MRU’s World Wetlands Day Symposium tackles biodiversity

Academics, conservation groups, industry, government and students come together

Students Calem Pollock and Jessica Maron.

Students Calem Pollock and Jessica Maron during the poster session.

Scientists, government, conservation groups, industry and students gathered at Mount Royal University on Feb. 4 to address the crucial link between wetlands and biodiversity at the second World Wetlands Day Symposium.

Wetlands are the best of both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems ― not too wet and not dry,” said Felix Nwaishi, PhD, assistant professor in earth and environmental sciences at MRU and symposium organizer. “With 40 per cent of all species living or breeding in wetlands, they are critical to wildlife diversity.”

The symposium attracted 220 attendees including academics, the Government of Alberta, the City of Calgary, the Alberta Energy Regulator, industry, wetland conservation groups and students to “discuss the role of conservation and restoration in mitigating biodiversity loss in wetland ”

As he kicked off the event with a keynote speech, Dale Wrubleski, PhD, a research scientist with Ducks Unlimited Canada, stressed that Canada contains 25 per cent of the world’s wetlands that are vital to so many species.

Wrubleski is investigating how human activities and invasive species influence marshes, in addition to researching how wetland organisms – fish for example – interact with wetlands. He told the symposium about a multi-partner project in Manitoba called Restoring the Tradition at Delta Marsh, intended to restore one of the largest freshwater coastal wetlands in North America.

Keynote speaker Dale Wrubleski from Ducks Unlimited Canada.

Keynote speaker Dale Wrubleski from Ducks Unlimited Canada.

The morning’s discussions laid the scientific groundwork and flowed into the afternoon’s focus on industry and reclamation.

The afternoon’s keynote speaker, Jan Ciborowski, PhD, a biology professor at the University of Calgary, delivered a talk titled Evaluating Biodiversity in Reclaimed Wetland Landscapes, New Tools for New Systems.

This year, Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) co-hosted the symposium. COISA is an alliance of oil sands producers focused on accelerating the pace of improvement in environmental performance in Canada’s oil sands through collaborative action and innovation.

The alliance, launched in 2012, brings together leading thinkers from industry, government, academia and the wider public to improve measurement, accountability and environmental performance for oil sands greenhouse gases, land, water and tailings.

“COSIA is excited to co-host this event and share highlights from some of the wetlands-related work our members are advancing,” said Jack O’Neill, COSIA’s Director for the Land Environmental Priority Area. “Wetlands are a pivotal component of the pre- and post-oil sands operations landscapes. Our members remain focused on finding solutions that minimize environmental impacts on wetlands and progressing wetland reclamation best practices. Our project portfolio continues to evolve with additional wetland-focused projects every year.”

Symposium participant and professional biologist Amanda Cooper emphasized the important role of wetlands and the importance of involving younger participants.

Students Jocelyn Boegelsack, Emily Carroll, Sosan Shaheen.

Students Jocelyn Boegelsack, Emily Carroll and Susan Shaheen during the poster session.

“Wetlands play a vital part in the overall health of Alberta. They provide many valuable economic and environmental goods and services. Wetlands contribute to a healthy drinking water supply for Albertans and provide habitat for species which contribute to the overall biodiversity of Alberta,” she said, adding she sees great value in the symposium and the diverse backgrounds of attendees.

“It’s great to see many diverse participants contributing to wetland education. Wetlands are an important topic that needs more research, which will contribute to greater awareness of their benefits, which in turn will contribute to how we manage these valuable resources in the future. Seeing many students here is encouraging. These students will become the next generation of researchers, government staff and land managers. It’s important we keep wetlands in the forefront of their minds.”

Pre-settlement Calgary had a large area of wetlands compared with other cities in Canada. Wetlands also help prevent flooding, filter groundwater and mitigate climate change by removing excess carbon in the atmosphere and locking it up.

Wide shot of symposium.

The afternoon session featured talks related to research methods and practices relating to wetlands.

“Biodiversity makes our environment more resilient,” said Nwaishi. “If you have one dominant species, then if conditions do not favour that dominant species, the ecosystem collapses. When you have biodiversity you have functional redundancies, multiple species can perform similar ecosystem functions, such that failure of one species does not lead to ecosystem collapse.”

MRU is working to become a hub for the exchange of wetlands sustainability knowledge and the symposium is an initiative of the Institute for Environmental Sustainability.

Connie Van der Byl, PhD, associate professor in the Bissett School of Business and the academic director of the Institute, said the meeting encourages scholarship, engagement and learning.

"The symposium and hub enable collaboration between academia, government and practitioners and leverage diverse perspectives to develop innovative solutions to this important environmental issue," she said. "The World Wetlands Day Symposium and associated plans for a Mount Royal-led wetland sustainability hub fit perfectly with the Institute’s mandate.”

What’s a wetland?

Wetlands are land areas that are saturated or flooded with water either permanently or seasonally. Inland wetlands include marshes, ponds, bogs, fens and swamps. Coastal wetlands include saltwater marshes, estuaries and mangroves. Water treatment wetlands and stormwater ponds are human-made wetlands.

These landscapes are rich with biodiversity and are a habitat for a dense variety of plant and animal species. Latest estimates show a global decline of biodiversity, while wetlands are disappearing three times faster than forests. A report from the UN sounded the alarm on biodiversity and calls for action to stop a dangerous decline in the number of different species inhabiting earth.

World Wetlands Day is held Feb. 2 each year to raise global awareness about the vital role of wetlands for people and the planet. It also marks the date of the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands on Feb. 2, 1971, in the Iranian city of Ramsar on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

Feb. 6, 2020 — Peter Glenn

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