Wanting wetlands: Marking 50 years of wetland conservation and loss

Fifty years ago, nations gathered to create the world’s first global agreement to conserve a habitat. This had long been undervalued, and as a result was rapidly disappearing. Fifty years ago, there was a global call to action to save our wetlands.

On Feb. 2, 1971, the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance was adopted in Ramsar, Iran. Often referred to as the Ramsar Convention, its purpose was to stop the worldwide loss of wetlands. Today, 171 countries, including Canada, are parties to the convention.

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The Ramsar Convention has helped many wetlands. Over 2,400 wetlands around the world have been designated as Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance. Canada has 37 Ramsar sites, including the Columbia Wetlands (B.C.), Quill Lakes (Sask.), Lac Saint Pierre (Que.) Grand Codroy Estuary (Nfld.), and Manitoba’s own Delta Marsh. World Wetlands Day marks the signing of the Ramsar Convention and is a day to highlight the importance of wetland conservation  

Despite a global agreement and a special day of recognition, we have not been kind to wetlands over the last half century. Over the past 50 years, over one-third of the world’s remaining wetlands have been lost. They continue to disappear at a rate faster than forests, and the loss is accelerating.

In every country, including our own, we are now facing an increasingly critical decision: which wetlands will we choose to save, and which wetlands will we choose to lose?

Our choices will matter for both nature and people.

Wetlands come in many forms across Canada. Our vast northern peatlands are some of the most extensive and intact wetlands left on Earth. But in southern Canada, we’ve done our part to contribute to global wetland losses by draining forested swamps, prairie sloughs and coastal salt marshes. In many parts of southern Canada, only a fraction of our original wetlands remain.

What all our different wetlands share is their ecological importance. Coastal fens along the Great Lakes coast and saline wetlands of the prairies, along with over 90 other wetland communities, are of global conservation concern. In Manitoba, shallow and ephemeral wetlands that support a unique suite of species are under particular risk as they are relatively easy to drain or modify. Wetlands provide spawning habitat for many fish species. They produced millions of waterfowl each year and are essential for keeping Canada’s “duck factory” open. Many of Canada’s terrestrial and freshwater species at risk regularly rely on a diversity of wetland types. These include eastern mountain avens, yellow rail, western prairie fringed orchid and Blanding’s turtle.

Canadians need wetlands now, more than ever. Our peatlands are global giants when it comes to storing carbon. Wetlands around our cities and farms are one of our best natural defenses to buffer communities from extreme weather events and our rapidly changing climate. They are the Swiss Army Knife of ecosystems. The wetlands around us store carbon, hold flood water, recharge creeks during drought, stop storm surges and provide fire breaks. We can’t afford to lose them. The best use of wetlands is to have them remain as wetlands.

Celebrating World Wetland Day every Feb. 2 may not seem ideal. Many are frozen and quiet. Blanketed with snow that covers trees and turtles. But they are waiting for spring when their most important work will begin. As ice cracks and snow melts, they will fill with the spring runoff. Like giant sponges on the land, they will turn unwanted floodwaters into much-needed summer flows to our rivers and streams. 

The next 10 years mark our decision decade for nature. We need forward thinking wetland policies and plans that consider how this critical element of our infrastructure can be strengthened. Donations to support wetland conservation by Nature Conservancy of Canada can be matched through the Natural Heritage Conservation Program and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act.

We can choose to be the new generation that values, conserves and creates wetlands, or continue to pass on an ecological deficit to our children. Fifty years ago, there was a commitment made to future generations to stop the loss of wetlands. We need to fulfill that promise.

(Cary Hamel is the Director of Conservation in Manitoba with the Nature Conservancy of Canada)

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