Federal approval of a controversial liquefied natural gas export terminal on British Columbia's North Coast underestimated impacts on juvenile wild salmon, according to a new scientific study published today.
The study looked at how migrating salmon use the Skeena River estuary, including a sandy area with eelgrass beds called Flora Bank, near Lelu Island where Petronas-backed Pacific NorthWest LNG plans to build an $11-billion export terminal.
Using chemical markers, the authors found juvenile salmon are eating and growing in the estuary for days to weeks, making it more of a nursery than just a migration route.
"Salmon were not just passing through. They were rearing for an extended period of time," said lead author and Simon Fraser University professor Jonathan Moore.
"Alteration of this habitat has greater risks to salmon populations than assumed in the environmental assessment," the paper states in the peer-reviewed journal, Marine Ecology Progress Series.
Isotopes reveal salmon habits
Flora Bank has long been recognized as important habitat for salmon in the Skeena watershed, which is the second-largest salmon-bearing river in Canada.
Indigenous groups, environmentalists and scientists all raised the risk to juvenile salmon as a concern during the environmental assessment process into the Pacific NorthWest LNG terminal's construction, prior to Canada approving the project in September.
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But Moore said there wasn't scientific evidence on exactly how juvenile salmon use the habitat, a tricky question because they're migrating and too small to tag.
So he and colleagues used stable isotopes — which he calls "naturally-occurring tracers" — to see how long the tiny fish had been living and eating in the estuary.
The estuary waters have a different chemical signature for carbon and sulfur than the freshwater from where the salmon were migrating, said Moore.
By sampling more than 400 fish from Flora Bank and surrounding areas, the scientists were able to gather a picture of how long each salmon species spent there, using the stable isotope levels as a sort of clock.
Chinook spent the longest median time — with half staying at least 26 days and some staying almost two months. Coho, pink, and sockeye were also tracked, with juveniles spending days to weeks there.
That makes the area a key nursery for the watershed, vulnerable to industrial impacts, he said.
"What happens in this little location could affect salmon from throughout the Skeena," said Moore.
Government stands by assessment
Moore hopes the research could still influence the fate — or location — of the Pacific NorthWest LNG project, despite the government's approval with conditions this fall.
"Pacific NorthWest LNG hasn't been built yet, and so I think there's an opportunity to get it right," he said.
"In terms of risks to salmon ... this is the worst place possible."
The federal government, however, does not plan to reconsider its approval, it said in a statement.
"The Government of Canada stands by its decision on the Pacific NorthWest LNG Project," the statement from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency reads.
It said that decision was based on a "thorough science-based review ... including material developed by Dr. Moore," as well as input from Indigenous groups, the public and federal agencies.
The agency said it recognized the Skeena River estuary and Flora Bank eelgrass beds as especially important for juvenile salmon, but with mitigation efforts "the project is not likely to cause significant adverse effects to marine fish and fish habitat."
Lawsuits before the courts
That assessment, however, is still being challenged in the courts, with lawsuits filed by Indigenous groups and environmentalists in Vancouver last month.
Among the claims, filed by SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, is a request to quash the environmental assessment and approval, saying the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency "abdicat[ed] its duty" to assess the project's likelihood to harm fish and fish habitat.
The Canadian government says it will respond to those claims through the court process.