Assessing Nature’s Salt Marsh Services in the Musquash Estuary

In 2018, Nature Conservancy Canada (NCC) received funding through the Fisheries and Ocean Canada’s baseline program to assess the services provided by the coastal wetlands in the Musquash Estuary and other areas near Saint John, New Brunswick. Located in the Bay of Fundy and just 15 minutes from Saint John, the Musquash Estuary is one of the last remaining fully functioning river estuaries and NCC’s largest conservation area in Atlantic Canada. The land surrounding the Musquash Estuary is a haven for many native plants and wildlife. It plays a critical role in dampening the effects of climate change by reducing the impacts of sea-level rise and coastal erosion while also sequestering carbon. In addition to its natural attributes, Musquash Estuary plays an important role in the heritage of the region. It is believed that Aboriginal groups established seasonal camp sites along the shores of the estuary. Today, the surrounding coastal communities continue to make use of the estuary for fishing and recreation. The Musquash Estuary influenced by the tides but sheltered from the open ocean making it truly one of a kind. Musquash is unique among Bay of Fundy estuaries due to its size, expansive salt marshes, and natural condition. It is the largest, ecologically-intact estuary in the Bay of Fundy. Its mud flats, salt marshes, freshwater bogs and forests all support unique plants, animals and marine life. Many types of wildlife can be found here, such as peregrine falcon, bobcat, moose, deer and harbor seal. The Musquash Estuary was designated as New Brunswick’s first federal marine Protected Area in 2006.

Identifying Actions

In 1998 the Conservation Council of New Brunswick (CCNB), with support from the Fundy North Fishermen’s Association, proposed Musquash Estuary and the surrounding intertidal area as a candidate Marine Protected Area (MPA) under the Oceans Act. In 2006, the Musquash Estuary MPA and Administered Intertidal Area (AIA) were formally designated as a protected area. The estuary’s protected status reflects the cooperative efforts of community and government. Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), on behalf of the Government of Canada, is responsible for managing the MPA and AIA in collaboration with the Musquash Estuary MPA Advisory Committee (MAC). Members of the MAC represent government, non-government organizations, industry, First Nations and community groups that have an interest in the MPA and AIA. Conservation and protection of the ecosystem were the primary goals of managing the estuary. The following conservation objectives were established to achieve these goals:

  • Maintaining the productivity of harvested species
  • Maintaining the biodiversity of individual species, communities, and populations within the different ecotypes; and
  • Safeguarding habitat, including the physical and chemical properties of the ecosystem, by maintaining water and sediment quality.

These objectives were based on the following guiding principles:

  • Integrated Management: refers to the planning and management of human activities in a comprehensive manner with consideration for the full range of interests and environmental, social, cultural, economic, and institutional objectives.
  • Ecosystem Approach: involves the management of human activities so that ecosystem components, and functions are restored and/or maintained at appropriate temporal and spatial scales.
  • Precautionary Approach: An evaluation and decision- making process that errs on the side of caution and is used in the case of significant scientific uncertainty.
  • Knowledge-based decision making: Management actions will be based on the best scientific information and traditional ecological knowledge available.
  • Collaboration and Stewardship: Management planning must be both inclusive and transparent, and supported, to the greatest extent possible, by all affected organizations and individuals.
  • Adaptive planning and management: The design and management of the MPA will be evaluated and adapted as necessary to ensure its effectiveness in meeting the objectives.

Implementation

NCC first began their conservation work in 2000, and since then have protected 2,300 hectares (5,600 acres) of marshes, coastal forest and coble beaches in the estuary. These locations provide a safe home for wildlife to feed, find refuge, breed and raise their young. The conservation objectives were achieved by identifying management priorities and addressing them through the implementation of management actions. The priorities were:

  • Continue to engage federal and provincial regulators to ensure they are aware of their roles and responsibilities in management of the MPA and AIA
  • Foster public education, awareness and stewardship
  • Manage activities in the MPA
  • Monitor and report on the health and management effectiveness of the MPA

Using the Wetland Ecosystem Service Protocol-Atlantic Canada (WESP-AC), NCC has completed a number of surveys to date. WESP-AC is a standardised method for rapidly assessing wetland functions for all types of wetlands in Atlantic Canada. The project also offers hands-on learning opportunities for summer interns on wetlands and their unique services.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

The Musquash Estuary MPA Regulations prohibit activities that disturb, damage, destroy or remove from this Area living marine organisms or any part of their habitat, unless listed as exceptions in the Regulations or approved by the Minister. A framework was developed to evaluate the Musquash Estuary MPA and AIA management’s effectiveness in achieving the objectives. This framework considered 49 indicators, which were designed to address management commitments under the following six categories:

  1. Stakeholder interactions (seventeen indicators)
  2. Education, stewardship and outreach (seven indicators)
  3. Research, monitoring, and other permitted activities (eight indicators)
  4. Planning (five indicators)
  5. Capacity (four indicators)
  6. Enforcement and compliance (eight indicators)

The framework included a master evaluation form and a MAC questionnaire. The evaluation form included all 49 indicators (mostly consisting of a question associated with four ranked, multiple choice answers worth zero to three points, as well as several open-ended questions), with space to provide further information, recommendations, and data sources used to answer each question. The evaluation form organized the 49 indicators into six sections, corresponding to the six management categories listed above.

Next Steps

Looking forward, NCC is interested in exploring how to incorporate the WESP-AC tool into a long-term wetland monitoring program in order to assess changes in services over time. These efforts could also help characterize how land-use changes (e.g. proximity of people and development) impact wetland service delivery over time. Finally, NCC is exploring how to use the results of this project to help local landowners understand the benefits of wetlands and the types of services they receive from healthy, intact ecosystems. Conservation can be a powerful tool in protecting coastal wetlands. By conserving the forests and marsh grasses at Musquash, NCC is aiming to allow nature to stabilize the coastline, hold rainwater and prevent floods, and store carbon. All of these processes are important for adapting to climate change.

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