So, who will save Sable Island?
Toronto Globe & Mail, October 04, 2004
By KEVIN COX
HALIFAX -- The fragile and fabled dunes of Sable Island could be trampled and contaminated by tourists and treasure seekers as early as next year because the guardians of the remote sandbar are running out of money.
Environmentalists have joined with scientists who have worked on the remote island to demand the federal government come up with $500,000 before the end of March, 2005, to protect the 42-kilometre long sliver of sand located about 180 kilometres off Nova Scotia.
A spokesman for federal Fisheries Minister Geoff Regan said the minister is committed to protecting Sable Island. But several government departments have an interest in the remote sandbar and none has made a funding commitment.
Since 1801, government departments have strictly controlled and restricted access to Sable Island to those who work there or obtain special permits to briefly visit. It has also been a refuge for unfortunate sailors on more than 1,000 vessels that have sunk in the area.
But five years ago, as part of a federal privatization effort, the island's management was moved from the Canadian Coast Guard to a non-profit organization called the Sable Island Preservation Trust. The volunteer group was responsible for raising the $1-million annual budget required to run the island.
The trust has maintained a staff of four people on Sable to run the weather forecasting and environmental monitoring station. But it has been unable to raise private funds and the five federal departments involved with the island have pledged only about $500,000 for the 2005-2006 fiscal year.
If more money isn't forthcoming, the Sable staff would leave the island in March and open its unique ecosystem that includes flocks of seabirds, rare grasslands, ponds and the famous horse herd to anyone with a boat and a geographic positioning system.
Zoe Lucas, who has been visiting the shifting sands of Sable Island and doing research there for 30 years, fears that well-meaning visitors lured by the history and mystique of the fabled isle could destroy the dunes if Ottawa doesn't step in to protect it.
"There would be no stewardship of the island, and it is very accessible to anybody with a GPS who can get there," she said. "There's a lot of demand to go there, there's a lot of demand for seeing seals, for collecting sands and looking for artifacts. People would be wandering around with metal detectors."
Her fears are echoed by April Hennigar, president of the Sable Island Preservation Trust, who said sightseers could unwittingly destroy wildlife on the sandbar, including the herd of horses that has lived there for three centuries.
"Through innocence and ignorance humans would visit without permission and cause contamination issues that would prevent sustainable life on the island," she said.
"It's fairly easy to contaminate the water supply and once that's gone you can't sustain life."
The trust recently raised $20,000 in a lottery that offered a trip to the island with Justin Trudeau. But Ms. Hennigar said that money will pay only to repair an island road and the trust hasn't attracted funding from private sources.
She said the federal government should take over management of the island and leave the volunteers to work on conservation and public-awareness programs.
Nova Scotia provides $100,000 a year for the Sable fund. Offshore energy companies had provided $150,000 annually until their five-year deal expired this year.
Ms. Lucas said that several international research projects on air quality, weather patterns, seal and tern populations and the horse herd would end if the station had to close in March.
The station also provides an emergency landing strip for search- and-rescue missions, as well as medical supplies.
The problem, according to Ms. Lucas, is that none of the federal government departments that deal with fisheries, environment, transportation, defence or foreign affairs will take the lead in protecting the island because they don't want to have to foot the bill.
"Is Department of Fisheries and Ocean science worth $1-million?" she asked. "No, it probably isn't. Is protecting the horses worth $1-million? No, from a bureaucrat's perspective it probably isn't. Is protecting eastern Canada's biggest tern colony worth $1-million? No, it probably isn't. But if you add up the 20 or 30 different issues out there and this is the bargain of the century."
Ms. Lucas said she has asked Mr. Regan, a Halifax MP, to take the lead on protecting the island, but he hasn't made a formal commitment to provide funding. Brian Underhill, a spokesman for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said Mr. Regan "is committed to maintaining a human presence on Sable Island, but it comes down to who is responsible for what, and where does the funding come from."