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Harbour Grace strikes deal to protect three conservation areas

By Alexandra Brothers / August 25, 2023

The Town of Harbour Grace recently made an official gesture towards protecting its wildlife by signing a stewardship agreement that will designate three regions of the municipality as official conservation areas.

The Town has designated the three areas, which comprise some 387 acres of land, as conserved habitats, said Mayor, Don Coombs. To do this, the Town partnered with the Stewardship Association of Municipalities (SAM).

SAM is an incorporated non-profit organization that started in 1993. The association works hand-in-hand with the provincial government and its Wildlife Division to offer support to municipalities that are interested in preserving the natural habitats within their jurisdictions.

“The Stewardship Association of Municipalities is made up of a network of municipalities across the island that have signed stewardship agreements,” said Zachary Burrows, executive director of SAM. The organization is well represented across the island, according to Burrows, with 49 signed municipal stewardship agreements in places including Port-aux-Basques, St. John’s, Torbay, Gander, and Grand-Falls Windsor.

Burrows explained a stewardship agreement entails collaboration between individual municipalities and the provincial government with regards to the protection of designated areas. The agreements allow the two entities that have jurisdiction over the land to settle on the best course of action to conserve areas that have been determined to be home to vital ecosystems. The agreements are held in perpetuity, said Burrows, meaning that when a town signs a stewardship agreement, it is making a lasting commitment to the conservation of its wildlife.

Being under a stewardship agreement does not mean the area will be off limits to the public, however. If hunting was legal in a conservation area before the agreement was signed, it will remain so, provided the proper guidelines are followed as usual. Development in these regions, too, is not completely prohibited. Rather, a stewardship agreement means that development will be limited and that organizations like SAM and the Provincial Wildlife Division will be involved with all development decisions in the area to offer support and guidance on how best to proceed for the sake of the environment.

SAM’s role, said Burrows, is to support municipalities in determining how they want to protect and steward their conservation areas. The association has access to wildlife data from organizations such as the Atlantic Conservation Data Centre and surveys conducted by Canadian Wildlife Services. They use this data to help identify which areas within a municipality are environmentally significant.

Areas with a high biodiversity are especially important to conserve, said Burrows. In other words, regions with a high number of plant and animal species have a greater impact on the environment than areas with fewer species. Habitats like wetlands are also very important to preserve since they store water and carbon, lower ambient temperatures, preserve air quality, and filter out organic pollutants in the area —all of which help mitigate climate change, said Burrows.

Harbour Grace has identified three different regions that are particularly environmentally significant. The first is the Harbour Grace Estuary, which is home not only to the famous shipwreck, the S.S. Kyle, but also to bald eagles and shorebirds like cormorants, shags, yellow legs, and ruddy turnstones as well as waterfowl like American black ducks and common loons. The second conservation area is found along Pirate’s Path, where black guillemot, herring, and black back gulls are known to reside. This area also contains several valuable capelin-spawning beaches, according to Burrows. The third conservation area is Bannerman Lake, a wetland that is “doing a lot for mitigating the effects of climate change,” said Burrows.

This body of water is especially important to Harbour Grace as it is the town’s protected public water supply, said Coombs.

The decision to take action to conserve these regions has been long discussed among Harbour Grace council members, said the mayor. The increase in tourism spurred discussions of the significance of the municipality’s ecosystems, and the endeavour to protect the area’s wildlife “became something that (the Town of Harbour Grace) had to take on,” he explained.

Coombs commented on the rarity of having close access to stunning wildlife such as the three conservation areas offer. “We’re lucky to have it, he said. “Now it’s our job as municipal councillors and as citizens to try to protect it as best we can,” he said.

The decision to sign a stewardship agreement will preserve the area for future generations, he argued.

Coombs said the Town was fortunate to have been able to sign an agreement with SAM, and it’s “something we’re all proud of.”

Burrows likewise expressed gratitude towards the Town for publicly committing to the protection of its wildlife, and said the town’s leadership should be celebrated for taking a stand for the environment.

Another thing the Town and SAM agree on is how the public can help support the province’s conservation areas. Both Coombs and Burrows spoke of the importance of visiting areas like the Harbour Grace Estuary and Pirate’s Path. Burrows said when people visit these places, they raise the profile of the ecosystems. And when people visit the conservation areas and experience the beautiful wildlife firsthand, they are more likely to spread awareness about the importance of such regions. “What people can do is appreciate the environment, spread that good message of why it’s important to enjoy this area and use it for its natural benefits,” he said.

Coombs said that is already well underway in Harbour Grace. The Town’s natural scenery is used as a promotional tool to attract tourists. The Town has already received a lot of positive feedback about how enjoyable it is to visit the areas, he added. The Town and SAM hope to encourage the public to use the areas even more by installing interpretative signs and setting up workshops in the area.

The Town also hopes to partner with other groups such as Birds Canada, Ducks Unlimited, and the Conservation Corps to promote and develop its growing ecotourism industry.

“We’ll continue to lobby, and we’ll work with organizations that can help promote our town and our habitat,” said Coombs, adding that he hopes that as Harbour Grace’s ecotourism develops, other municipalities will see the opportunity to develop theirs as well.

The Harbour Grace Estuary,
home to the shipwrecked S.S.
Kyle, is one of three areas the
Town of Harbour Grace has
deemed a conservation area
in partnership with the Stewardship
Association of Municipalities.
Many species of
aquatic birds dwell in the area,
including bald eagles which are
known to nest aboard the Kyle.
Photo by Zachary Burrows.

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