Watershed Sentinel: Canadian hemp fibre finally poised for market acceptance

Watershed Sentinel: Canadian hemp fibre finally poised for market acceptance

Photo of hemp marine rigging by Patrice Dufour from FreeImages

By Gavin MacRae

On a summer backpacking trip through the Amazon 20 years ago, Michael Demone witnessed the destruction of deforestation first-hand. Determined to do something and brimming with youthful optimism, he returned home and opened one of Canada’s first hemp shops.

“It wasn’t a headshop. There were no bongs,” he says. “It was beautiful fabrics, and bicycle chain lubricant, and tree-free papers.”

Back then, hemp was a boutique industry. Demone had trouble sourcing products, and with the shelves near empty, the store eventually closed.

Two decades later, a lot has changed: cannabis is legal, hemp farming has been decriminalized in the United States, and entrepreneurs are clamouring for a grubstake in the “green gold rush” of the Cannabidiol (CBD) market.

But these developments are forerunners to what promises to be the most important advance involving the cannabis sativa plant: hemp for fibre.


Hemp to replace cotton

Hemp fibre can, in large part, replace cotton, with big environmental benefits.

Versus US cotton, the ecological footprint of hemp is one-third to a half smaller, depending on how the hemp is cultivated and processed, according to a 2010 analysis by the Stockholm Environment Institute. Even organic cotton has a higher ecological footprint, per ton of fibre, than conventionally cultivated hemp.

“Currently, cotton is king,” says Andrew Riseman, an associate professor at the UBC Faculty of Land and Food Systems. “But cotton takes an enormous amount of water, pesticides, and energy to produce and then to refine, and it doesn’t have the durability or the advantageous characteristics that hemp would have.”

Hemp fibre can also be used to make low-carbon building materials and bio-composites, and can substitute for wood fibre in pulp and paper production.

In Canada we can grow some of the best, longest fibre, specifically in northern Alberta, with long daylight hours

Hemp, or more properly industrial hemp, is easy to confuse with cannabis, because on paper it’s the same plant. In practice, hemp and cannabis look and are grown differently. And hemp won’t get you high – it has only trace amounts of THC, the psychoactive compound found in cannabis. Hemp is bred to produce high fibre yield, high seed yield, or a dual-purpose compromise between the traits.

Until recently, nearly all hemp grown in Canada was grown for food. To farm hemp for fibre, a hurdle remained.

It was “classic chicken and egg,” says Jan Slaski, a long time hemp researcher with InnoTech Alberta, an arm of the Alberta Innovates provincial research institute. Farmers were reluctant to grow hemp without a steady market for fibre, and markets and processing infrastructure couldn’t develop without hemp product.

Hemp yarn photo by S. Schleicher from FreeImages

It’s only in the last few years that the hemp industry has weakened this market catch-22, Slaski says, and now, “It’s a different ballgame.”

A hundred kilometres east of Edmonton, Slaski and his team run a hemp research and processing facility in Vegreville, Alberta, to develop applications for hemp “from seed to final product.” Strong demand now has the facility working extended hours processing hemp for fibre.

Not far from Vegreville, in Bruderheim, Alberta, Canadian Rockies Hemp Corporation is building a similar “decortication” facility to process hemp fibre grown by contracted farmers in the area. The facility will remove the lignin and pectin from the fibre to produce the short, consistent fibres sought for textiles, bio-composites and paper.

With these high value fibres, “cotton can be replaced, a lot of synthetic products can be replaced, tree products can be replaced.” says Aaron Barr, Canadian Rockies Hemp’s CEO. “There’s a lot of different market opportunities, but the key is advancing the technology.”

Countries such as China, Ukraine, Poland, and the Netherlands have a long head start on Canada in the hemp trade, says Barr, but he’s not worried – longer summer daylight at northern latitudes can add four feet of extra growth to hemp plants by summers’ end.

“In Canada we can grow some of the best, longest fibre, specifically in northern Alberta, with long daylight hours. It gives us literally one of the best geographical advantages in the world. CBD, THC, those type of flowering plants will do better in the south. We are fit for fibre.”

As the technology and processing muscle advances, entrepreneurs are taking formerly-cottage-industry hemp applications to commercial scale.


