Sable Island May Receive Permanent Protection Tomorrow

Sable Island, a narrow stretch of globally important bird habitat located approximately 300 km offshore from Halifax, may be granted permanent protection status as either a national park or national wildlife area, when Environment Minister Jim Prentice makes an announcement tomorrow afternoon.

The word “sandbar” cannot convey the majesty of Sable Island’s biodiversity. Over 330 bird species have been sighted here, including virtually the entire breeding population of Ipswich Savannah Sparrows. Thousands of Arctic and Common Tern nest on site, as do thousands of Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls, which prey on the terns’ young with alarming success.

The sandbar supports more than 175 plant species and 600 catalogued invertebrates. The marine areas support diverse mammals, including 50,000 breeding Grey Seals. Sable Island’s only terrestrial mammals—and its most controversial and famous residents—are several hundred wild and unmanaged horses.

Nature Canada and Bird Studies Canada designated Sable Island an Important Bird Area over a decade ago, and we’ve been trying to secure greater protection for this highly valued natural space ever since. Though the island doesn’t face the same development pressures that many other Important Bird Areas do, uncontrolled access to the island can disturb nesting birds and accelerate erosion of the sandbar.

Turning the island into a protected area is definitely good news. But a national park or wildlife area could open the island to public access and may increase the risks of erosion and habitat degradation on the island’s fragile 34 square kilometre, largely coastal, dune ecosystem. Currently, the few human inhabitants of Sable Island conduct research for environmental monitoring.
A new national park or wildlife area would require strict site management, visitor education and enforcement guidelines to safeguard the island’s ecological integrity. Additional investment in federal protected areas programs would also be necessary to properly steward and manage the new park or wildlife area.
We’re waiting eagerly to hear the details in tomorrow’s announcement!