Impact of B.C.’s First Major LNG Terminal on Salmon Superhighway Underestimated, Scientists and First Nations Warn

The B.C. government’s decision to build the Pacific Northwest liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal in the Skeena River estuary could have dramatic impacts on the second largest salmon population in Canada, potential affecting the constitutionally protected rights of at least 10 First Nations, a letter recently published in the prestigious journal Science argues.

The Pacific Northwest LNG export facility is proposed for Lelu Island, which adjoins Flora Bank, an eelgrass rich intertidal zone considered critical salmon habitat. The Skeena River estuary surrounding Lelu Island is considered a unique estuary system which acts as a nursery for hundreds of million of juvenile salmon each year.

The letter, co-authored by several scientists and fisheries experts from six First Nations in the affected region, says decision-makers considering the project, backed by Malaysian-owned gas giant Petronas, were uninformed of the ecological value of the estuary as a salmon nursery and its role in supporting salmon runs as far as 350 kilometres inland.

The authors argue the Canadian government did not sufficiently consider how the LNG terminal would affect inland First Nations.

True Scope of LNG Impacts "Not Taken into Account"

“We discovered that salmon from over 40 populations that are harvested in at least 10 First Nations territories rely on the Skeena’s estuary habitat that would be altered by the fossil fuel terminal,” Jonathan Moore, lead author of the letter and associate professor and Liber Ero Chair of Coastal Science and Management at Simon Fraser University, said.

“However, industry proponents and the Canadian government have only recognized the interests of a fraction of these First Nations, and have not taken into account the true scope of potential impacts.”

In the letter the authors state there has been “a striking mismatch between the narrow consideration of aboriginal rights and environmental risks and the true scale of environmental connections.”

“Salmon don’t care about boundaries. Degradation of salmon habitat can impact ecosystems and people as far as salmon can swim,” Glen Williams, member of the Gitanyow First Nation and co-author of the letter, said.

Last month the B.C. Liberals passed Bill 30, the Liquified Natural Gas Project Agreement Act, which opens the door to LNG development over the next 25 years. The Pacific Northwest LNG terminal is waiting on federal environmental approval, which is not expected until after the October 19 federal election. 

Juvenile salmon in the Skeena River estuary. Photo: Tavish Campbell.

Lack of First Nations Consultation

Donna Macintyre, a co-author of the paper, argues her nation, the Lake Babine Nation situated 350 km upstream from the estuary, could be negatively affected by the LNG project.

“The new data from the estuary is evidence that the proposed LNG terminal could pose risks to our fish and fisheries. Lake Babine is the largest of the Skeena sockeye lakes, with millions of adult sockeye returning in some years,” Macintyre said.

She added her nation was not consulted in the environmental assessment process undertaken by the federal government.

Chief John Allen French from the Takla Lake First Nation didn’t participate in the study but said he’s glad the research is being undertaken.

“We applaud this research and expect followup from Canada, B.C., and proponents of LNG projects to meaningfully address our concerns,” he said.

“We live in the headwaters of the Skeena and Fraser River watersheds where salmon are our way of life. We expect the environmental assessment process to take into account both scientific and traditional knowledge to assess the significance of impacts on our rights as Takla people.”

B.C.’s First Nations live on unceded traditional territory and have a constitutional right to maintain traditional ways of life, including hunting, trapping and fishing.

Development near the Flora Bank region could disrupt the salmon cycle, potentially preventing some First Nations from continuing their traditional practices.

“The Flora Bank region in the Skeena estuary is like Grand Central Station for salmon,” Allen Gottesfeld, of the Skeena Fisheries Commission, said.

According to Charmaine Carr-Harris from the Skeena Fisheries Commission, who published a paper on the high population of juvenile salmon near Flora Banks, field crews studying in the area have captured “tens of thousands of juvenile salmon in the area proposed for development.”

Lead author Jonathan Moore argues this information should compel decision-makers to rethink the project.

“This research offers an opportunity for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency to use science to get the scale right so that they consider the true vast risks to environment and culture as well as economy,” he said. “The unintended consequences of locating this terminal in the Flora Banks region could have watershed-wide impacts.”

Image Credit: Tavish Campbell used with permission

Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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