Vancouver — Howe Sound's watersheds provide an estimated $800 million to $4.7 billion in natural services to the region each year, according to a report released today by the David Suzuki Foundation. The report, Sound Investment: Measuring the Return on Howe Sound's Ecosystem Assets, shows an astounding trove of unrecognized — and undervalued — natural wealth in the Howe Sound region of B.C., comparable to industries such as mining and quarrying, which contributed $3.38 billion to B.C.'s industrial GDP in 2011.
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"Howe Sound supports an incredible wealth of natural services we need for our health, economy and culture, yet we don't recognize those services in our planning decisions," said David Suzuki Foundation environmental economist Michelle Molnar, the report's author.
"It's a real concern as industrial resurgence and nature recovery in Howe Sound should be considered together, not in the current piecemeal approach that may be setting them on a collision course," she said. Proposed industrial projects in the region include Woodfibre's liquefied natural gas proposal and the Burnco gravel mine.
The report considers Howe Sound as a distinct ecological region, rather than simply jurisdictions governed by three regional districts and the Islands Trust. Further, it recognizes it as the traditional territory of the Coast Salish First Nations, which have resided there for thousands of years. The region influences residents in Vancouver, Whistler to the north and the Sunshine Coast to the west. With the Lower Mainland population predicted to increase by one million by 2040, the Howe Sound region offers an increasingly attractive locale for industrial development.
The report estimates values for 11 of nature's ecosystem services, including stabilizing climate, protecting communities from natural disasters and offering places for recreation and spending time in nature. The highest valued services were tourism and recreation (valued at a maximum of $304,000/hectare/year) and storm prevention (valued at a maximum of $84,000/hectare/year), a particularly important service in the face of climate change.
When considering the value of different ecosystems, the study found that beaches (recreation and protection against storms) had the highest value, followed by wetlands (waste treatment, water supply and habitat).
As one of the most southern sound inlets on Canada's mainland coast, Howe Sound provides habitat to a range of species and is high in biological diversity, in addition to services it provides to B.C.'s fastest-growing region and some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.
"The sound acts as the lungs and circulatory system for the entire Lower Mainland region, maintaining air quality and nutrient cycling," Molnar said.
The study coincides with recovery efforts that began in 1988, which have led to a remarkable marine rebirth after years of pollution from mining, pulp and paper and other industries. Humpback, killer and grey whales, pods of Pacific white-sided dolphins, spawning salmon and herring are returning after decades of low numbers. Scientists around the world are taking note as little is known of the dynamics of marine recovery.
As pollution degraded natural systems, costly investments were needed to replace the lost services of ecosystems and to rehabilitate the damaged environment.
"Had the information from this study been available, we could have calculated just how high those costs really were and factored that into our decision-making," Molnar said. "We need to make careful choices now to ensure a healthy and sustainable future for Howe Sound's natural systems and economic development choices."
Natural capital valuations are gaining recognition around the world, with 24 governments using the accounting methods in their economic decision-making. More than 40 financial institutions worldwide have signed the Natural Capital Declaration, an initiative to integrate natural capital into financial products, accounting and reporting frameworks. Canada is moving ahead with Statistics Canada developing a system of environmental-economic accounts.