Biocomposites & building materials

Take hempcrete, a mixture of hemp biomass and lime used as a building material since ancient times. In modern construction, hempcrete can substitute for concrete in many applications.

Just Biofiber of Airdrie, Alberta, manufactures a construction system of hempcrete blocks that are load bearing, insulating, fire resistant, fast to build with, and that, Just Biofiber says, embody more carbon than is released in their manufacture.

“Instead of cutting down trees we can grow a crop in our fields in 90 days, and build houses that are better quality homes with it,” says Barr. “Healthier homes that last longer. There are unbelievable advantages to it.”

InnoTech’s Vegreville facility supplies fibre to BioComposites Group in Drayton Valley, Alberta. The company produces a diverse array of hemp products, from fibre mats for erosion control and horticultural use to hemp-based bio-composite sheets that can be moulded to form complex shapes such as interior car parts.

Many moulded products now made from oil or natural gas feedstocks such as polypropylene, polyethylene, and glass-reinforced thermoplastics, are candidates for replacement, says BioComposites Group.

The hemp composites are lighter than the products they replace and fully biodegradable when used with organic resins.

Slaski’s first research into hemp was as a fibre source for an Alberta pulp mill. The mill had run out of forest, Lorax style, within a reasonable hauling distance. The research was scrapped, says Slaski, after a new CEO decided the company “was not comfortable dealing with non-woody crops.”

The missed opportunity left Slaski with tantalizing statistics.

“It is safe to assume that hemp can produce about four to five times more fibre per hectare than forest,” Slaski says. “On average, boreal forest produces one-to-two tons per hectare of biomass per year, while fibre-type varieties of hemp produce eight-to-ten tons per hectare.”

That’s with one crop. In warmer climates, two crops a year can be grown.

Apparently, a Maryland, USA company is comfortable with non-woody crops. Fibonacci LLC is investing US$5.8 million in a factory in Kentucky to produce a wood substitute from hemp stalks, according to the trade journal Woodworking Network. The company says their product is 20 per cent harder than red oak, and plans to market it for use in flooring and furniture.

All this is happening with the current state of technology. With further research into genetics and agricultural practices, more applications and products will emerge.

“I think prohibition set us back about a century,” says Riseman. “[Hemp] was the plant that did everything, the workhorse plant. And now we have all these tools that we’ve applied to corn and wheat and cotton, and you see the yield increases and how much more efficient and productive we have become…. [Hemp’s] been bred for low THC or long fibres, no one’s talked about what else we could breed for.”

Hemp is truly versatile, but over-zealous advocates have attributed near super-botanical abilities to the plant. Experts caution that wild claims online about hemp, such as it having “over 50,000 uses,” are “fantastic,” “ridiculous,” and “bro science.”

“One misconception is that hemp doesn’t require fertilizer, water, is pest resistant, is just a miracle crop,” says Slaski. “I would say, yes, hemp can survive on marginal land – survive – but if you want to grow a crop that you want to get paid for, you have to provide inputs, because there are no miracles in hemp.”

We have an opportunity to build an industry of value, with values

After some 80 years of prohibition, hemp cultivation was legalized federally in the United States in late 2018. As one observer put it, “it’s basically the starting gun” for US hemp farming.

The end of US hemp prohibition should be a rising tide that benefits both countries by lifting hemp to its rightful place among other mainstay crops.

Because of this, and despite a 20-year lead in decriminalizing hemp, Canada must position itself as a world leader in hemp fibre to stay in the driver’s seat, Slaski says.

“The US is a larger country, with more money to invest in the opportunity. They will be a serious competitor to our hemp industry.”

Read more at the Watershed Sentinel: Fibreshed: a movement for full-circle local fibre production finds its roots on Vancouver Island

Michael Demone has long since traded his backpacking duds for business attire. He now leads the Canadian Working Group on Industrial Hemp, which he describes as “part advocacy group, part support system” for developing new hemp products.

For Demone, the quickly evolving promise of hemp fibre is “like the Renaissance” and he believes “round two” could herald more than environmental benefits.

“To get philosophical, I think we have an opportunity to build an industry of value, with values. And that means including talks about labour, about Indigenous voices, about women in manufacturing, all of these things, it’s just ready to blow. We need responsible people who will say ‘look, we want to make some money, we want to advance this industry, there are some really significant environmental benefits.’ It’s going to take investment and it’s going to take businesses willing to take some risks.”

