Learn about Sustainability Scholars involved in year one of the Fraser Estuary Research Collaborative.

Words by Linda Nowlan, photograph by Julia Kidder

On a cloudy day on the Fraser estuary in Steveston, a group of Fraser Estuary Research Collaborative (FERC) Sustainability Scholars and their NGO mentors met at the Blue Cabin floating artist residency to share progress on their paid applied internship projects. Fourteen Scholars are working in this Collaborative this summer, made possible with funding from the Sitka Foundation. The Blue Cabin was a place to feel the river‘s rhythms, spot birds and fish, share food, knowledge and inspiration, think about the past and future, and make connections. The setting kept ideas flowing.

The Blue Cabin Floating Artist Residency

Just like the water it floats on, owned by no one and cared for by the community, the Blue Cabin has resisted ownership for over 80 years. It started as a floating home, built by a Norwegian shipbuilder in about 1927 and was towed in 1932 to a small cove by Cates Park, or in Tsleil-Waututh, Whey-ah-Wichen, which means “faces the wind,” where it was lifted on pilings above the intertidal zone and sat for the next 83 years. The group of artists migrating to the Cates Park enclave challenged concepts like ownership and their legacy continues to ripple today.

Artists Al Neil5 and Carole Itter lived in and restored the cabin, taking up each floorboard and uncovering treasures such as a trove of old vaudeville posters. In 2015 they were served with an eviction notice due to development pressure, but the Cabin was thankfully saved.

Bringing it back to life as an artist’s residency was the project of the Blue Cabin Committee composed of three Vancouver arts organizations—Creative Cultural Collaborations (C3)grunt gallery and Other Sights—who raised funds to restore the Cabin and construct the companion off-the-grid deckhouse. After several years in False Creek, the Cabin was towed to Steveston this past winter.

Guest Speaker from Living with Water PICS Project Reveals Multiple Synergies with FERC

The afternoon began with a talk by Vanessa Lueck the Researcher in Residence from the Living with Water (LWW) PICS project. She spoke about the project’s focus on nature-based solutions rather than traditional hard infrastructure like the rock dyke lining the shore outside the Blue Cabin.

LWW deals with floods as natural processes, and with water as a living being. Working with a wide swath of partners including the insurance industry, First Nations, NGOs and academic researchers, LWW involves 37 participants and 17 graduate students to date and includes several pilot sites, such as the 1km living dike in Surrey, a living breakwater project, a multimodal dike in Squamish with the Squamish First Nation, and a governance reform pilot.

The three-year LWW project is led by Professor Kees Lokman of UBC whose Coastal Adaptation Lab integrates research on critical infrastructures, coastal habitat squeeze, nature-based solutions, and managed retreat—all within the overarching envelope of climate and spatial justice. This video explains the challenge. Many connections between LWW and FERC surfaced during the afternoon.

Fraser Estuary Research Collaborative Sustainability Scholar Projects

The FERC Scholars talked about massive human-caused changes to the estuary, birds, waterfowl, decolonizing research, Indigenous knowledge of the estuary, floods, dikes, diatoms, foodland corridors, and much more as they outlined their projects:

  • A Scholar with the Rivershed Society spoke of her graphic rendering and visualization for a river site slated to be an EV bus parking lot. Visualizing a riverside park allows decision-makers to see how to restore habitat and provide public access and recreation while building their lot. Raincoast Conservation Foundation and Rivershed are working with the City of Vancouver to make this park a reality, and the images produced by the Scholar will help make the case.
  • Another Scholar works with Birds Canada documenting data about the biofilm and diatoms that are so critical for shorebird sustenance in the estuary.
  • A Scholar working with the Sierra Club of BC is preparing posters and a guide to decolonizing institutions such as UBC itself.  
  • Another works on food security and examines the array of regulations that apply to Indigenous food security and agricultural activities in the estuary. In a  companion project, also for West Coast Environmental Law, (WCEL)  a  Scholar is cataloguing all the regulations, plans and policies that apply to activities in the estuary and evaluating their adherence to nature-based criteria.
  • Yet another works with BC Nature, the umbrella organization for  BC’s naturalist volunteer clubs on the removal of invasive species as one of the most cost-effective ways to protect biodiversity in the estuary.
  • Another project looks at resident Canada geese in the estuary. Geese were introduced by settlers for hunting and wildlife feeling, and now wreak havoc with estuary restoration as they feed on Lyngbye's sedge ​and other wetland grasses often planted in restoration projects.

The group discussed the goal of human interaction with the severely degraded Fraser estuary, where the majority of wetlands have been lost. Is it to restore nature to pre-industrial pre-settler days and reach new restoration targets, or can the human residents form new respectful and reciprocal relationships with the river, estuary, and, especially, the nonhuman beings that share the water and land? A multi-authored UBC report found that 67 of 102 species at risk found in the Fraser River Estuary have a less than 50% chance of persisting over the next 25 years.1

The surge of questions continued. Can we examine what it would mean to construct a new multi-modal dyke in the Squamish estuary from the perspective of a salmon? A LWW PhD student who also assists the FERC is examining just this question. Should we be looking at food security from the perspective of a bear? How do we incorporate Indigenous knowledge and wisdom into estuary governance? How does the complex jurisdictional maze feed into solutions?

There was a torrent of ideas on using language to change how we think and respond. An example of the Sea2City community conversations shows how switching common sea level rise adaptation words switches the dialogue: instead of “resist,” acknowledge; instead of “accommodate,” reciprocate, and instead of “move/avoid,” repair. 

Projects by the FERC Scholars that could not attend include strategies to restore eelgrass (WWF-Canada), evaluating climate change indicators (Pacific Salmon Foundation), and lessons from nature-based flood management structures that emphasize people, salmon and community resilience (Resilient Waters). The Salish Sea Indigenous Guardians Association project focusses on Indigenous-led cumulative assessment with a goal of "reframing cumulative effects as a tangible, useable, and relevant tool to address the consistent feedback from communities regarding the shortfalls of ‘consultation’ and the need to break the cycle of untenable referral processes that consume endless resources, yet do not lead to clearer understandings of impacts or sustainable planning." The UBC Farm is investigating Indigenous foodlands in the estuary. Raincoast’s Scholar is looking at legal personhood for the estuary. A Scholar is assessing the potential for flood risk mitigation and salmon habitat restoration in the Lower Fraser (Lower Fraser Fisheries Alliance).

Action to Prevent Estuary Decline

The fate of the estuary is uncertain due to threats from pollution, industrial projects, residential development and the wild card of climate change. Many advocate for better care, and stronger efforts to enforce the numerous designations that apply to the estuary. (See the Fraser Delta case study on this issue in WCEL’s Guide to Coastal and Ocean Protection Law in BC).

Over the course of the three-year FERC project, synergies from the applied research of this group of Sustainability Scholars will emerge. Redefining a relationship with the estuary and the river by putting ecology at the centre, and recognizing the rights of non-human beings are key. A growing global “Nature Positive” movement aims to halt and reverse nature loss through increasing the health, abundance, diversity and resilience of species, populations and ecosystems so that by 2030 nature is visibly and measurably on the path of recovery. The FERC can add to this wave of momentum.

The Blue Cabin shows how a tidal change is possible through community care. Inspired by our time there, the FERC will try to make waves while the estuary ebbs and surges, and the Blue Cabin rolls along with the tide.

[1] Kehoe, Laura J., et al. "Conservation in heavily urbanized biodiverse regions requires urgent management action and attention to governance." Conservation Science and Practice 3.2 (2021): e310.