Crouched on a steep slope 200 metres above the Pacific Ocean, Mark Hipfner reaches into a muddy, fishy-smelling hole and withdraws a Cassin’s auklet chick. He measures and weighs the hatchling, which at 60 grams is lighter than a deck of cards, before returning it to safety and warmth underground. “This is the largest colony of these birds in the world,” says the Environment Canada research scientist, as he picks his way down the hillside of Triangle Island, the westernmost of five islands that form the Scott Islands archipelago off the northern tip of Vancouver Island.
If you’re looking for superlatives about seabirds, then the Scott Islands are a good place to start. The islands support the highest concentration of breeding seabirds in the Canadian Pacific and are a vital component of the region’s ecosystem. In spring, about 1.4 million birds — including half the world’s population of Cassin’s auklets and the largest colony of tufted puffins in Canada — arrive to breed, transforming the islands into the most diverse seabird colony on the West Coast.
Dangerous waters and rocky shores prevent most people from visiting Cox and Lanz islands, which form a provincial park, while the outermost islands, Beresford, Sartine and Triangle, are ecological reserves closed to the public. Although all the islands are protected to some degree, the surrounding waters, which are an important foraging ground for seabirds, are not. But that will change if the islands and an accompanying 11,546-square-kilometre stretch of ocean are designated as a marine national wildlife area. That could happen this year — six years after the federal government announced its commitment to fund and complete the project by 2012.
That’s great news for the birds, some of which are struggling as ocean temperatures fluctuate. Take the Cassin’s auklet, for instance, the population of which has shrunk by 40 per cent in the last 15 years. Abnormally warm years shift the timing of the zooplankton bloom on which the auklets feed, so that at critical times in the breeding season their foraging grounds are less nutritious. Adult females and chicks suffer higher mortality during these events.
A marine national wildlife area designation can’t change the ocean’s temperature, but the rules that accompany it could protect the birds from potential hazards, thus helping offset population declines caused by warmer waters. These threats include oil or pollution that’s discharged or spilled from passing ships, any future fishing of seabird forage species (such as Pacific sand lance) and seabird bycatch (where birds are unintentionally caught in longline fishery operations). “In the short term,” says Blair Hammond, manager of ecosystem conservation for Environment Canada in Vancouver, “there would be no new activities without a permit, more surveillance of existing regulations and improved at-sea surveys and conservation work.”
But that’s not enough for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, an environmental group that has been working with Environment Canada since the mid-1990s to establish a marine national wildlife area in the region. CPAWS believes the proposed boundaries don’t provide adequate protection for the birds and that there should be “at a minimum, no-take zones for commercial and recreational fishing, and shipping lanes to confine traffic to limited areas.” CPAWS was suggesting that Canadians voice similar objections this past spring during Environment Canada’s 60-day regulatory strategy public consultation period for the proposed protected area.
It’s uncertain how much longer it will take after that process for the marine national wildlife area to receive its official designation, but Hammond believes it could happen in 2013.
Meanwhile, the work of scientists such as Hipfner continues. “There’s always more you can do,” he says. “That’s why we keep coming out here.”