Gavin MacRae is the Watershed Sentinel’s assistant editor. The Sentinel is a publishing partner of Decafnation.









The passing of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (2018 Farm Bill, Section 10113) removed hemp and hemp seeds from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) schedule of Controlled Substances. This action removed hemp and hemp seeds from DEA authority for products containing THC levels not greater than 0.3 percent. Therefore, DEA no longer has authority to require hemp seed permits for import purposes. Read more

— Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance


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More Environment | Latest Feature
Comox Valley marches to preserve Island’s remaining old growth forests

Comox Valley marches to preserve Island’s remaining old growth forests

Jay Van Oostdam photos

By Pat Carl

Ninety-one-year-old Elke Bibby, with her walker in tow, thought it important enough to come in from Cumberland to join the Day of Action to Save BC Forests.

So did Tallulah Patterson, owner of Little Salmon Child Care located in Courtenay’s Puntledge Park. Seven of her charges accompanied her to the Courtenay courthouse lawn on their bikes and scooters and then marched down Courtenay’s streets to Save BC Forests.

Along the way, cut-outs of local MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard, Minister of Forestry Doug Donaldson and Premier John Horgan made their usual statements defending the provincial government’s decision to sell lots of old growth to the highest industry bidder. In a twist on the childhood game of “Simon Says,” marchers were cued to turn their backs on the politicians’ obfuscations.

When the marchers arrived at the Comox Valley Art Gallery, speakers stood between the two unity totems installed at the gallery entrance.

Galen Armstrong, with Sierra Club BC, looked out over the crowd of more than 100 marchers and commented on its age diversity.

“We need to talk to people of all ages, we need to expand our circle” so that we can stop logging companies from harvesting old growth,” he said.

Youth Environmental Action organizer, Nalan Goosen, said young people believe they are the ones being “most affected by logging old growth” since they will inherit a damaged environment.

Describing that damage was Dr. Loys Maingon, who was arrested at Clayoquot Sound in 1992 for protecting old growth. While he presented statistical and scientific information, he did it in a passionate way that stirred the crowd.

Eartha Muirhead, who is spearheading the anti-old growth logging movement with First Nations at Schmidt Creek, said that “letters and polite emails to our provincial government may no longer be enough. We may need to lay our bodies on the line to save old growth.”

Other speakers included Cumberland Councillor Vickey Brown, who told the crowd that her young son said that “there are places where people just shouldn’t be” like old growth forests.

Will Cole-Hamilton, a Courtenay City Councillor, said that logging old growth is a “destructive practice” that has led to our Island’s “scarred landscape.”

Mark de Bruijn, a local Green Party of Canada candidate, noted that “tweaking provincial regulations is no longer enough. We need a profound overhaul of the system.”

Marchers spontaneously made their own signs, like Megan Trumble. They recited poems like Lorraine’s “Stained Shoes.” They penned and sang their own songs like Joanna Finch’s “We Are One.”

“The energy” at the Day of Action “was electric,” said one participant.




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Town of Comox now faces $250,000 Supreme Court lawsuit over pollution

Town of Comox now faces $250,000 Supreme Court lawsuit over pollution

One of the few remaining daylight sections of Golf Creek at the Comox Golf Course  /  George Le Masurier

By George Le Masurier

What started as a simple request three years ago for the Town of Comox to help defray a homeowner’s expense to remediate a creek bank has since uncovered a litany of town-related problems and, as of last week, turned into a BC Supreme Court case valued at nearly a quarter-million dollars.

As reported by Decafnation in January, Norine and Ken McDonald launched a BC Small Claims Court action in June of 2016 to recover some of the $30,000 they spent to shore up a portion of Golf Creek that flows through their Jane Place property.

They took the legal action after discovering the erosion was caused by excessive municipal stormwater flowing into the creek, and because the town refused to take responsibility for the damage.

For three years, the McDonalds and the Town of Comox have been locked in a legal battle to settle the matter. The McDonalds have requested meetings to negotiate a resolution, and have been turned down. The town has responded by trying to have the case dismissed, and were denied in court.

