Upstream Threats to a New IPCA Announced at COP15
To protect critical habitats from upstream effects, area-based conservation should proceed at the watershed level, argues Lo Stevenson.
As negotiations draw to a close at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference, conservationists and Indigenous groups continue advocating for stronger protection of inland freshwater habitats. Wetlands, which support 40% of the planets remaining biodiversity, are declining faster than any other ecosystem. As the Canadian government implement its pledges to support new Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas, watershed-level strategies are important to ensuring the protection of freshwater habitats. Protection at the watershed level is necessary to protect habitats from upstream threats, such as dams, mining waste, and transportation infrastructure.
The circumstances of one species illustrates the importance of watershed-level conservation in Canada. Lake sturgeon, the ancient and long-lived bottom-dwelling fish known to western science as Acipenser fulvescens, was added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Endangered Species List this year, after previously being designated as Least Concern. The scale of this reclassification suggests that the status of the species may have been misunderstood in recent decades. According to the IUCN, the main threats to sturgeon are habitat fragmentation—such as dams—which impede sturgeons’ migrations; pollution from industrial development such as mines; and historic overharvesting by commercial fishers. Sturgeon populations have been slow to recover from historic exploitation because of their uniquely long lifecycle. They are also extremely long-lived: sturgeon can live up to 150 years, although this seems to be exceedingly rare at present. The lake sturgeon’s slow recovery, in the face of ongoing loss of habitat and habitat degradation, merits extra caution in environmental decision making.
The Hudson and James Bay watershed sturgeon population is the least disturbed in the species’ range, which stretches from the shores of the Hudson Bay to the Appalachian Mountain range. Protecting the waters which drain into the Hudson and James Bays, therefore, is critical to protecting this last relatively healthy population of a species which is critically endangered and extinct elsewhere in its range.
Sturgeon is also a species of special importance to Indigenous communities who have lived in and cared for the Hudson and James Bay watersheds for millennia. In the summer of 2022, Neskantaga First Nation, whose traditional territories include the Attawapiskat River, launched its sturgeon stewardship initiative, Namekaa Gaagige. The program’s Anishinaabemowin name translates to “many sturgeon forever” and reflects the species’ long history of special importance to the Nation. With the support of federal funding, Neskantaga youth and elders conducted their first annual sturgeon population and habitat survey, mobilizing both Neskantaga traditions and western science to monitor the health of the sturgeon. The Attawapiskat River stands to be heavily impacted by Ontario’s goals to develop roads and mining in the Ring of Fire.
Downstream from the proposed mining and road developments is the Omushkego Cree IPCA, one of the four major IPCA projects which will benefit from $800M of pledged federal funds. At a panel on First Nations-led conservation and stewardship of marine areas at the Indigenous Leadership Initiative’s Indigenous Village at the UN Biodiversity Conference on December 10, Vern Cheechoo of the Mushkegowuk Council reported that the region creates an estimated $700 billion annually in ecosystem services. The coast and waters of the IPCA are home to endangered polar bears, beluga whales, and millions of nesting birds.
Protection from upstream threats will be critical to the protection of the lands and waters of the Omushkego Cree IPCA. The wetlands of the James Bay and Hudson Bay lowlands, which drain slowly into rivers and finally into the northern seas, are as important to the health of the IPCA as they are to the health of the Attawapiskat River sturgeon, and the Indigenous people who harvest and steward them. If Canada’s pledges to support new IPCAs results in watershed-level protection from the cumulative effects of upstream threats, it may just be that Canada’s goal of protecting 30% of its lands and waters by 2030 will actually help it maintain the biodiversity of its richest ecosystems. If not, these pledges may turn out to be nothing more than another set of empty promises.
Lo Stevenson is a JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Ontario, with a background in environmental science and an interest in Indigenous rights law.
Photo by Matteo Badini