Gaps in basic knowledge about salmon in the estuary near Flora Bank call into question the review — and approval — of the Pacific Northwest LNG terminal proposed for the mouth of the Skeena River, according to new research from fisheries biologist Jonathan Moore.
Data published Wednesday in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series shows salmon species don’t merely transit through the Skeena River estuary, as advanced by Pacific Northwest LNG in its environmental assessment, but can linger in the unique estuary environment for much longer periods of time than previously thought.
“In its environmental assessment Pacific Northwest LNG stated young salmon were moving through the estuary. Our data states that’s not true; the salmon are residing in the area.”
Moore said the new research, conducted by Simon Fraser University, Lax Kw’alaams Fisheries and the Skeena Fisheries Commission, calls into question some of the fundamental assumptions about the risks associated with building a major LNG export terminal on Lelu Island near Flora Bank.
Pacific Northwest LNG, a subsidiary of Malaysian gas giant Petronas, stated salmon species merely transited through the estuary, a rich intertidal zone home to rare eelgrass beds.
“That was the scientific foundation used to assess the risk to salmon populations in an area that is the base of a watershed the size of Switzerland,” Moore said.
Moore said far from being a simple point of passage, the area provides a critical point of transition to young salmon during their journey from river to sea.
“When young salmon are migrating from fresh water to ocean they have to go through this awkward transition.”
“It’s kind of like a puberty transition,” Moore laughed.
“To move from fresh water to salt water in the ocean can be very hard physiologically. They’re moving from breathing and living in fresh water to salt water.”
“They have to alter their systems so they don’t, basically, blow up in the ocean,” he said.
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In monitoring wait times in the estuary, Moore and his fellow researchers found salmon were using the area as a waiting ground to reside, feed, grow and transition before continuing on their migratory route.
“This transition determines whether they do well out there or not,” he said.
“Their estuary period can be important for determining the trajectory of the population of salmon.”
Moore said there are some aspects of the salmon lifecycle that remain a mystery.
“There’s so much we don’t know.”
For example, previous research indicates young salmon move through estuaries very quickly.
“But everything we’ve found shows they’re not,” Moore said.
His research found 25 per cent of Chinook salmon spent at least 33 days in the estuary while Pink, Coho and Sockeye spent at least 30, 22 and five days respectively.
“The bottom line is [residency] depends on the estuary, on the species and on the population of salmon.”
Moore said in its assessment of the project, Pacific Northwest LNG concluded there would be no effects on fish.
“The concern is if you don’t properly assess the risks, you might come to the wrong conclusions,” Moore said.
The federal government’s approval of the LNG export terminal in September was met with significant criticism by the scientific and environmental community.
The scientific community asked the federal government to reject the project’s environmental assessment in March because of flawed science that represented an “insufficient base for a decision.”
Many project opponents have pointed out the review relied heavily on scientific information provided by the project proponent while excluding the research of peer-reviewed scientists.
Others have pointed to a federal study from the 1970s that found the mouth of the Skeena River was inappropriate for industrial development due to its importance for salmon species.
Last month a conservation group, SkeenaWild, launched a legal challenge against the project, saying the federal government based its approval on faulty and incomplete scientific information. Two additional legal challenges by First Nations have also been brought against the project on the basis of flawed consultation and respect of indigenous rights.
Moore said sound science is critical for the environmental assessment process.
“My scientific assessment is that there are major problems with the environmental assessment,” Moore said. “Pacific Northwest’s environmental assessment has a shaky scientific foundation and this is an example of where a claim was made without adequate information.”
“What that means is that the basis for the decision makers might not be based on reality, and might not be based on best scientific evidence.”
“More generally I think it speaks to the need to take a hard look at how Canada makes evidence-based decisions.”
An expert panel is currently conducting a review of the environmental assessment process to fulfill a promise made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to restore scientific integrity to the decision-making process around major industrial projects.
Image: Young salmon in the eelgrass of the Skeena River estuary. Photo:Tavish Campbell