FURTHER READING: Stormwater: it’s killing our water

But in the process of preparing their case against the town, the McDonalds have learned that Golf Creek is not only plagued by high volumes of stormwater flowing into the creek, but that the water is highly polluted with heavy metals and fecal coliform counts up to 230 times higher than the provincial water quality standards. E Coli counts have exceeded provincial maximums by 500 percent.

For the McDonalds, the toxic water in their backyard created a new financial problem.

According to section 5-13 of the rules of the Real Estate Council of BC (enforced under the BC Real Estate Act), a homeowner must disclose a material latent defect that renders the property “dangerous or potentially dangerous to the occupants” or “a defect that would involve great expense to remedy.”

“Now that we are aware of the pollution problem, we are obligated to disclose that problem to any prospective future buyer as well,” Ken McDonald told Decafnation. “That disclosure will certainly impact property value.”

So the McDonalds recently asked the court to amend the compensation they are seeking to nearly $250,000, the value of the portion of their property affected by the Creek (about 29 percent), and to move their case to the BC Supreme Court.

On Friday, May 31, Civil Court Judge Hutcheson granted the McDonald’s request.

This ruling escalates the financial risk for Town of Comox taxpayers.

In a letter to the town and to the attention of Mayor Russ Arnott, the McDonalds lawyer wrote that “… other property owners and occupants in the Town of Comox may have suffered similar damages, and are considering the potential for a class action lawsuit to hold the town accountable….”

McDonald also believes the case might have province-wide significance for other property owners near urban streams.



The McDonalds’ house at the end of the Jane Place cul de sac was originally built by John and Christine Robertsen in 1991. The Robertsens commissioned BBT Hardy Engineering to do a geotechnical study to determine the feasibility of building on property that included the Golf Creek ravine, and were issued a building permit and final occupancy permit by the town even though no erosion control measures were undertaken, as recommended in the study.

In 1992, the town commissioned a study by KPA Engineering that recommended four erosion control options — including a detention pond on the Comox Golf Course — to protect properties along Golf Creek. None were implemented, according to documents supplied by Ken McDonald.

Ken McDonald stands in front of his $30,000 geotextile wall to prevent further erosion from Golf Creek. The Town of Comox’s refusal to help him pay for the remediation has turned into a nearly $250,000 BC Supreme Court lawsuit

Seven years later, a 1999 a KPA Engineering study gave Golf Creek the highest environmental sensitivity rating in their investigation and recommended remedial action and water quality monitoring. Neither were implemented, accord to McDonald’s documents.

From 1991 to 2005, Town of Comox population grew by 70 percent, increasing stormwater flows into Golf Creek.

In 2005, the Robertsens communicated concerns about increased erosion of their property, and the town denied responsibility. The Robertsens then paid for a second geotechnical study — this one by Lewkowich Engineering — that repeated the need for “some preventative measures.” None were implemented.

A 2013 assessment by McElhanney Engineering raised concerns about increased stormwater volumes and recommended the town “mitigate the impacts of discharging stormwater into sensitive receiving environments.” The town did not implement the recommendations in the McElhanney report, according to McDonald.

When the Robertsens decided to sell their house in 2014, they commissioned a third geotechnical study, which reaffirmed the need for creek bank remediation.

After purchasing the house, the McDonalds hired a contractor to do the creek bank remediation, and were told by the town that erosion damage was entirely their own responsibility.

McDonald says he did not realize Golf Creek was no longer a natural waterway until June 2016 when a downstream neighbor mentioned his erosion problems and the old engineering reports indicating the creek was a key component of the town’s stormwater management system. The neighbor told McDonald that the town had installed a five meter-long rock wall along his creek bank.

So the McDonalds started a BC Small Claims Court action to recover some of the cost of remediating their own section of the creek.

Two years into that legal action, McDonald had the water quality in the creek tested. The test results showed fecal coliform levels nearing that of raw sewage and concentrations of heavy metals, including mercury, that exceeded provincial guidelines.

In many cases, the level of contaminants exceeded government guidelines by more than 1,000 percent.

Last month, McDonald had the creek’s water retested. While the fecal coliform tested down to 150 times provincial standards, the results showed the more dangerous E Coli levels at 2,000 Fecal Coliform Units per 100 ml. BC and Health Canada guidelines put the maximum safe level for human recreational contact with E Coli in a single sample at 400 FCU/100 ml.

