IBA English Bay, Burrard Inlet & Howe Sound
Vancouver, British Columbia
Site Summary
BC020 Latitude
49.322° N
123.057° W
0 m
335.00 km²
mud or sand flats (saline), inlets/coastal features (marine)
Land Use:
Fisheries/aquaculture, Tourism/recreation, Urban/industrial/transport
Potential or ongoing Threats:
Housing and urban areas, Commercial and industrial development, Shipping lanes, Recreational activities, Domestic and urban waste water, Industrial and military effluents
IBA Criteria: Globally Significant: Congregatory Species, Continentally Significant: Waterfowl Concentrations
Conservation status: IBA Conservation Plan written/being written
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Site Description
Burrard Inlet is a sheltered fjord of Georgia Strait that encompasses all waters east of Point Atkinson in the north and Point Gray in the south. It includes False Creek and English Bay, Vancouver Harbour, Port Moody Arm and Indian Arm. This site incorporates a diversity of habitats from man-made beaches and industrial encroachment to the minimally impacted Indian River Estuary. Burrard Inlet lies between the city of Vancouver and the north shore municipalities of West Vancouver and North Vancouver. Several parks border the IBA, including Indian Arm Provincial Park, Belcarra Regional Park, Pacific Spirit Regional Park and Stanley Park. The main rivers flowing into the site are the Capilano, Seymour and Indian rivers. Tides reach 4 metres, and salinity levels are moderated by the nearby Fraser River and slow outflows from Indian Arm. The inlet is bounded to the north by the steep-walled, granitic Coast Mountains, and on the south by the densely urbanized areas of Vancouver. Most of the shoreline is rocky or built up with port facilities and seawalls, but there are extensive tidal sandflats at Spanish Banks and some remnant mudflats and saltwater marshes, such as those at Maplewood Flats and Port Moody Inlet.

Howe Sound includes the tidal waters of southern Howe Sound from Point Atkinson to Anvil Island, and has a cluster of large and small islands, islets, rocks and reefs. 42 km long and 21 km wide at its entrance, Howe Sound is subject to daily tides that ebb and flow in the Salish Sea and the outflow of the Squamish River entering at its head. The freshwater of the river is clearly visible on some days as a silty grey colour arising from glacial and mountain water entering the river from the surrounding mountains.

Howe Sound was industrialized in the early to late 20th century with concomitant environmental degradation followed by restoration efforts, continuing to the present day . The islands, rocks and reefs provide a foothold for a carpet of mussels and barnacles that is an important food source for the sea ducks and shorebirds that assemble in the Sound each autumn, winter and spring. The labyrinth of islands also attract large schools of fish that are important food for seabirds and marine mammals.

Howe Sound is rimmed with residential and industrial development interspersed with unpopulated forested areas. Houses line much of the waterfront in West Vancouver, Gibsons, Langdale and Lions Bay, as well as on Bowen and Keats islands. The rest of the shoreline is uninhabited or sparsely inhabited, and comprised of Native Reserve, private and public lands. Christie Islet off the south end of Anvil Island is a federal Migratory Bird Sanctuary.

Significant Species

This IBA was designated for three species at the global level: Western Grebe, Barrow's Goldeneye and Surf Scoter; and one species at the national level: Great Blue Heron.

Historically, Western Grebes wintered here in globally significant numbers, with high counts ranging from 2,000-15,000 birds between 1980 and 1995, the highest concentrations occurring in the English Bay-First Narrows area. However, the species has declined steeply, and counts since 2000 typically range from < 100-500 individuals and on no occasion have exceeded the 1% global threshold. This significant decline has been noted throughout the Salish Sea (in British Columbia and Washington); the reasons for the decline of this forage fish feeder, which breeds in freshwater wetlands across western North America, are not clear, but are being investigated by conservation researchers.

Historically, globally significant numbers of wintering Barrow's Goldeneye were regularly recorded; the peak count of 7,126 individuals in 1990 then represented over 4% of the world estimated population. Since 2000, however, mid-winter combined counts by the British Columbia Coastal Waterbird Survey and standard surveys conducted in Indian Arm have ranged from 550 to 3,672 individuals with the maximum count representing about 1.5 % of the global population. These counts point to a local decline in wintering populations of this marine invertebrate feeder. The northern part of Indian Arm is also an important staging area in the spring for Barrow's Goldeneye on their way to breed on freshwater wetlands farther north.

The IBA also regularly supports more than 1% of the global Surf Scoter population, with >7,000 individuals confirmed in at least four winters since 2000. The species congregates with other sea ducks to feed on clams in the IBA's mud- and sandy-bottomed bays, with peaks in abundance typically occurring in late fall and early winter (October-December). The highest counts were 10,011 in November 2007 and 9,720 in January 2012.

