A Sanctuary in the Heart of the Fraser River Estuary

The George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary lies right in the heart of the Fraser River estuary, an ecological site of international importance to millions of birds, fish and other wildlife.

Click on the thumbnail image to the left to view a higher resolution (305 KB pdf file) satellite image of the shoreline and ocean waters of the Pacific coast between Victoria and Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada), and including Bellingham, Everett and Port Angeles (State of Washington, USA).

Metropolitan areas such as Vancouver, Victoria and Bellingham show up mainly as white areas because of the density of buildings and pavement, and specific natural areas show up in contrast. Look for Stanley Park (Vancouver) Burns Bog (Delta) and the farmland of Delta, for examples of "green spaces" in these developed areas.

The Fraser River drains a large part of the Province of British Columbia. As snow melts in the spring throughout the interior and mountain slopes of the province, the volume of water gradually increases in the river where it meets the ocean right by the Sanctuary. By May, the river flows and volume are at their highest (called the "freshet"), and are laden with fine silts carried in suspension. In this Landsat image, taken at freshet in 2001, the main flow of the river can clearly be seen from space as light coloured waters (light blue) entering the darker waters of the Strait of Georgia (Pacific Ocean).

2001 Landsat image of Vancouver, provided courtesy of Ducks Unlimited Canada.

Links to more information about Fraser River ecology can be found on our Teacher Resources page.

International Significance of the Fraser River Estuary

The largest wintering concentrations of waterbirds and raptors in Canada

The climate is mild, and there are plentiful foods ranging from marine fish and invertebrates to grasses, rodents and amphibians. Millions of waterfowl and shorebirds, and over 20 species of birds of prey consequently all congregate at the mouth of this river, providing a wonderful wildlife viewing spectacle for the millions of people in the Vancouver area.

Green-winged Teal, American Wigeon, Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Lesser Snow Geese, Trumpeter Swans are the most commonly-observed waterfowl species seen inshore.

In deeper waters, large rafts of diving ducks such as Greater and Lesser Scaup and Surf Scoters congregate, along with Double-Crested Cormorants, Western Grebes and many species of gulls. Dunlin and Western Sandpipers feed in flocks of thousands on intertidal mudflats, marshes and lowland habitats inland of the dykes.

Bald Eagles, Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, Peregrine Falcons and Short-Eared Owls are just some of the birds of prey to be seen in the river delta. For some species such as the Barn Owl, the delta represents the only site in Canada with mild enough winters for the species to remain year-round.

The largest salmon-producing river along the Pacific Coast

The Fraser River is the largest producer of salmon on the entire Pacific Coast of North America. Annually, millions of anadromous (migratory) adult salmon migrate upstream to spawn along small streams along its length and up into the connected waterways of the Pitt, Lilloet, Chilliwack, Nechako, Chilkotin, Thompson, Stuart, Adams, and Quesnel Rivers. Millions of young fish hatching in these areas spend their early life cycle in these  upper reaches, and eventually descend to the estuary on their way out to oceanic habitats.

Estuarine marshes, mudflats, floodplains, sloughs and river channels are all critical feeding and rearing areas for these and other fish during their transition between river and marine stages of their life cycle. Pacific Herring, Sturgeon, Eulachon, and Smelt are also abundant fisheries locally, as are Dungeness crab, Shrimp and other invertebrates.

World Recognition as Shorebird Habitat

The Fraser delta is internationally significant to shorebird populations, and has been proposed as a WHSRN site. The abbreviation WSHRN stands for the Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network, an international initiative to identify and protect habitats in key stopover points used by shorebirds during their long migrations across North and South America (the Western Hemisphere).

The Fraser delta ranks very highly, as nearly all of the world's population of western sandpipers stop to rest and refuel during their massive migrations between Alaska nesting grounds and wintering sites from California to Peru. In addition, more than 35 other shorebird species rely on this estuary throughout the year.