E Coli in Golf Creek registered 500 percent over the BC maximum.

McDonald said the provincial environment ministry has also recently tested the creek’s water, but has not yet released their results.


Attempts to meet with Town Council

McDonald says that litigation is not his preferred approach to resolving the issue, but that repeated attempts to meet with town staff and the mayor and council have been rebuffed by the town.

Prior to last fall’s municipal election, McDonald filed an application to the court requesting postponement of a trial date so that he could present his case to the new mayor and council. The town opposed the postponement, but it was granted. No meeting has taken place.

In October, before the election, McDonald asked candidate Russ Arnott if council would entertain a meeting. Arnott declined in an email message.

“I did bring it up with Richard (Kanigan, the town’s Chief Administrative Officer) and was advised it was in the hands of their insurance people and that it best not to engage at this particular time,” Arnott replied to McDonald via email.

McDonald said two subsequent informal encounters with Arnott met with the same response.


What’s next

The McDonalds are now in the process of preparing their case for the Supreme Court.

“Our object is to solve a major environmental problem that has destroyed the fresh water streams in Comox and is contaminating our marine environment,” McDonald told Decafnation. “There are practical solutions to the problem. What is needed is an administration and a council that acknowledges that there is a problem and is willing to change their stormwater management practices.”

Decafnation briefed Comox Mayor Russ Arnott and CAO Richard Kanigan on the content of this story prior to publication, but neither responded to an invitation to comment or provide additional information.









FECAL COLIFORM — Microscopic organisms that live in the intestines of warm-blooded animals. They also live in the waste material, or feces, excreted from the intestinal tract. Although not necessarily agents of disease, fecal coliform bacteria may indicate the presence of disease-carrying organisms, which live in the same environment as the fecal coliform bacteria. Swimming in waters with high levels of fecal coliform bacteria increases the chance of developing illness (fever, nausea or stomach cramps) from pathogens entering the body through the mouth, nose, ears, or cuts in the skin. Diseases and illnesses that can be contracted in water with high fecal coliform counts include typhoid fever, hepatitis, gastroenteritis, dysentery and ear infections. Read more here and here




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More Environment | Latest Feature | Stormwater

Stormwater systems shift slowly toward green infrastructure

Stormwater management plans in the Comox Valley have historically treated rainwater as waste, something to be collected and disposed of quickly, usually into previously clean streams or directly into the ocean. Clearly a new approach is needed.

Golf Creek: A case study in stormwater planning gone wrong

The second in a series about stormwater begins the Tale of Three Creeks: Golf, Brooklyn and Morrison. Golf Creek is dead, Brooklyn Creek is threatened and Morrison Creek is thriving, with an effort to protect its pristine and intact headwaters

A new Courtenay strategy will guide how the city manages its urban forests

A new Courtenay strategy will guide how the city manages its urban forests

Butchers Road, Comox  /  George Le Masurier photo

By George Le Masurier

Back in the 1980s, it was uncommon for small communities like the City of Courtenay to even think about the value of its urban forests. When the city adopted a tree bylaw in 1989 that regulated the cutting down of trees on public and private lands, Courtenay became something of a leader in urban planning.

The idea of protecting trees as a natural asset, once only the providence of environmentalists, is now a widely accepted best practice of urban planning in flourishing communities.

But the price of being an early adopter was that Courtenay had no overarching policy to guide its decision-making about how to update its tree bylaw.

That gap became obvious during a controversial review and update to the bylaw that began in 2015 and didn’t conclude until 2017. Groups like the Comox Valley Development and Constructions Association pressed for a less restrictive bylaw while other groups favored greater protections.

So the Courtenay planning staff are now in the final throes of developing an Urban Forest Strategy that will guide how the city manages trees on private and public property for the next 30 years.

FURTHER READING: Review the draft Urban Forest Strategy

Comox Valley residents have just two more days to add their input into the strategy through the online survey. It closes on Thursday, May 23.

Many Vancouver Island communities have an Urban Forest strategy or are in the process of developing one.

Cumberland issued an RFP for consulting services to assist in creating its Urban Forest Management Plan, which includes trees on both public and private property within the urban landscape. Comox has a plan, but it applies only to public lands.

