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Vehicles below high-tide mark float concern for Vancouver Island beach

Biologist warns of potential environmental impacts on sensitive habitat near Royston
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A man takes pictures of a vehicle in Royston’s intertidal zone, which is considered a sensitive habitat by DFO. Photo courtesy of Tanja Hespe Kerr.

Tanja Hespe Kerr moved to Royston about 25 years ago. Over the years, she has observed from her front porch, which overlooks Comox Harbour, a trend she says has been worsening.

“People drive down the beach, park wherever they want and set up their lawn chairs,” she said. “Sometimes they have fires going and some let their dogs run free. They can stay there for several hours.”

“It has been getting worse, especially in the summertime, (and it seems like) the place is getting more popular.”

Accessing the intertidal zone via the community’s boat launch on Marine Drive, steps from Royston Road, Hespe Kerr explained that vehicles typically enter the beach at low tide and leave when the tide rises.

Though she mentioned that the majority of people are using the boat launch for its intended purpose, the Royston resident is concerned about those using it improperly.

On more than one occasion, she observed up to six vehicles driving and parking all over the beach, littering the ground, and becoming mired in the mud as they tried to leave.

“One time, a woman got… stuck so badly that the tide came in (and engulfed her car,)” said Hespe Kerr. “It was kind of laughable because her dog was swimming in circles around the vehicle while she was standing beside the car with her coffee cup trying to scoop water out of the inside of her vehicle.”

Despite efforts from locals, law enforcement, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to prevent vehicle access to the beach, this illegal practice, in violation of the federal Fisheries Act, persists to this day.

“Around five years ago, DFO put up a sign saying ‘Launch and retrieve ramp only. Do not park on the beach,’” said Hespe Kerr. “That sign was taken down in less than 10 days. As soon as it was put up, people were still driving on the beach.”

At her wit’s end, the nature enthusiast and avid kayaker took to social media to share her discontent with the current situation.

Shortly after, Area A Director Daniel Arbour commented on Hespe Kerr’s post.

In a May 23 interview with the Record, Arbour shared that he would address this matter in an upcoming regional district meeting.

“I think there’s a lot of value to (this boat launch), but I think that what was not anticipated is people using it to go for random drives around the beach,” said Arbour. “That is definitely not the kind of thing that we want to encourage.”

“It’s also not in my intent (to close off the boat launch.) We want to make sure that people continue to have amenities but have respect for the marine environment.”

The local politician also added that he is currently in discussions with regional district staff to find ways to prevent motorists from accessing Royston’s intertidal zone.

“We’re going to start by laying out our options and strategies,” said Abour. “(We also want to) engage the community and see what’s (needed) to improve the management of that boat launch.”

The environmental impacts

Although this practice seems to be localized to Royston, as Arbour noticed, registered biologist Dusty Silvester said the damage done by motor vehicles to this small area cannot be neglected.

“(Any) additional impacts beyond the baseline are just going to push things a little bit further towards an unbalancing (of the ecosystem),” said Silvester. “If there’s an introduction of a deleterious substance by way of access to the intertidal zone, that’s gonna have an impact not only on that specific location where it occurred but on the broader landscape.”

Any pollutant or contaminant, whether introduced willingly or accidentally – such as gasoline, motor oil, or invasive species –could cause harm to this ecosystem, which happens to be a sensitive habitat.

“Royston, and other parts of the Comox harbour, are identified (as) red-listed communities which is a provincial regulatory item (which recognizes) that specific areas need to have special management practices put in place to protect (them) and (mitigate negative) impacts.

“These sensitive ecosystems are (called) ‘sensitive’ because they’ve already been subject to the impact of human development and urbanization. Adding these extra impacts to a location (that was) somewhat stable, (might cause its loss.)”

Potentially affecting everything from aquatic plants to mollusks, fish, birds, and mammals, the biologist highlighted that driving one’s vehicle in this sensitive habitat could have a ripple effect on the region’s broader food web.

The impacts could be significant, including ground compaction that could asphyxiate shellfish, the crushing of crustaceans that are food for local birds, and the disruption of herring spawning grounds and smelt feeding areas, which support other aquatic species.

Extending beyond the Comox Harbour, Silvester also expressed concerns about the effects of deleterious substances carried by south-flowing currents to the Baynes Sound, another highly ecologically and biologically sensitive area.

“That area in particular is well known for being an intertidal agriculture area for the shellfish leases,” Silvester noted. “Would you wanna eat oysters that were exposed to motor oil or gas? Probably not.

“I’m sure that (the shellfish industry) have practices in place to protect their harvest… but ultimately (I’m) sure they would want to keep these deleterious substances out of that area.”

DFO’s stance

In a May 23 statement to the Record, DFO stated that they are taking proactive steps to address the current situation.

“Fisheries and Oceans Canada is aware of the issue of off-road vehicle activity in several intertidal foreshores around the Comox Valley and of potential impacts to in-channel and riparian fish habitats associated with this activity,” reads the statement.

Additionally, the governmental institution mentioned collaborating with the province to find a long-term solution for managing vehicle access and protecting fish habitats in the Comox Valley area.

Under the federal Fisheries Act, it is considered a violation to operate a motor vehicle on intertidal flats (section 34.4) and harmfully impact fish habitats (section 35).

If the operator of a vehicle is found guilty of an offence under either of the two sections, they are liable for a fine ranging from $15,000 to $100,000.

Members of the public are asked to report observations of illegal off-road activity to the DFO Observe Record Report line at DFO.ORR-ONS.MPO@dfo-mpo.gc.ca or toll-free at 1-800-465-4336.

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A DFO sign prohibiting vehicles from accessing the beach via Royston’s boat launch was vandalized a few days after being installed. Photo courtesy of Tanja Hespe Kerr
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Three trucks can be seen parked in Royston’s intertidal zone, a place considered to be a sensitive habitat by DFO. Photo courtesy of Tanja Hespe Kerr.
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Numerous tire threads can be seen in Royston’s intertidal zone, a place considered to be a sensitive habitat by DFO. Photo courtesy of Tanja Hespe Kerr.
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People littered the ground near a campfire in Royston’s intertidal zone, a place considered to be a sensitive habitat by DFO. Photo courtesy of Tanja Hespe Kerr.


Olivier Laurin

About the Author: Olivier Laurin

I’m a bilingual multimedia journalist from Montréal who began my journalistic journey on Vancouver Island with The Comox Valley Record in 2023.
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