Today is World Wetlands Day and to we are thrilled to welcome Danielle Fequet to the blog. Danielle works with Ducks Unlimited Canada and will tell us a bit about the history and importance of World Wetlands Day followed by a story about her time exploring wetlands in the city of St. John’s! For more about Danielle, see the end of this post.
As winter settles into eastern Canada, the days of mucking around in wetlands seem far away, existing only in memories and plans yet to be made for the warmer months ahead. As we celebrate World Wetlands Day, it’s the sensory experience of traversing local wetlands, of soaking in their earthy smells and the sounds of bird and insect life, and appreciating their dynamic role at the interface of land and water, that comes to mind.
Although World Wetlands Day falls in the heart of winter in our part of the world, this annual event marks the signing of the first official agreement between nations to conserve natural resources in modern times. The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance was ratified in Ramsar, Iran on February 2nd, 1971, and World Wetlands Day has served as a wayfinder for wetland conservation ever since. This year’s theme, Wetlands Action for People and Nature, reminds us of our responsibility to wisely manage resources not only for the sake of the environment but for our own well-being and resilience.
In my work as a Conservation Programs Specialist with Ducks Unlimited Canada, promoting the value of wetlands is the main event – and spending time in them is a highlight of my job. Many wetlands are hidden gems, lying just beyond our highways, neighborhoods, and industrial areas. Others are well known and visited often; however, hidden or not, they all provide society with valuable services we aren’t always aware of. These services include filtering contaminants from water, reducing flooding by holding water, recharging ground water, storing carbon, providing habitat for a variety of species, and serving as places for people to reconnect with nature.
During the 2021 field season, I was lucky enough to explore 25 wetlands throughout the City of St. John’s to assess them using a tool called the Wetland Ecological Services Protocol adapted for Atlantic Canada, which has been specifically calibrated for use here in NL. We call it WESP-AC for short and it involves a field evaluation plus an in-office assessment using aerial imagery.
WESP-AC was developed based on the best available wetland science by Dr. Paul Adamus, a preeminent wetland scientist and ecologist. It’s a rapid assessment method which evaluates indicators of wetland function rather than directly quantifying the functions themselves, which would require a considerable investment of time and resources. Although using WESP-AC does require training and a background in the sciences, it doesn’t involve any field equipment beyond a trowel, a pH meter, a GPS unit, and data sheets.
One of the most notable sites we visited during the summer was a 60+ acre wetland complex that lies along the shore of the elusive Third Pond in the Goulds neighbourhood of St. John’s – which just happens to be where I live. Third Pond is one of a series of ponds that eventually make their way to the ocean. You can catch a glimpse of the pond from my street, especially after the leaves have fallen each October. I’ve been considering how to access Third Pond and the wetland on its western shoreline pretty much the entire 5 years I’ve lived here – first wistfully, as our growing family left limited time for mucking about, then more purposefully, as getting away for an afternoon of wetland exploration became less impossible. While there are areas that provide obvious access to the pond, my quest was to find access to the lacustrine wetland that didn’t (at least not obviously!) skirt over someone’s land.
The large marsh complex backs on to the community’s recreation facilities (I suspect the wetland may have been encroached upon to build them) and provides flood mitigation services for free. At first glance the recreation facilities seem to be a good access point, and I ventured out one of the hottest days of summer. Already more than 30°C, it was even warmer and steamier inside a pair of waders that fit like clown shoes (econo waders never seem to come in an adequate range of sizes). The water was shallow in late August, so a meandering route through Dirty Bridge River, which converges with Cochrane Pond Brook, was the obvious path.
But I quickly discovered that the height of late summer marsh vegetation serves to highlight your own insignificance. On foot, the stream channel included labyrinthine branches and no real vantage points. Being so close to town, the bustle of the day was audible, but it was also clear that if a person were to get caught up in the marsh, it could be a while until anyone found them. With that in mind, I was liberal in my application of fluorescent flagging tape and sent screen shots of my location in Google Maps to my check-in buddy back at our sweltering office.
After slogging for nearly an hour, and surviving my first encounter with stinging nettle, I finally made it to where the wetland blends into the edge of the pond. I couldn’t tell you why it took so long to venture not much more than half a kilometer, other than to point out that many a traveler has been led astray by Faeries in Newfoundland in the areas between the cultivated and the wild.
As I arrived at the pond, a slight breeze lent some relief from the heat and was made visible by horsetails swaying in the wind. The view was more akin to the majestic Codroy Valley in southwest Newfoundland than what one might expect to see in the province’s largest city. With this view as the backdrop, the real work began!
Assessing wetland function can help start conversations about the importance of these places and ultimately support conservation planning. The City of St. John’s has shown leadership and initiative on wetland conservation issues, contracting out a study of wetlands within the city boundaries that will continue in 2022. Our field work last year complemented this study by focusing on municipal wetlands not included as study areas, with the aim of providing the city with information to support action on wetland conservation and the well-being of the people of St. John’s and the planet!