Impressed with the Shearstown Estuary

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I never cease to be amazed at how much I’ve learned since graduating high school in 1974.

Burton K. Janes

Take the word "estuary," for example. I supposed I learned it in geography which, unfortunately, wasn’t one my stronger subjects. I failed the course the last time I took it, in Grade 9, receiving 47 per cent.

I now know an estuary is a partly enclosed coastal body of brackish water with one or more rivers or streams flowing into it, and with a free connection to the open sea.

In recent days, while studying the publication, "The Shearstown Estuary: Where the River Meets the Sea," I gained a fresh appreciation for the word.

This updated version of a booklet, prepared by the Eastern Habitat Joint Venture of the province’s Department of Environment and Conservation in 1998, provides a synopsis of some of the species that frequent the Shearstown Estuary and surrounding area.

Estuaries, which are found throughout the world, are nutrient-rich ecosystems. Some, like the Mackenzie River Estuary in the Arctic and the Bay of Fundy Salt Marshes, are large; others, like the Shearstown Estuary, are smaller, but no less important. Large or small, all estuaries "are considered to be among the most biologically productive ecosystems on earth."

The Shearstown Estuary is a shallow body of water where fresh water from Shearstown River meets and mixes with salt water from Spaniard’s Bay.

In 1997, the towns of Bay Roberts and Spaniard’s Bay signed a joint Municipal Wetland Stewardship Agreement, in effect committing to conservation efforts relating to and greater awareness of the Shearstown Estuary. The ecosystem has historically been significant to a plethora of plant, aquatic and bird species. The agreement raises "awareness of best practices in and around the estuary to minimize impact to the sensitive ecosystem."

Birds of the Shearstown Estuary include, but are not limited to, waterfowl (American black duck, green-winged teal, northern pintail, common goldeneye, bufflehead and Canada goose), seabird (herring gull, ring-billed gull, Iceland gull, ivory gull, black-headed gull and common tern), shorebird (greater yellowlegs, black-bellied plover, semipalmated plover, spotted sandpiper and ruddy turnstone), songbird (blue jay, black-capped chickadee and American robin), and hawk (osprey). There are also European starlings, common crows, common loons and ruffled grouse.

Aquatic life includes invertebrates (barnacle, blue mussel, amphipod and periwinkle) and vertebrates (Atlantic salmon, brown trout, brook trout, American eel, three-spine stickleback and winter flounder).

Plants are found in various habitats, including aquatic (eelgrass), beach (sea-rocket, oysterleaf, yarrow, climbing false, buckwheat, black knapweed, curled dock and seaside plantain), and salt marsh/shoreline (silverweed, white spruce, black grass, field sow-thistle, vetchling, orache, Scotch lovage, pasture rose and glasswort).

Whoever would have known? And to think I lived four of my teenage years in Shearstown and was ignorant of the nutrient-rich ecosystem around me!

Unfortunately, the Shearstown Estuary is being threatened.

"Decades of abuse from human activity have resulted in the loss of critical wildlife habitat and have affected the overall condition of the estuary ... Many people are unaware of their impact on the environment and, hence, do not see their responsibility towards this ecosystem."

What can an individual do to ensure the long-term sustainability of the Shearstown Estuary or, for that matter, any estuary?

The folks at the Eastern Habitat Joint Venture suggest awareness, personal restriction, planting native trees and shrubs, taking only pictures and leaving only footsteps, looking around, and helping to clean up.

"The fate of the Shearstown Estuary lies in the hands of the people who live and work around it every day. Residents, business owners, schoolchildren and community leaders all have the ability to impact the sensitive ecosystem of the estuary."

Retaining the integrity of the Shearstown Estuary "as a critical type of ecosystem" calls for sustained "commitment from residents, community leaders, municipal governments and conservation organizations."

Even the smallest "changes in relationship that locals have with the estuarine ecosystem can go a long way in conserving and rehabilitating this unique habitat."

"The Shearstown Estuary: Where the River Meets the Sea" is attractive to the eye gate, what with its full-colour photographs, with accompanying commentary, of birds, aquatic life and plants. A triad of practicality, information and challenge, it also includes tips for cleaning up estuaries, thereby negatively impacting them as little as possible. This 24-page document packs a wallop.

— Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at burtonj@nfld.net

Organizations: Department of Environment and Conservation, The Compass

Geographic location: Bay Roberts, Arctic, Bay of Fundy Salt Marshes Shearstown River Canada Iceland

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