Building a resilient funding and decision-making structure for the Lower Fraser

Our new report highlights global case studies for the development of a comprehensive, place-based conservation strategy in the Lower Fraser.

As the mighty Fraser River nears its terminus in the Salish Sea, it meets its most prevalent interface with humanity, winding past farms, industry, and cities. It is here in the Lower Fraser–defined as the stretch between Hope, BC and Metro Vancouver–where some of the most important salmon habitat also lies. Shallow streams, eelgrass meadows, and riparian vegetation provide juvenile salmon with a vital nursery ground where they can grow strong before they make their final journey out to the ocean.   

For generations, the land has been home to the majority of the population of BC, and is the ancestral home of Coast Salish and Lower Fraser First Nations, including the Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, Katzie, Kwantlen, Stolo, and Sumas. 

The arrival of the Europeans coincided with a dramatic decline in the health of the Lower Fraser. Due to expanding agricultural, residential, and industrial development, little historical habitat remains, and the pockets that survive face an existential threat in climate change. 

To address this, local, provincial, and federal governments have invested heavily in conservation and restoration efforts throughout the region. Yet, without an overarching conservation strategy to guide these projects, this investment has so far failed to address a suite of complex and systemic issues. The result? Salmon returns in the Fraser are at their lowest in history. 

We wrote a report that highlights case studies of conservation projects from around the world, seeking to address the following question

What could a coordinated, sustainably funded conservation strategy in the Lower Fraser look like?  

Our aim was to highlight successful conservation strategies from municipalities, ENGOs, and Indigenous communities from around the world, learn what made them work, and think about how the tools they use can be applied to turn the tide for salmon in the Lower Fraser.  

Let’s talk money

Funding is one of the greatest limiting factors to conservation work. The current landscape of grants allocated to conservation in the Lower Fraser is disjointed, with governments, NGOs, corporations, and private foundations disbursing individual grants that must be applied for on a yearly basis. This system makes finding funding a significant task each year for the conservation sector, and leads to great uncertainty around whether projects will have enough funds to proceed.

One tool to address this problem is an endowment fund, an investment fund that provides organizations with stable, ongoing revenue. Using an endowment fund, organizations can turn a single, one-time investment–often the case with government grants or philanthropic donations–into a relatively secure stream of investment income over a long period of time. The Atlantic Salmon Conservation Foundation supports all of its conservation and restoration work this way. The relative stability of the revenue generated by an endowment fund helps to support long-term projects that occur over multiple years, a timeframe that eclipses most grants, which require annual applications.

We also highlighted a strategy known as Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES). PES strategies are built in two parts. First, a dollar value is determined for the public services that a specific ecosystem provides, for example, filtering runoff, managing stormwater, and providing recreational opportunities. Then, payments are distributed based on this value to landowners, developers, and municipalities who work to preserve or restore these ecosystems. In many cases, the cost to preserve these ecosystems and the services they provide is far less than the cost to build infrastructure to accomplish the same results.  

The Yallahs-Hope River Watershed Project in Jamaica is a prime example of a successful PES strategy. Instead of making costly upgrades to Kingston’s water treatment infrastructure, the government of Jamaica trained and incentivized farmers to improve their land-use practices, which led to reduced siltation and runoff into downstream water sources.

How do we make decisions? 

Our report also focused on governance: how decisions are made. We identified three overarching themes–transparency, Indigenous leadership, and bottom-up decision-making–as imperative to the success of many organizations. Transparent operations and regular outcome reporting builds trust with stakeholders, governments, and the public, and allows other organizations to take lessons from successful projects. With the array of ENGOs, governments, and academics working in the same space, transparency helps to keep the community informed on what’s working and what needs work.

We also focused on the importance of community-led decision making, especially leadership from Indigenous communities. For too long, conservation strategies have been informed by a top-down approach that often excluded local communities and First Nations from the table. By flipping this approach, many organizations have forged stronger connections with the communities where they work, and projects are able to focus on regional issues that are of direct concern to local communities. One example we highlighted is the case of Salween Peace Park, a 6000 km2 conservation area in Karen State in Myanmar. The park is entirely governed by the Indigenous Karen people who have lived in the area for millenia. Local communities who have strong relationships with the land that they live on are often better equipped with the knowledge and experience needed to protect their lands, making the case for a shift away from top-down governance. 

The Lower Fraser

The aim of our report was to help envision what a long-term, sustainably funded, Indigenous-led conservation strategy could look like in the Lower Fraser. This culturally, economically, and ecologically important watershed is facing interconnected threats, threats that require a bold, novel approach to address.

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.

We investigate to understand coastal species and processes. We inform by bringing science to decision-makers and communities. We inspire action to protect wildlife and wildlife habitats.

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