Courtenay Policy Planner Nancy Gothard said the Urban Forest Strategy will be a guiding document for the city that states a shared vision, goals and targets, and will inform the decision-making of future councils.

“It’s a ‘plan’ similar to the Downtown Revitalization Plan,” Gothard said. “If it’s adopted by City Council it will guide decisions, but not be adopted as a bylaw.”


Courtenay’s urban forest today

Although the city has had a tree bylaw for 30 years, the tree canopy has been declining, especially in the last four years.

In 1996, 38 percent of the city was covered and that remained fairly constant until 2014 when it dropped by two percent, and another two percent by the end of 2016. Another one percent was lost in 2018, leaving the tree canopy now at 33 percent, most of it on privately-owned land.

That’s similar to other communities, such as Campbell River. Comox is considerably lower at 23 percent.

The canopy cover target for the Pacific Northwest ecoregion is 40 percent.

The draft Urban Forest Strategy doesn’t propose a specific target, yet. Gothard said the city is asking the public through the survey what the target should be and will make a specific target recommendation to council.


Why have an urban forest?

Recent research generally supports that greener communities enjoy better health and wealth, and are more active and socially bonded. Communities everywhere in the world are looking at the role of trees in providing these benefits.

“As an ecological asset, Courtenay’s urban forest plays a critical role in sustaining localized hydrology, to support creek and fish health,” Gothard said. “We also know that the public loves their neighbourhood forested trails and values trees for the shade, wildlife habitat and beauty they provide.”

Emerging research also indicates that access to nature — and even views of it — assist with boosting immunity, more rapid healing, and reducing the anxiety and stress, ailments of modern life.

“Urban trees and forests clearly require management and care in order to provide these benefits,” she said. “But when invested in, they are proving to be a very good return on investment.”


Benefits of trees

According to Canopy.org trees absorb air borne pollutants, which improves health and allergic conditions. They absorb carbon dioxide, and one tree produces enough oxygen for 18 people every day.

A tree is a natural air conditioner. The evaporation from a single tree can produce the cooling effect of ten room-size, residential air conditioners operating 20 hours a day.

Tree windbreaks can reduce residential heating costs by up to 15 percent; while shading and evaporative cooling from trees can cut residential air-conditioning costs by nearly 50 percent.

Homes landscaped with trees sell more quickly and are worth 5 percent to 15 percent more than homes without trees. Where the entire street is tree-lined, homes may be worth 25 percent more.

Trees absorb and block sound, reducing noise pollution by as much as 40 percent.






One year after beginning a comprehensive exploration and community consultation into Courtenay’s urban forest, the draft plan is now available for public feedback and we want to hear from you!

The Urban Forest Strategy will guide how we as a community protect and manage trees on public and private land within the Courtenay boundaries. The drafted Strategy recommends the vision for what our future urban forest will be and a framework for how to get there.

The survey focuses on a few key questions to gather final input on the vision, preferred canopy target, your priorities and willingness to participate in proposed urban forest actions.

All survey participants are welcome and encouraged to consult the draft Urban Forest Strategy, including previous consultation findings, which are available on the City of Courtenay’s website at: www.courtenay.ca/urbanforest

Questions and written feedback may also be directed to City staff at planning@courtenay.ca

Survey closes May 23, 2019. Please encourage your friends and neighbours to participate!

— City of Courtenay website


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More Environment
Learn more about Salish Sea whales at Sarah Patton’s Denman Island lecture

Learn more about Salish Sea whales at Sarah Patton’s Denman Island lecture

Photo courtesy of Ocean Wise

By George Le Masurier

Do you want to learn about the threats facing whales in our waters and what local citizens can do to help to protect them? Comox Valley Nature has invited Sarah Patton to present an illustrated talk, The Whales in Our Waters, at 2:00 pm Thursday, May 30 in the Denman Island Community Hall, 1196 Northwest Road, Denman Island. 

Patton is a Research Biologist with Ocean Wise’s Marine Mammal Research Program, and coordinator of its Southern Vancouver Island Cetacean Research Initiative (SVICRI).

Ocean Wise’s Marine Mammal Research Program has conducted conservation-oriented research on killer whales, belugas and other marine mammals since the mid-1980s. The program focuses on long-term studies of marine mammal populations in BC, and works across multiple science-based platforms to understand and mitigate the threats they face.

