Salmon population at risk if Anticosti exploration continues, conservation group

The Quebec Federation for Atlantic Salmon is calling on the provincial government to stop a plan that would see 30 million litres of water pumped from rivers, including two that contain salmon, on Anticosti Island.

Early steps of oil and gas exploration involve extracting 30 million litres of water from salmon-filled lakes

The Quebec Federation of Atlantic Salmon is calling on the provincial government to stop an oil and gas exploration project on Anticosti Island. (Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press)

The Quebec Federation for Atlantic Salmon is calling on the provincial government to stop a plan that would see 30 million litres of water pumped from rivers, including two that contain salmon, on Anticosti Island.

Energy company Petrolia got the go-ahead from the provincial government to pump the water as part of its exploratory oil and gas drilling project, provided it meets environmental standards. 

The president of the federation, Jean Boudreault, said taking that much water from rivers poses a risk to migratory salmon populations.

Jean Boudreault, president of the Quebec Atlantic Salmon Federation, said he doesn't believe it's possible to preserve the fish's fragile habitat if oil and gas exploration goes ahead in Anticosti. (Radio-Canada)

"If you have a summer that's too dry, salmon will die. That's it, we'll lose our entire population," said Boudreault. "We cannot take that risk."

The federation is calling on Environment Minister David Heurtel to stop the project, of which the provincial government is a financial partner, adding that it doesn't trust the risk prevention methods in place.

Boudreault said it's impossible to preserve the fragile salmon habitat while there's a major oil and gas exploration underway nearby.

Salmon: not the only thing that flip-flops

In 2014, the Quebec provincial government — then with the Parti Québécois's Pauline Marois at the helm — signed a contract to become a financial partner in a joint venture with Petrolia to explore a hydrocarbon deposit on Anticosti.

The project has been contentious from the start, raising the ire of both environmentalists, and until last March, Premier Philippe Couillard.

He said the exploratory drilling includes fracking, a controversial practice where a mixture is pumped deep underground in order to crack rocks and release natural gas, which risks affecting the water table.​

Energy company Petrolia has government permission to pump 30 million liters of water from Anticosti salmon rivers for their exploratory drilling. We asked migratory salmon researcher François Caron what the impacts on the salmon populations might be. 9:15

In December, Couillard told CBC News he was prepared to pull the plug on the project, saying "the destruction of natural environment like Anticosti will not bear my signature."

His government agreed to move forward in March. Since then, Couillard has repeatedly said he's bound by the agreement signed by Pauline Marois's government.

Salmon not threatened, says environment minister

Heurtel addressed concerns about the salmon habitat last week, saying there will be an impact on the environment, but not enough to threaten salmon.

"There's definitely an impact but we judged this impact to be acceptable," he said.

Anticosti is a rocky island about one and a half times larger than Prince Edward Island. It's located at the outlet of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and the Saint Lawrence River.​

Federation's stance not consensus 

On Friday, an independent salmon expert told CBC's Quebec AM that by his assessment if the company proceeds as it says it will there will be minimal impact on the salmon.

François Caron said the company has committed to not extracting the water if water levels are too low. He also said, though it sounds like a large number, 30 million litres isn't a significant amount of water once rainwater and spring melt are considered.

"In my view, the impact will be very, very little if some," said Caron.

With files from Radio-Canada and CBC's Quebec AM