By Canadian Wildlife Staff, Photo by Juan Luna
Bev Kingdon and Liz Benneian stand up for trumpeter swans in Burlington, Ont., where a marina-expansion project puts a long-standing relationship at risk
Every winter, about 200 trumpeter swans leave their northern breeding grounds and flock to the Lake Ontario shoreline at LaSalle Park in Burlington, Ont. As recently as 25 years ago, you wouldn’t have seen these majestic birds, the largest waterfowl in North America. Like their brethren across the continent, they had been hunted to near extinction during the 19th century, in part for their elegant feathers, used for fashion, and their feet, a popular material for making purses.
But the swans survived their nadir, in many cases thanks to local volunteer conservationists. In Burlington, those people include Bev Kingdon and Liz Benneian of the Trumpeter Swan Coalition, a local group that works to promote public appreciation of the LaSalle Park swans, which account for about one-quarter of the Ontario population.
In the past couple of years, Kingdon and Benneian have also been at the forefront of efforts to protect the swans in the face of a $14-million proposal, first made eight years ago, to expand a public marina at LaSalle Park, a project they say could damage overwintering habitat.
“We have nothing against boating or marinas or any of that,” says Benneian, a former newspaper editor turned conservation activist. “We’re just against this particular plan because of its potential impact.”
At the heart of the issue is the LaSalle Park Marina Association’s call to build a permanent 400-metre breakwater — made from 10,000 tonnes of rock — to protect boats from the waves of Lake Ontario.
The problem is that wave action also keeps the water at LaSalle Park ice-free in winter, which gives trumpeter swans access to aquatic plants that are essential to their diet. If the water freezes, the swans will have to move on. But where? Kingdon and Benneian say that’s one of the biggest questions when you consider that the level of human development on Lake Ontario’s shoreline leaves few options.
The relationship between the swans, their supporters and the marina association — which also wants to increase its number of slips by 130 to 349 — has not always been contentious. In fact, it’s been mostly peaceful since the marina was constructed in the early 1980s.
The reason is that, until the current proposal, the marina association has used a floating breakwater to protect its boats. Each year, the breakwater is pulled from the water at the end of the boating season, just before the swans arrive. It goes back in during the spring, after the swans leave for summer breeding.
“It’s like a waltz,” says Kingdon, who was among the original volunteers to help breed the trumpeter swan cygnets that became the foundation of today’s population in Ontario. “It’s so smooth.… It’s total compatibility and it is beautiful.”
For its part, the marina association, a local non-profit, continues to favour a permanent breakwater — the most costly of options explored for improvements to its operations — citing superior protection for boats.
The association, however, may not have the final word on its proposal. In September, the City of Burlington voted to take over the project. Its concern: the financial risk to local taxpayers should the association, which operates the marina on behalf of the city, default on loans to build the breakwater and additional slips.
Kingdon and Benneian are happy about the city’s decision, saying that the process around the proposal has been flawed from the outset. But there’s still work ahead for the coalition in public education, community outreach, monitoring the marina proposal process — and speaking up on behalf of the swans