 15cms of humus that covers most of the ground. The drying of humic soils effectively sterilizes the humic layer and closes down the microbial loop that powers the humic substance cycle. This has consequences for both terrestrial organisms and their marine kin that are dependent on humic productivity. Coastal humic productivity sustains entire food chains from planton to whales to grizzly bears and migratory birds. It is always small seemingly insignificant things that sustain giant economies.
Therefore, just as BC’s government cannot honestly talk about caring for whales while destroying their critical habitat, nor can it talk seriously about developing a climate change plan, and being concerned about climate change, as it effectively vandalizes the West Coast’s natural thermostat.
The good news in BC comes from private efforts of the Nature Conservancy of Canada to save 40 endangered species – since a non-existent BS Endangered Species Act won’t do it- in a 79 square kilometre watershed on the west side of Kootenay Lake.[xxxiii] Similar efforts have been underway for some time by First Nations to preserve 40,000 square kilometres in the Kaska Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area, stretching from the Yukon to the Cassiar Mountains and Rocky Mountain Trench. As reported although First Nations efforts are actively supported by the federal government, once again they are being blocked by BC’s government in order to protect yet undetermined mining interestsby mining interests.[xxxiv]
The real question that hangs over these conservation proposals is that of their viability as climate change proceeds. If we remember that forests are organisms that regulate their own micro-environment, as most plants are prone to doing individually, the the conservation of large intact tracts may remain our best hope for the future. Indeed research shows that older intact forests are less vulnerable to climate change.[xxxv] …. (Proving Voltaire right: “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.”)
However, the environment will always remain most vulnerable to a government that actively disregard its own environmental laws, the rule of law and science.
[i] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/british-columbia/article-a-change-in-government-has-done-little-to-alter-bcs-environmental/ ; http://rogerannis.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Little-change-in-environmental-record-under-BC-NDP-govt.pdf
[ii] https://phys.org/news/2019-05-bc-dedicated-species-lawone-focuses.html; https://news.ubc.ca/2019/05/22/bc-needs-a-dedicated-species-at-risk-law-one-that-focuses-on-recovery/; https://www.facetsjournal.com/doi/pdf/10.1139/facets-2018-0042; https://thenarwhal.ca/b-c-stalls-on-promise-to-enact-endangered-species-law/?fbclid=IwAR3lH3L95iCGFvqCTaWV9WBIw9uhy39t8Uw43-58Q_pxx6poQsqYWTr6AQQ
[xvii] The author would prefer to use the term “legal racketeering”, based on this definition: “, a “racket” referred to a criminal act in which the perpetrator or perpetrators fraudulently offer a service to solve a nonexistent problem, a service that will not be put into effect, or a service that would not exist without the racket. Conducting a racket is racketeering. Particularly, the potential problem may be caused by the same party that offers to solve it, but that fact may be concealed, with the specific intent to engender continual patronage for this party.” However, more exact this might seem, it would also be more inflammatory. It is therefore avoided in this text.
[xxviii] Environment and Climate Change Canada. 2017. Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Response to the Review Panel’s Information Request ECCC IR-08 for the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 Project. [Letter to Jocelyn Beaudet}. Vancouver, British Columbia. CEAR #1109
[xxix] K. Matsunaga et al (1999) “The role of humic substances on the shift of kelp community to crustose coralline algae community of the southern Hokkaido Island in the Japan sea.” Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology. 2412:193-205.
[xxx] Krumhansi et al. (2016) “Global patterns of kelp forest forest change over the past half-century” https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/113/48/13785.full.pdf