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Monique Keiran: Crucial islands protected for seabirds

The northwestern tip of Vancouver Island is known for its rugged coastline, treacherous seas and ferocious winter storms.

The northwestern tip of Vancouver Island is known for its rugged coastline, treacherous seas and ferocious winter storms. Starting just six kilometres off Cape Scott, a chain of wind-, wave- and fog-swept islands attract few human visitors, but have nonetheless received official protection to keep them safe from us and our activities.

The province designated the three outermost Scott Islands — Triangle (Anne Vallée), Beresford and Sartine islands — as ecological reserves in 1971, and the nearest two, Cox and Lanz islands, as a provincial park in 1995.

Last December, the federal government moved to finalize its own decades-long plans to safeguard the islands’ surrounding waters. The Scott Islands Marine National Wildlife Area will be the first marine national wildlife area in Canada, protecting more than 11,000 square kilometres of marine environment around the islands.

These remote North Pacific outposts provide Canada’s most critical nesting habitat for seabirds on the West Coast. During the summer, the islands host more than two million individual birds — the highest concentration of breeding seabirds on Canada’s Pacific coast, and as much as 40 per cent of B.C.’s breeding seabird population.

Seven per cent of the world’s rhinoceros auklets, 90 per cent of Canada’s tufted puffins, 95 per cent of Canada’s West Coast population of common murre and more than 50 per cent of the world’s population of Cassin’s auklets summer there every year. It is the only known site in Canada where the Pacific population of thick-billed murres nests, and provides homes to the province’s few known breeding pairs of horned puffins.

These A-list species are joined by bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and several species of cormorant and storm-petrel.

The birds are drawn to the islands by the rich, cold waters that teem with herring and other small fish brought to the surface by upwelling ocean currents.

The seabird colonies are concentrated on the three outermost islands. Introduced mink and raccoons wiped out ground-nesting seabirds on Cox and Lanz islands.

If similar predators were to find their way to the three intact, outer islands, nesting colonies would suffer there, too.

The proposed Scott Islands Protected Marine Area Regulations prohibit activities that could disturb or destroy wildlife or wildlife habitat, pollute the region or introduce invasive organisms; they also prohibit approach or anchoring near Triangle, Sartine and Beresford islands. They do not, however, prevent fishing or shipping in the area.

As we saw last year with the tugboat Nathan E. Stewart off Bella Bella, the diesel spill in Esquimalt Harbour’s Plumper Bay and the 2006 sinking of the Queen of the North, events much smaller than an Exxon Valdez-type spill can still cause localized damage to fragile marine environments.

The restrictions also do not prevent, for example, egg-eating castaway rats from hitching rides to the outer Scott Islands aboard containers washed from freighters or via other jetsam from passing boats.

Nevertheless, isolation and remoteness, notorious weather, difficult anchorages and limited access — for research purposes by permit only — are the island birds’ greatest protectors.

The conditions make visiting the islands difficult. Most bird enthusiasts must seek opportunities elsewhere to view the seabird species that the Scott Islands are known for.

Fortunately for Victoria residents and visitors, this region’s own migratory bird sanctuaries can offer that opportunity.

Stretching from Ten Mile Point south and westward to Macaulay Point, the nearly 1,850-hectare Victoria Harbour sanctuary includes the marine and estuary waters of the Inner Harbour, Portage Inlet, Trial Island and the rocky islets off Oak Bay.

The sanctuary shares coastline terrain similar to that found in the Shoal Harbour sanctuary by Sidney. The sanctuaries’ coastal areas are home, in exceptional years, to rhinoceros and Cassin’s auklets, common murres, tufted puffins and Brant’s cormorants. Marbled and ancient murrelets have also been observed.

As one of the region’s most popular birding sites, the Esquimalt Lagoon Migratory Bird Sanctuary offers a different kind of birding experience. Its sheltered mudflats, eelgrass and estuary-marsh habitats provide foraging and nesting habitats for many other wading birds and seabirds, with as many as 75 species to be seen in a day during the season’s peak.

With so much richness along our own waters, we have little reason to travel to the furthest, highly vulnerable reaches of the coast to observe B.C.’s celebrated seabirds.