Deep in Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary, a spirit rock commemorates Camossung, a young girl of Indigenous legend turned to stone for her greed who eternally overlooks wildlife in the Gorge Waterway. The First Nations would dive into the narrows, requesting Camossung release her nutritious bounty of fish, ducks and oysters.
Some 250 years ago, Pacific herring existed so abundantly in the Salish Sea that the Lekwungen Peoples, whose name means “the place to smoke herring,” would rake them from the ocean. Today, more than a century of settlers overfishing this species continues to have impacts on regional bird life — but it also highlights how this migratory bird sanctuary aids far more than just birds.
Home to about 270 avian species, the sanctuary acts as a hot spot for birds that journey annually all the way from Eastern Canada, the Arctic and even Brazil. Less obvious is how this sanctuary — a 1,840-hectare swath of coast spanning 30 kilometres of shoreline — gives refuge to more than 75 federally at-risk species that include sea otters, Steller sea lion, harbour porpoise, four types of whale and plants endemic only to southern Vancouver Island.
As the sanctuary turned 100 on Oct. 27, birders, biologists, politicians and community members are united to celebrate one of the oldest of Canada’s 92 migratory bird sanctuaries — also the first in Pacific Canada. The roughly 15 at-risk bird species that use the sanctuary include murrelets, auklets, sandpipers, grebes, falcons, owls and herons.
Judith Cullington, a lead organizer for the centennial celebration, who previously worked in stewardship for the neighbouring Esquimalt Lagoon Migratory Bird Sanctuary, said the event aims to raise upwards of $50,000 to sponsor restoration and youth education at Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary.
“It is a wonderful good news story in that it is one of the earliest efforts at conservation in this region,” she said.
Ecologists point out this sanctuary plays a key role in connecting urban communities with nature. Some call it one of Canada’s best “naturehoods.”
Bob Peart, chair of Friends of Shoal Harbour and a biologist who’s lived in North Saanich since 1980, said the team of organizers can leverage the centennial to educate the public and press the federal government to keep improving the management of Greater Victoria’s migratory bird sanctuaries.
More than a century of overfishing of Pacific herring continues to have impacts on regional bird life in Salish Sea.
“Up until, let’s say, 15 years ago, the three migratory bird sanctuaries weren’t even on their radar,” said Peart, who also co-chairs Greater Victoria Naturehood. “To think that now they are … and we’re having this celebration for Victoria Harbour [Migratory Bird Sanctuary] — that’s really exciting.”
He deemed the abundance of birds in the sanctuary during winter — mid-October to mid-March — among the best in North America.
“You can go out on almost any day in that period of time and, with a little bit of effort, get over a hundred species of birds,” Peart said. “I think people forget that their own personal health is connected with nature.”
In the Victoria Foundation’s 2023 Vital Signs report, the natural environment was voted the best thing about Greater Victoria by 67 per cent of respondents, beating climate by 15 percentage points.
“Nature is a magic ingredient that makes cities better, and nature in the city makes urban residents healthier and happier,” said Jacques Sirois, a biologist heavily involved in ecological restoration across the region for more than a decade.
Sirois has aimed to celebrate this centennial since taking an interest in restoration in 2010. That January, he was inspired to restore the “forgotten” sanctuary when 500 or 600 wintering marbled murrelets surrounded him on the Oak Bay Islands Ecological Reserve — a phenomenon once only visible on B.C.’s wild Central Coast. In the last two years, Sirois reported, one birder dwarfed his sighting by seeing up to 8,000 ancient murrelets at Ten Mile Point.
Historical efforts to end hunting
Each year, the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) gives funding through Nature Canada to finance public education around Greater Victoria’s migratory bird sanctuaries.
Ken Brock of the CWS said it’s important to contextualize Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary in the time of the 1917 Migratory Birds Convention Act, which cracked down on uncontrolled hunting of birds for sale. This came after the extinction of migratory birds such as the Labrador duck (1878) and the once-abundant passenger pigeon (1914).
“The most abundant bird in North America — three to five billion of them, possibly — became extinct in the wild in about 1900,” Sirois said. “And we did it because of market hunting.”
B.C. established Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary around 1915 and handed it to the federal government in 1923. The sanctuary aimed to curb hunting of critically endangered birds such as the brant goose — a migratory species that was saved after its near disappearance in the 1920s spurred public concern. Hunters have described the brant as having the highest-quality bird meat, causing them to be valued as a Christmas goose and hunted by the tens of thousands.
“It’s almost a miracle they’re still here today,” Sirois remarked.
Brock noted Greater Victoria municipalities grew up around the sanctuary and never brought in discharge bylaws, leaving hunting out of the question indefinitely. However, he said the CWS petitioned in the 1980s and 1990s to delist the sanctuary based on difficulty addressing marine issues that fell within it but outside federal jurisdiction. The environment minister and deputy prime minister at the time, Sheila Copps, shot this down.
“Environment Canada officially suggested that we get rid of this ‘useless’ bird sanctuary because of declining bird numbers, but they didn’t consider all the other species at risk in there,” Sirois said, noting even the auditor general, as recently as 2008, proposed delisting the sanctuary.
“We really struggled from a jurisdictional perspective in terms of protecting the habitat where it’s non-federal land,” Brock said.
Sirois called migratory bird sanctuaries “archaic designations” that are difficult to enforce, especially when the federal government doesn’t own the land. In 1998, New Brunswick’s 16-hectare Inkerman Migratory Bird Sanctuary was the last to receive such a designation. Today, Sirois said the federal government mostly creates National Wildlife Areas, the first of which recognized the Scott Islands off northwestern Vancouver Island in 2018.