Patton’s experience in her field includes nearly 20 years working on marine research and conservation within governments in Canada, Australia and the USA, with several Canadian and international non-profits, and within academia. She holds a master’s degree in marine conservation biology from James Cook University in Australia, which she took as a Rotary International Academic Ambassador representing Eastern Canada. She also earned an undergraduate degree in marine biology from Dalhousie University, and a diploma in adult education.

In her spare time, Sarah is an avid outdoors woman and naturalist, and an active member of Maritime Search and Rescue Station #35 in Victoria.

Comox Valley Nature is a non-profit society affiliated with BC Nature, consisting only of unpaid volunteers. CVN fulfills its educational mandate by hosting monthly lectures, organizing free weekly guided hikes for members, and a free monthly walk open to the public. Comox Valley Nature also supports specialized groups (birding, botany, marine and shoreline, conservation, Garry Oak restoration, wetland restoration, photography and a Young Naturalists Club) which have separate monthly activities. Membership in BC Nature and Comox Valley Nature is $30 per adult or for a family.

Founded in 1966, it is one of the oldest environmental societies on the North Island. Meetings and lectures of the Comox Valley Naturalists Society are held on the third Sunday of most months at the Florence Filberg Centre in Courtenay. Meetings and guided walks are open to the public, including children and youth.

This lecture is free, although a $4 contribution from non-members would be appreciated. New memberships are always welcomed.

Anyone interested in this lecture or participating in CVNS activities can contact CVN at their website.  







Survival has become uncertain for the southern resident killer whale. For years, pressures on these awe-inspiring whales — icons of the Pacific coast, culturally significant to First Nations people and beloved by tourists — have been increasing. Today, only 74 wild southern resident killer whales remain, and the next few years will determine if the group can rebuild or go functionally extinct.

Scientific name: Orcinus orca
Status: Endangered
Adult Weight: Up to five tonnes
Diet: Chinook salmon
Population: 74 individuals
Location: Southeastern Alaska to central California. In spring and summer, they can be found off the coast of British Columbia in the Salish Sea.

— World Wildlife Fund Canada


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More Environment | News
Cumberland conference shows importance of wetlands

Cumberland conference shows importance of wetlands

Detail from the conference poster

By George Le Masurier

In the Comox Valley, as in other places around the world, low-lying, water-saturated parcels of land have been the bane of builders, developers, farmers and other property owners. You can’t build on a swamp and you can’t farm in a marsh.

So, for generations, these soaking wet pieces of land have been drained, filled in and covered over. They have been transformed from spongy soil supporting immense biodiversity to dry and hardened sites so somebody, somewhere can make some money.

As a result, Comox Valley wetlands have slowly and steadily disappeared under the march toward urban development. Only three percent of the Valley’s primordial wetlands remain intact today.

On a provincial scale, three times as many wetlands as forests have been lost to urban development. From 1970 to 2015, we have lost 35 percent of the province’s wetlands.

MC and co-organizer Steve Morgan

These are disturbing trends because wetlands are such productive ecosystems. They support myriad species of wildlife, fight climate change by storing carbon, recharge our aquifers and act as natural water filters.

And, without them, our rivers — like the Puntledge and Tsolum — would more frequently overflow their banks causing flooding and erosion.

A recent weekend conference hosted by the Village of Cumberland added to the growing awareness of the importance of wetlands. Participants learned what wetlands are, why they are important and how they can be better protected.


Why are wetlands important?

Michele Jones, North Island College Instructor and senior biologist at Mimulus Biological Consultants, asked conference participants to think of all the uses for water in their lives, from bathing to drinking to creating hydro power. And then to consider the limited quantity of water available for those purposes.

While the planet is mostly water, 97 percent of it is salt water. Of the remaining three percent that is freshwater, a little more than two percent is frozen and two-thirds of the last one percent exists in the air as water vapor or in the ground.

Only 0.19 percent of the planet’s water is on the surface in wetlands, streams and rivers and available for all of those human uses.

Jones described wetlands as holes in a sponge. They hold and purify water until it migrates into water courses, such as streams, or infiltrate down into aquifers. She said wetlands slowly decompose organic matter without oxygen, thereby containing carbon dioxide rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. And they enrich streams with nutrients that keep fish habitats healthy.