In 2001, Great Blue Heron (faninni subspecies) established a nesting colony (termed a heronry) in Stanley Park; this species is listed under the federal Species at Risk Act (Special Concern). Since then, the number of breeding pairs has increased to well over 100 each year, with a peak count of 183 in 2007; this exceeds the 1% Canadian population threshold for the subspecies, and triggers national IBA status.

Other Species of Conservation Interest

This IBA supports many coastal and marine bird species characteristic of the Pacific Northwest (see links to seasonal abundance and annual frequency graphs above). One landbird that uses the IBA is the Purple Martin, which is unusual in British Columbia in that it only nests in man-made boxes over water (unlike its counterparts in the east). After being extirpated from the lower mainland in the 1940s, Purple Martin returned in 1996 after a nest box program was initiated at Maplewood Flats Conservation Area (Pridgeon 1997). Now, fifty or more pairs of Purple Martin typically nest within the IBA each year at Maplewood Flats and Rocky Point Park.

There is a large colony of Pelagic and Double-crested Cormorants nesting on the Second Narrows, Burrard Street, and Granville Street bridges and high tension power lines. Osprey and Bald Eagles also nest along the shore.

IBA Criteria
SpeciesT | A | I Links Date Season Number G C N
Western Grebe 1970 - 2002 WI 951 - 15,000
Iceland Gull (Thayer's) 2006 - 2008 FA 80 - 500
Barrow's Goldeneye 1990 - 2012 WI 1,838 - 7,126
Surf Scoter 1990 - 2012 WI 6,000 - 12,216
Surf Scoter 2000 - 2014 FA 5,285 - 10,011
Iceland Gull (Thayer's) 2012 SP 120
Marbled Murrelet 2015 FA 470
White-winged Scoter 2008 SP 5,000
Heermann's Gull 2008 WI 170
Heermann's Gull 2000 SP 75
Great Blue Heron 2002 - 2020 SU 36 - 366
Great Blue Heron 1997 - 2020 SP 35 - 200
Great Blue Heron 2015 - 2020 WI 40 - 85
Sage Thrasher 2007 SP 1
Spotted Owl 2003 FA 1
Waterbirds 1990 WI 17,412
Surf Scoter 2008 SP 6,000
Black Oystercatcher 2006 WI 78
Note: species shown in bold indicate that the maximum number exceeds at least one of the IBA thresholds (sub-regional, regional or global). The site may still not qualify for that level of IBA if the maximum number reflects an exceptional or historical occurrence.
Conservation Issues
Threats in English Bay - Burrard Inlet IBA include: pollution risk from shipping; industry and urban areas; disturbance and development. Several oil spills have occurred in the IBA. The amount of oil shipped through the IBA by tankers departing from a terminal in Burnaby has increased several orders of magnitude from 8000 metric tonnes in 2000 to nearly 4 million metric tonnes in 2010. This increase in tanker traffic raises concern about the risk of another spill. The effect of pollutants from urban and industrial activities (fecal coliforms, toxic microorganisms and heavy metals) on water quality and food sources for waterfowl (such as fish and mussels) are also concerning. Research on Surf Scoters wintering in Vancouver Harbour has indicated some possible negative physiological effects from contaminants from anti-fouling paints used on large ships (Elliot et al. 2007). Efforts to phase out use of these paints has decreased concern somewhat. Loss or degradation of natural habitats to residential and industrial development could impact shoreline foraging species such as scoters and goldeneyes. Direct disturbance of birds on the water is an increasing concern as the amount of commercial and recreational boating has increased within the IBA.

The Burrard Inlet Environmental Action Program is a group of local, provincial, and federal agencies tasked with ensuring development of the inlet is sensitive to its unique environmental resources. The Consolidated Environmental Management Plan for Burrard Inlet was updated in 2011. Port Metro Vancouver has authority for port activities and has built intertidal gabions to create foraging habitat for mussel and barnacle feeding ducks and gulls. Several organizations monitor water quality in the inlet, including the Tsleil Waututh First Nations, Metro Vancouver, the Ministry of Environment and the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority. Several other non-profit organizations are actively involved in ongoing bird conservation and monitoring activities, including the Pacific WildLife Foundation, Stanley Park Ecology Society and the Wild Bird Trust. Volunteers participating in the British Columbia Coastal Waterbird Survey, coordinated by Bird Studies Canada, have been collecting monthly counts of wintering waterbirds within the IBA since 2000.

The IBA Program is an international conservation initiative coordinated by BirdLife International. The Canadian co-partners for the IBA Program are Birds Canada and Nature Canada.
   © Birds Canada