Synthesis of the Gulf Islands Webinar Series

Every Wednesday in November 2021, Raincoast hosted expert panel discussions to address ecological and policy issues on the Gulf Islands.

In November of 2021, a team of scientists, conservationists, and other experts shared their research and knowledge on issues such as water availability, ecological carrying capacity and governance structures within the Gulf Islands. This collaboration was part of the five-part Gulf Islands Webinar Series, a virtual webinar series hosted by Raincoast’s Gulf Islands Forest Project Coordinator, Shauna Doll. The purpose of the webinar series is to foster a better understanding of environmental issues ubiquitous across most islands in the Trust area. By providing the opportunity to learn from subject matter experts, Raincoast seeks to build bridges between science, community members, and policymakers so that science might be better applied in decision-making and land-use policy development. 

This article is a synthesis of the key takeaways from that series to address the twin biodiversity and climate crisis on a local scale. 

Webinar 1: Freshwater availability: Options for maintaining a healthy water supply into the future 

The first of five webinars examines options for maintaining a safe and healthy supply of water in the Gulf Islands and for increasing water availability at the individual household level (e.g. implementation of water catchment systems, installation of rain gardens, etc.). Featured guests include Dr. Diana Allen, a Professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at Simon Fraser University, Bridget Gile, a Stanford University PhD Candidate, and John Millson of the Salt Spring Water Preservation Society. 

Across all scales and geographies, resources that were once historically abundant are being rapidly depleted due to the increasingly significant effects of climate change on humans, wildlife, and ecosystems. In British Columbia, an increase in summer droughts is limiting freshwater availability, especially on the Gulf Islands, where the majority of freshwater supply depends on precipitation and runoff. While recent policy conversations have turned to technological solutions to increase this supply, e.g. desalination plants, such solutions should be a last resort for communities with no other option. 

According to Dr. Allen, much of the water on the Gulf Islands is lost due to topographic slope and complicated bedrock structures. Oftentimes groundwater seeps through large rock fractures. A large proportion of the groundwater that is not lost to these fractures, ends up in the ocean.  Although this supports marine ecosystems, if the recharge amount decreases, the fresh groundwater lens below the islands also decreases, shrinking the interface between fresh and saline groundwater, and increasing the risk of saltwater intrusion. 

The finite amount of water on the Gulf Islands does not only affect humans, but also forest ecosystems that depend on groundwater availability for survival. This dependance has disturbingly been displayed by declines in the populations of the shallow-rooted western redcedar across the Coastal Douglas-fir (CDF) zone. If there has ever been a time to preserve Earth’s most precious resource, it is now. 

Based on this information, recommendations made by John Milson to manage freshwater in areas of vulnerability on the Gulf Islands include:

  • rainfall capture, 
  • monitoring groundwater supply and using accordingly,
  • installing irrigation systems to manage runoff and precipitation,
  • slowing the flow of the land via modifications such as adding mulch to gardens, leveraging berms, adding rain gardens, etc.

Webinar 2: Marine and shoreline protection: Impact of docks and overwater structures on Salish Sea habitats

The second webinar examines the impacts of overwater structures and provides recommendations for reducing the effects these structures have on the marine environment. Featured guests include Dr. Stuart Munch a Fisheries Biologist for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Jennifer Sutherst a Senior Staff Biologist for Project Watershed, and Nikki Wright of SeaChange Marine Conservation Society.

Around the world, coastal shorelines maintain habitat diversity and function, dissipate wave energy, reduce erosive forces, sequester carbon, and provide critical habitat to many aquatic species, with salmon being a species of particular concern on the Pacific coast of North America. However, shorelines are increasingly being modified. These modifications include:

  • armouring, which installs hard, heavy material such as concrete or boulders  into the intertidal zone to prevent erosion 
  • and overwater structures such as docks and piers. 

Although these modifications are often implemented with good intentions, that is, shoreline hardening typically aims to reduce coastal erosion, and overwater structures are constructed to increase access to marine areas , they often have underlying effects on marine ecosystems and species. According to Dr. Stuart Munch, these effects include habitat loss, alteration of species composition through interference of migratory routes, exposing fish to predators, lower egg survival, and overall reduced fish abundance. As such, efforts to reduce shoreline modification and improve fish habitat, particularly along urban shorelines, are crucial. 

Prior to implementing such modifications, people should question whether a new overwater structure is really needed and if so, interactions with and impacts to the marine environment should be considered, thinking about such factors as  light availability, wave energy, water quality, and surface substrate. To reduce impacts, Nikki Wright recommends that if there is an unavoidable need for a new overwater structure such as a dock, people should consider installing one that can lift up in the winter months and allows light to shine through. Wright and the other experts also encourage those considering a new dock to opt for sharing one with neighbours or the larger community to reduce cumulative impacts. 

