Update 9/27: Trudeau’s cabinet has given conditional approval to the LNG development. More here. Please continue to voice your concerns through our Take Action link below — now more than ever. We are not giving up on the Skeena. And neither should you.
By early October, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will decide whether or not to put British Columbia’s Skeena River in jeopardy. A massive liquefied natural gas cooling and export facility at the mouth of the Skeena is awaiting approval from Trudeau’s cabinet.
The $11.4 billion project would be built next to and over some of the most important wild salmon habitat in Canada, a sandy eelgrass bed called Flora Bank that harbors hundreds of millions of juvenile salmon every year on their way out to sea.
Scientists, conservationists, and First Nations leaders up and down the river have clearly stated that the facility, backed by Malaysia’s state oil company Petronas, is an existential threat to salmon. And salmon advocates have said recently that extensive efforts by Petronas and the federal government over the last six months have failed to shore up the science behind the proposal and accommodate First Nations concerns.
“The work done to date by Petronas’ consultants has been rejected by (Canada’s Environmental Assessment Agency) at least five times as being flawed,” said Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief and spokesman Chief Na’Moks, one of the project’s fiercest critics. “Now (the agency) seems to be buying into the deeply flawed justifications for a project that was simply sited in the worst possible place.”
Wild Salmon Center has been partnering with local conservation group SkeenaWild to make the scientific and legal case for rejecting this poorly conceived development.
A Region’s “Bedrock”
The Skeena River is a globally important wild salmon stronghold and Canada’s second largest wild salmon river. Home to some of the largest Chinook and steelhead ever recorded, the river’s combined tribal, recreational, and commercial fishing economy is worth $110 million a year.
Flora Bank hosts juvenile salmon from at least 40 distinct populations in and around the Skeena. One senior scientist called it a “Grand Central Station” for juvenile fingerlings, a place for them to hide from predators and adjust to salt water. New research continues to underscore Flora Bank’s importance to Skeena salmon.
Threatening this biological bottleneck would threaten the whole Skeena system.
“Salmon are the biological and cultural bedrock of this place,” says Greg Knox, SkeenaWild’s executive director. “Remove them and the Skeena loses its function and its identity.”
Last spring, when an initial project assessment suggested minimal risks to salmon, more than 130 international scientists called the assessment “deeply flawed” in an open letter to the Trudeau government.
And independent scientists say the fundamental flaws of the project remain: it would drive hundreds of pilings and two towers for a mile long-suspension bridge into the edge of Flora Bank. That threatens a relic sand formation from the last Ice Age.
Dr. Patrick McLaren, a geologist and sediment dynamics expert who has extensively studied the area, told the environmental assessment agency in August that there were high risks “from losing the sand from Flora Bank.”
First Nations Opposition Front
Native leaders, meanwhile, have been outspoken about cultural and economic threats the project poses to Skeena First Nations and other salmon dependent communities. This winter, more than 300 First Nation leaders, fishermen, community members and salmon advocates signed onto the Lelu Island Declaration claiming Lelu Island and nearby Flora Bank as off limits to development. Native leaders invoked traditional law as legal justification for the declaration.
By this summer, a powerful alliance of hereditary leaders from Gitanyow, Heiltsuk, Lax Kw’alaams, Gitxsan, Takla Lake, Lake Babine and Wet’suwet’en Nations had formed a front of opposition to the project in its current form. They say they have not been properly consulted nor given their consent to the project, as required under Canadian and international law.
Glen Williams, chief negotiator of the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs, said the Trudeau government is “more than willing to act as an advocate for the flawed research of foreign multinational corporations rather than for the interests of Canadians.”
The Trudeau-led government was elected in the fall of 2015 on a platform that promised deeper respect for First Nations and environmental protection.
The Trudeau decision on the Skeena River comes as British Columbia faces a difficult crossroads on natural resources. Heavy development pressure from oil, gas and mining is fraying the province and putting fishing, recreation, and First Nations groups on the defensive.
Meanwhile, salmon runs are on the decline throughout the province, with warmer ocean conditions one of the culprits. Sockeye runs on the Fraser River, British Columbia’s most productive salmon river, are at their lowest level in 120 years and scientists are partially blaming the “blob,” a slab of warm ocean that persists off the West Coast of North America.
All this calls for precaution and protection on the Skeena, an irreplaceable star in the constellation of great Pacific salmon rivers.