Regulations and responsibilities can get complicated between federal, provincial, regional and municipal governments’ involvement in Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary. But Brock clarified that the intent of such sanctuaries today isn’t to regulate ecosystems.
“It’s about shining a light on the value of nature here and connecting people to it,” Brock said.
“This is where the bird conversations began 100 years ago,” Sirois said. “They provide us with a serious background for serious conversation. They’re still valuable today.”
Rick Searle, a Greater Victoria Naturehood co-ordinator and president of the Victoria Natural History Society, said our lack of “ecological literacy” leaves us unaware of how our increasing footprint has a compounding impact on ecosystems.
“A lot of people would say that they’re concerned about the environment and the protection of wildlife and such but have a very poor understanding of how even small things that they do can have a cumulative impact that is far beyond what their own impact is,” Searle said.
The great avian migration
Searle said migrating birds depend on safe places to land and take off in their journey, and these safe places also become homes for such species as bufflehead ducks in winter. While resting, birds must conserve and regenerate the energy they need to forage, mate and rear young. Disturbances from off-leash dogs, for example, force them to spend precious energy they store for later.
Robert Butler, a birder from New Westminster who served 27 years with the CWS, said people often picture migratory birds as crossing land, touching down in places such as the Gorge.
“But offshore is a massive migration as well,” Butler said. “Birds can come from down as far as New Zealand. They come up around the Pacific and migrate right along the shore — millions of them.”
Heermann’s gulls, for example, journey from Mexico for the summer. Other species, Butler added, migrate from the Rockies, including Steller’s jays and juncos. The combination of Greater Victoria’s climate, seashores and six rainfall-enriched estuaries — two with coho salmon and cutthroat trout — makes the region attract dozens of bird species across Canada, while most of the country freezes over during winter.
“It’s not really the huge numbers of birds,” Butler said. “It’s more so the diversity, which is really important — a nice mix of birds — and it’s right there, right in the city. That’s a real treasure.”
He said the sanctuary’s central location provides urbanites with health benefits that come from living close to nature. His concept of nature culture encompasses going beyond admiration of ecosystems to become inspired and imbed their qualities into human culture. Nature is also a great connector that draws community members of all backgrounds to an area, he said.
Butler drew attention to the purple martin as a local success story. He said this species, which migrates to Brazil for winter, disappeared from Greater Victoria between the 1940s and the 1990s until recovery efforts and construction of nesting boxes helped it rebound and return to the Lower Mainland. Today, B.C. may host more than 1,000 purple martins, Butler estimates.
Searle said Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary goes beyond just protecting migratory birds, providing crucial habitat for resident birds such as eagles.
“The abundance of wildlife that we’re seeing returning to the waters is astounding,” he said. “That’s a success story.”
He recalled living in the region during the 1970s and 1980s when the Inner Harbour and Gorge were “seen as a joke” for how toxic they were. Sirois added the Gorge — home to 80 hectares of eelgrass meadows — became a dumping ground filled with shopping carts and tires. People didn’t start swimming there until the first Gorge Swim Fest in 2000. Searle highlighted the recent return of salmon to the Inner Harbour, as well as the resurgence of herring and orcas.
Looking back, but also forward
At the centennial, a tribute paper signed by Esquimalt, Oak Bay, Saanich, Victoria and View Royal will recognize volunteer conservation work in the sanctuary. It will also acknowledge the historical and continued roles of the Esquimalt and Songhees nations in the “ecological health of this area.” Organizers consulted the nations for the tribute, which acknowledges their stewardship and responsibility of the land, Sirois noted.
“There’s nothing in the migratory bird sanctuary regulations that would derogate or take away from any Indigenous or treaty rights of the local First Nations,” Brock said, noting Douglas Treaty nations such as the Esquimalt and Songhees may fish and hunt in the sanctuaries as they could pre-treaty.
He said the discussion around First Nations’ rights to federal land encompassing the sanctuaries continues to happen with entities such as the Te’mexw Treaty Association, which represents the Songhees.
“These bird sanctuaries were not directed at Native people,” Sirois said. “They were directed at market hunters and settlers.”
But now, according to Nature Canada program manager Jason Barron, Eagle Wing Tours brings youth from local First Nations on free wildlife-watching boat trips across the sanctuaries, funded in partnership with Greater Victoria Naturehood.
The Esquimalt and Songhees nations didn’t reply to requests for comment.
“We can look back on the past 100 years of effective bird conservation and potentially look a little bit forward too and see how we might want to see our sanctuaries and protected areas 100 years from now,” Barron reflected.
He said these areas are key to educating children and inspiring future environmental leaders.
“It’s also about appreciating the biodiversity near us and implementing solutions that can allow it to recover,” he said.
Sirois hopes to see more restoration projects, stronger enforcement of dog bylaws and continued recovery of Pacific herring. In 2014, archeological data revealed that Pacific herring, for thousands of years, were one of the two most abundant fish across dozens of First Nations sites in modern-day B.C. Now, Sirois attributes the current low numbers of birds in the Salish Sea largely to historical overfishing of Pacific herring, which has cut the species down to less than a tenth of its original population of the millions that once visited the sanctuary.
Several weeks ago, according to Sirois, a whale watcher described seeing a river of herring at Race Rocks among 20 humpback whales and tens of thousands of gulls — a promising sign.
“We desperately need herring recovery in the Salish Sea to feed our birds and wildlife,” he said. “We have a heck of a long way to go — let’s not celebrate quite yet.”