The Pacific Estuary Conservation Program

There are many agencies collectively striving to preserve habitat along BC's coast, but the cooperative efforts of specific local conservation agencies have won national and international awards. One of special note is the Pacific Estuary Conservation Program (PECP), a partnership program initiated in 1987 between private conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited Canada, the Nature Trust of BC, Wildlife Habitat Canada, and provincial and federal government environment and fisheries departments. Through this program, thousands of hectares of estuary habitat along the BC coast have been set aside through their collective efforts and funding for either land acquisition or other conservation designations.

In 1996, the PECP was honoured with a Canadian Council on Ecological Areas (CCEA) award for its regional contribution and partnership approach to the establishment of a Canada-wide network of protected areas. In 1999, the program was also chosen as a first recipient of the Ramsar Wetland Conservation Award for its conservation of the long-term sustainable use of estuarine habitat along the BC coast. 

A Pacific estuary, one of the richest types of ecosystems in the world

British Columbia's estuaries are among the richest in the world. The largest estuary is formed by the Fraser River and is home to over 400 species of vertebrates, thousands of plants and a myriad of small invertebrates.

The Fraser River forms the largest estuary along the Pacific Coast of North America and drains over 200,000 square kilometers of BC. River sediments meet the currents of the Strait of Georgia and are deposited onto the nearly 30,000 hectares of the estuary's intertidal marshes and mudflats (Sturgeon Banks, Roberts Bank and Boundary Bay).

A Critical Crossroads Along the Pacific Flyway

Migration paths of many migrant birds converge at the Fraser River delta. Its location mid-way along the Pacific Coast makes it an international crossroad of bird migration routes from 20 countries and three continents. Waterfowl and shorebirds from breeding grounds in Siberia, Alaska, Yukon, and other arctic and prairie areas all stop to refuel in the Fraser River estuary on their way to wintering grounds in California, Mexico, Central and South America or the South Pacific.

Coastal lowlands and marshes of the estuary provide critical refuelling opportunities for long-distance migrants such as the Lesser Snow Goose, which nests in Wrangel Island (Russia) and sometimes makes non-stop flights of over 2500 km in its southward migration to wintering grounds.

Global recognition of the Estuary as a Wetland of International Significance

The George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary is part of a Ramsar site (the Alaksen National Wildlife Area), which was endorsed in 1982. The Ramsar Convention gets its name from the location of the International Conference on Wetlands held in Ramsar, Iran in 1971.

One hundred and twelve countries have agreed to a set of criteria for identifying wetlands of international significance. In terms of number of waterfowl, British Columbia's Fraser River Delta exceeds the criteria by more than 30-fold. And its shorebird populations exceed the criteria 60 times over!

In recognition of its outstanding international significance, the Alaksen National Wildlife Area on the Fraser River Delta has been designated as a "Wetland of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat" under the Ramsar Convention, and is one of two Ramsar sites in British Columbia.

Local Recognition and Protection of habitats

Local, regional, provincial, federal and international efforts have been underway for decades to recognize the environmental value of the Fraser River estuary. Apart from the RAMSAR and WSHRN initiatives which provide an international recognition of the habitats right under our feet, local efforts have also helped to formally set aside many areas, promote public awareness and land stewardship. Many have been purchased or established through land purchases and cabinet designations.

Example wildlife management holdings include: Alaksen (federal) National Wildlife Area; and  Sturgeon Banks, Boundary Bay and South Arm Marshes (provincial) Wildlife Managements Areas. Examples of parks providing wildlife habitat include:  Boundary Bay and Deas Island Regional District Parks and the (municipal) Delta Nature Reserve. Most larger natural areas of habitat have been set aside during the past two decades.

Since the early 1980's, there has been a growing recognition of the value of coastal lowlands, the role of farmland habitats play in wildlife management, and the need to support and nurture the agricultural land base surrounding the estuary marshes. More information of farm & wildlife issues and related stewardship initiatives can be obtained from the Delta Farmland Wildlife Trust.

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©The British Columbia Waterfowl Society, 5191 Robertson Road, Delta, BC V4K 3N2 Phone: 604-946-6980.  Last updated August 24, 2014 . Please report any website problems to our webmaster.