In the Gulf Islands, shading of fish and fish habitat from overwater structures has not been adequately studied and needs further attention, as these coastal shorelines are extremely biodiverse and vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Fortunately, the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development has prohibited any new applications for private docks in the Gulf Islands from August 24, 2021 to August 23, 2023. This is a temporary measure, but is reflective of the sort of shoreline protection that is permanently needed in this region. 

Salt Spring island on a cloudy fall day.

Webinar 3: Coastal Douglas-fir forest conservation: Ecoforestry and fire management

The third webinar focuses on ways to manage the extremely biodiverse and threatened CDF forests characteristic to the Gulf Islands. These management techniques include the traditional practice of prescribed burns, a critical method of forest management in this region. Featured guests include Dr. Ruth Waldick, Director at Transition Salt Spring, Eric Piikkila, Forest & Watershed Ecologist at Yellowpoint Ecological Society, Erik Leslie, Forest Manager for the Harrop-Procter Community Forest Co-operative, Ecologist Dr. Karen Price, and Fire Research Scientist Amy Cardinal Christianson. 

The complex structure of forests provides homes for a diverse array of species, some of which are rare and crucial to ecosystem function. Intact and contiguous forests slow surface flows, increasing moisture level in soils trickling down to the groundwater table, and consequently reducing the severity of droughts and fire. In the CDF region specifically, Dr. Karen Price explains the minimal extent of old growth, with just approximately 1,700 hectares remaining. The decline of old growth has chiefly been driven by industrial scale logging, which in turn has increased the risk of catastrophic fire. As Eric Piikkila states the fire hazard for the slash brought by logging in the CDF can exist for up to 40 years after harvest. Climate change and land conversion have put additional stress on these ecosystems. 

One method to decrease fire risk and thus preserve patches of functional intact forest is to bring back the traditional practice of prescribed burns. Amy Cardinal Christianson explains that many Indigenous communities have been using prescribed burns since time immemorial. However, colonization brought disease and cultural disorganization, along with multitudes of other impacts in the late 19th century, virtually removing all controlled fire from the landscape. Many consequences have accompanied this removal, such as an increased risk of catastrophic fire, reduced species diversity, increased drought, and lower water availability. Reintroducing fire to the landscape, guided by Indigenous knowledge systems, increases ecosystem resilience, particularly in the face of climate change. There have been successful examples in Australia and California, where Indigenous experts practice cultural burns.

The effects of climate change are expected to become more pervasive in coming years; summer temperatures, for example, are expected to increase by the end of the century. This will bring more fires, biodiversity decline, summer droughts, and decreases in winter precipitation, reducing groundwater availability. Extreme weather events are also expected to increase, bringing unprecedented and unpredictable change. Such effects are already being experienced, such as the atmospheric river experienced in British Columbia in November 2021.

Key messages from Dr. Karen Price include: 

  • encourage a paradigm shift to maintain ecological integrity in forestry practices,
  • shift away from “what can I take” toward “what can I leave,”
  • know that conservation is not responsible for job loss,
  • climate mitigation requires us to keep old and productive forests intact.

Dr. Ruth Waldick explains that with the increase in extreme weather events brought by climate change, vulnerability reduction is essential. This has a lot to do with the choices humans make about the land, specifically forests. Forests will be one of our most cost-effective tools to help fight climate change, therefore it is crucial humans take actionable steps to increase forest resilience and connectivity. When we humans think we can do something better than nature, we miss the age-old knowledge of the land and the ecosystems. The best thing we can do is to observe and learn from ecosystems and  support their natural processes. 

Webinar 4: Ecological carrying capacity of island ecosystems

The fourth webinar examines the ecological carrying capacity of island ecosystems, specifically within the Gulf Islands, and discusses a tool to measure this capacity: ecological footprint analyses. Featured guests from this webinar include Persia Khan, Research Associate with the Raincoast Applied Conservation Science Lab at the University of Victoria, Dr. Tara Martin, Professor in Conservation Decision Science with the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences, Faculty of Forestry, University of British Columbia (UBC), Dr. William Rees, Professor Emeritus at UBC, and Adam Huggins and Michelle Thompson from the Galiano Conservancy Association (GCA). 

People the world over, have become victims of shifting baseline syndrome. According to Dr. Tara Martin, this syndrome is best described as the way humans alter the world and forget what it was like beforehand. Each subsequent generation experiences a progressively degraded natural world and perceives it as being normal or natural. On the Gulf Islands, this degradation is best described by the disruption of trophic cascades, which throws entire ecosystems out of balance. For example, the eradication of carnivores has resulted in a hyper-abundant black-tailed deer population, which is affecting forest understories. Other drivers of change include land conversion, removal of Indigenous stewardship from the landscape, and climate change, with its amplifying threats. Each of these problems contributes to environmental degradation and in turn, a deepening shifting baseline syndrome. 