Jones and other speakers noted that wetlands support more than 600 wildlife species, and that wetland loss has put more than a third of them at risk of extinction.

Dr. Loys Maingon, local naturalist and semi-retired biologist who represents BC on the Canadian Society for Environmental Biology, said the recent United Nations report that a million species now face extinction because of humans’ aggressive pursuit of economic growth must lead to “transformative change.”

Maingon cautioned that words like “sustainability” trick us into thinking current human activity can continue without catastrophic consequences.

“Watersheds don’t care about economic productivity,” Maingon said. “We’re living inside a wetland that is part of a rare ocean planet.”

Elke Wind, a Nanaimo area biologist who has built and restored more than 20 wetlands and an expert on amphibians, said the Comox Valley is a hotspot for observations of several species of Western Toads. But that up to 50 percent of them face extinction unless we “take a broad landscape-level approach to habitat management protection.”


How can wetlands be protected?

Neil Fletcher, the BC Wildlife Federation chair of its wetlands group, discussed some of the tools available to protect wetlands and advocated for a “cultural shift” from technical fixes to embracing natural science.

Fletcher highlighted the role of local governments in saving wetlands, and how smart development could co-exist with wetland preservation.

In response to a concern that local governments often permit development closer to riparian areas than the required 30 meters, if they hire consultants to say there’s no threat to fish, Fletcher said it comes down to political will.

Fletcher sid the BCWF supports buffers of 150 meters to 400 meters for riparian areas, because “ten to thirty meters in insufficient,”

“There’s nothing stopping a local government from enforcing the full riparian setback,” he said. “It’s just political will. That’s where your voice is so important.”

Steve Morgan, a Cumberland resident and a key organizer of the wetlands conference, reinforced the idea of public pressure and engagement.

“Our councils and staff are only as good as the people you put into office,” he said. “Be aware of what’s going on and who you’re electing.”

The conference concluded on a positive talk from Comox Valley Land Trust Executive Director Tim Ennis, who praised the recent trend toward placing monetary values on a municipal natural assets.

He said the money spent on municipal infrastructure is larger than any other available pool of funds, and it could make a huge difference if more of it was directed toward preservation and restoration of wetlands.

Organizer Morgan said that gives him hope for Comox Valley wetlands.

“The Comox Valley has a large number of concerned and active people who go out and do stuff,” Morgan said. “I’d put us up against any community for engaged people.”







Wetlands are submerged or permeated by water — either permanently or temporarily — and are characterized by plants adapted to saturated soil conditions. Wetlands include fresh and salt water marshes, wooded swamps, bogs, seasonally flooded forest, sloughs — any land area that can keep water long enough to let wetland plants and soils develop.

They are the only ecosystem designated for conservation by international convention. They have been recognized as particularly useful areas because:

— they absorb the impact of hydrologic events such as large waves or floods;
— they filter sediments and toxic substances;
— they supply food and essential habitat for many species of fish, shellfish, shorebirds, waterfowl, and fur-bearing mammals;
— they also provide products for food (wild rice, cranberries, fish, wildfowl), energy (peat, wood, charcoal), and building material (lumber)
— they are valuable recreational areas for activities such as hunting, fishing, and birdwatching.

— from Government of Canada


Bogs – peat-covered wetlands where due to poor drainage and the decay of plant material, the surface water is strongly acidic and low in nutrients. Although they are dominated by sphagnum mosses and shrubs, bogs may support trees.
Fens – also peat-covered wetlands, but influenced by a flow of ground-water. They tend to be basic as opposed to acidic and are more productive than a bog. Although fens are dominated by sedges they may also contain shrubs and trees.
Swamps – dominated by shrubs or trees and can be flooded seasonally or for long periods of time. Swamps are both nutrient rich and productive. Swamps can be peatlands or non-peatlands.
Shallow Open Water Ponds – These wetlands include potholes and ponds, as well as water along rivers and lakeshore areas. They are usually relatively small bodies of standing or flowing water commonly representing the stage between lakes and marshes.
Marshes – are periodically or permanently covered by standing or slowly moving water. Marshes are rich in nutrients and have emergent reeds, rushes, cattails and sedges. Water remains within the root zone of these plants for most of the growing season.

— from WetlandsAlberta.ca



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