Dr. William Rees developed the ecological footprint analysis (EFA) to better understand shifting baselines and the impacts of human activity on global natural systems. Put simply, EFA measures carrying capacity, which is the maximum activity the environment can support over time without being degraded or fully destroyed. Ultimately, EFA asks: how much productive area would be required to support a given population indefinitely at a specified standard of living. This methodology allows us to compare human demand with nature’s biocapacity

When measuring global capacity, findings suggest that if everyone on Earth lived the way North Americans do, 3 or 4 more planets would be required. Therefore, North Americans specifically need to take actionable steps to reduce our ecological footprint by 75-80%. In 2021, the GCA used EFA to calculate the carrying capacity of Galiano Island. Findings indicate that there is no conceivable way the island could support the demands of the current population independently. Instead, the population’s needs have been met through trade and imports, thus shifting into the carrying capacity of other jurisdictions. 

Humans must choose quickly between a business-as-usual path, risking a chaotic implosion, or a well planned and cooperative shift toward a sustainable world for all. Since the carrying capacity of the planet has been immensely overshot, as shown through EFA, human impacts must be reduced to ensure the planet can continue to support us. Borrowing carrying capacity from other jurisdictions and other generations must be an impetus for change. Ways to do this include: 

  • re-introducing Traditional stewardship practices to the land, such as controlled burning, 
  • managing invasive species,
  • propagating and planting native species,
  • growing your own food and/or supporting local food production systems,
  • using public or active transit as much as possible,
  • building smaller and less resource intensive homes,
  • engaging with  local policy reform processes and governance.

“Ecological overshoot occurs when human demand exceeds the regenerative capacity of a natural ecosystem. Global overshoot occurs when humanity demands more than what the biosphere can renew”

(Earth Overshoot Day, n.d.). According to Dr. Rees, climate change is a symptom of ecological overshoot.

Webinar 5: Ecological governance in the Islands Trust area

The last webinar introduces the concept of ecological governance as a policy lens to promote ecological integrity and resilience  using the Islands Trust as an area of focus. Featured guests include Deb Carlson, Lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law, Joni Olsen, Policy and Negotiations Analyst with the W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council (WLC), and Dr. Kai Chan, Professor from the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at UBC.

In recent years, climate change has affected humans in so many unexpected ways. Because current systems  are not sufficient to meet this global challenge, cooperative effort is to influence systemic change at every governance scale. However, this is, of course, challenging given the complexities of governance structures and a demonstrated lack of political will. 

The Islands Trust’s policy objective is legislated to be the preservation and protection of the Trust area, its unique amenities and environment for the benefit of the residents of the Trust area and BC more generally. Though this may seem suitable, cooperation with First Nations has not been incorporated into this mandate . A fundamental part of policy reform is the inclusion of Indigenous laws and practices. Joni Olsen explains that the WLC’s focus is to find pathways for incorporating Indigenous perspectives into existing policy structures and influencing structural change to create space for cultural values and practices. 

Oftentimes, western policies and governance structures do not consider what might be ecologically, culturally, and spiritually important to Indigenous communities. For example, food security to a western community often comes from heavily modified agricultural lands. Conversely,  food systems for many Indigenous communities are dependent on ecologically diverse ecosystems such as meadows,  beaches, and the ocean. Governance that is inclusive of diverse ways of knowing and distinct food systems is crucial, especially considering that Indigenous foodways tend to foster diversity and resilience, whereas European-influenced agriculture does the opposite. 

What is evident is that we need deep systemic change and while so many organizations are doing great work to influence transformative change, these efforts often occur in silos. Collaboration and an equitable representation of academic and Indigenous knowledge in decision-making is needed to establish large scale transformative change. 

According to Deborah Carlson, for governance systems to adequately address climate change we must: 

  • get involved in sustainable initiatives and a green economy in your community,
  • increase understanding of what ecosystems need to adapt to climate change and thrive, 
  • manage/limit human activities appropriately, 
  • collaborate and seek economic and political pathways that foster respectful coexistence between humans, the environment, and nature, and 
  • reciprocally incorporate Indigenous laws and practices into academic science and management objectives under Indigenous leadership.

You can help

Raincoast’s in-house scientists, collaborating graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors make us unique among conservation groups. We work with First Nations, academic institutions, government, and other NGOs to build support and inform decisions that protect aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and the wildlife that depend on them. We conduct ethically applied, process-oriented, and hypothesis-driven research that has immediate and relevant utility for conservation deliberations and the collective body of scientific knowledge.

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.