Science, Industry, and Salmon

Part 1

As a scientist, I am dismayed by the common tactic of pleading scientific uncertainty as an excuse for continuing to allow people or companies to do things known to harm salmon.
— geomorphologist David R. Montgomery ((In King of Fish (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004): p. 242.))


LAX KXEEN ((The colonial designation is Prince Rupert, “British Columbia,” “Canada.” I discussed the subject of Indigenous versus colonialist designations in “America: The Morality of a Geopolitical Designation,” Dissident Voice, 6 August 2014.)), ((The city’s name is an eponym for Prince Rupert of the Rhine, a European elitist who never set foot on the Pacific coast. For the Ts’msyen: “Place names are usually rooted in the natural world and the land they refer to.” See Kenneth Campbell, Persistence and Change: A History of the Ts’msyen Nation (Prince Rupert, BC: First Nation Educational Council, 2005): 10. Author Kenneth Campbell further noted, “By writing and saying the name name in [Sm’algyax, the Ts’msyen language], both the language and the people are honored.” (p. 10) )) – On 22-23 January, people jam packed a hotel ballroom to attend the Salmon Nation Summit hosted by Friends of Wild Salmon. Among the myriad issues touched on were science, salmon, environment, sovereignty, and corporations.

Concern for the region’s wild salmon was generated by the proposal of Malaysian state-owned Petronas to construct a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal on Lax U’u’la (Lelu Island) in the Kysen (Skeena) River estuary.

Pacific NorthWest (PNW) LNG, majority-owned by Petronas, seeks to construct a natural gas liquefaction and export facility on Lax U’u’la. It includes, a $11+ billion investment solely for the facility, two liquefaction and purification plants, two LNG storage tanks, a marine terminal with two berths, two trains operating, a projected 220 LNG carriers berthing annually, and one new pipeline.

It is just one of 18 potential LNG projects slated for the “BC” coast. ((Pamphlet of Northwest Institute, “LNG in Northwest BC,” updated 2016, p. 1.))

Natural gas pipeline projects for northern BC. Click to enlarge.

Natural gas pipeline projects in northern BC. Click to enlarge.

Among the concerns raised are that the gas for the LNG plants comes from environmentally destructive fracking, ((See, e.g., documentary Gasland.)) to be carried out in the northeast of the province. Pipelines — whose negative effects include impacting wildlife, erosion, and the potential of spills — will be constructed to transport the gas to the coast. The coast will house a LNG terminal where the gas will be condensed by supercooling it to -160° Celsius, an energy intensive process. Huge tankers will then transport the LNG to markets in Asia.

The Science

PNW LNG acknowledges that the project’s construction “will cause permanent alteration or destruction of fish habitat…” ((Stantec Consulting for Pacific NorthWest LNG, “Appendix K – Conceptual Fish Habitat Offsetting Strategy,” 17 February 2014, p. 10, (pdf).)) This is claimed “to be offset by habitat enhancement and creation.” ((Stantec Consulting, p. 21.))

Only two of 17 freshwater watercourses on Lax U’u’la were identified by PNW LNG as potentially having fish, and even so the habitat quality was described as “marginal” and not likely to support fish life. As for the eelgrass beds at Flora Bank, the seabed and waters adjoining Lax U’u’la, the report states, “Only minimal habitat alteration or destruction is expected…” ((Stantec Consulting, p. 5.))

Oceanographer B.A. Faggetter, whose research was cited in the PNW LNG Environmental Impact Statement and Environmental Assessment Certificate Application, took issue with much of the corporation’s science. ((B.A. Faggetter, “Comments on the Pacific NorthWest LNG Environmental Impact Statement and Environmental Assessment Certificate Application,” 21 May 2004 (pdf).))

She questions the degree of importance PNW LNG places on the value of Flora Bank as juvenile salmonid habitat. ((Faggetter, p. 13. Faggetter writes, “On the one hand, the proponent makes statements such as ‘The eelgrass beds on Flora Bank are ecologically valuable to the region and provide rearing habitat for out-migrating salmon, predominantly from the Skeena River‘ (EIS, Section 13 – Marine Resources, pg. 13-18) and ‘Flora Bank supports an eelgrass bed that is recognized as a biologically rich area, and an important resource for Skeena River salmon‘ (EIS, Section 13 – Marine Resources, pg. 13-40). However, on the other hand, they quote data from one of my papers on eelgrass in Chatham Sound (Faggetter 2013), which seems (when taken out of context) to imply that damage to Flora Bank would be unimportant.”)) Faggetter is unequivocal: “Flora Bank is the best juvenile salmonid habitat in this region.” ((Faggetter, p.14.))

Faggetter criticized the PNW LNG data for not representing the annual maximum extent of eelgrass for the area. ((Faggetter, p. 4.)) She, along with an independent group of scientists and technicians, undertook a low altitude aerial survey of Flora Bank which produced an estimate of the total areal extent of the Flora Bank eelgrass “significantly larger (56%) than the amount (0.64 km2) used by the proponent [PNW LNG] in their report…. It is clear that the proponent has chosen to use an areal extent for the Flora Bank eelgrass bed that significantly underestimates the amount of eelgrass present as compared to other surveys of the region.” ((Faggetter, p. 5.))

Faggetter also criticized the PNW LNG impact assessments of dredging: “… the proponents do not appear to have considered repeated exposures, potential dispersal of contaminated sediments, and resuspension of contaminated sediments.” ((Faggetter, p. 18.))

The potential adverse effects are myriad. As for toxic effects, Faggetter finds that bioaccumulation up the food chain not completely accounted for. ((Faggetter, p. 21-22.)) She is concerned about unremitting disturbance from terminal operations such as prop wash and berthing, ((Faggetter, p. 28.)) anthropogenic noise, ((Faggetter, p. 30.)) and the risks posed by overhead structures ((Faggetter, p. 32.)) on the Flora Bank ecosystem.

The oceanographer argues against the offsetting proposed by PNW LNG. “While it may be possible to duplicate similar high quality habitat elsewhere, that habitat would not play the same ecosystem function with respect to the large numbers of Skeena River juvenile salmon that Flora Bank does. Thus, fish habitat offsetting measures cannot ensure no net loss in productivity.” ((Faggetter, p. 15.)) Faggetter concludes, “… there is little to be gained in trying to change something that is already functioning well.” ((Faggetter, p. 26.))

Simon Fraser University professor Jonathan Moore, an expert on salmon ecology, iterated and expanded upon previous science in the Skeena estuary. Moore conducted a three-year study with 100 boat days, 500 net hauls, collecting about 100,000 juvenile salmon on Flora Bank. His findings are published in peer-review science journals, what he noted is “the gold standard of science.” ((“… found that areas proposed for development support some of the highest abundances of some species of salmon…. Genetic stock assignment demonstrated that the Chinook salmon and most of the sockeye salmon that were captured originated from throughout the Skeena watershed…. Our results demonstrate that estuary habitats integrate species and population diversity of salmon, and that if proposed development negatively affects the salmon populations that use the estuary, then numerous fisheries would also be negatively affected.” In C. Carr-Harris, AS Gottesfeld, and JW Moore. 2015. “Juvenile Salmon Usage of the Skeena River Estuary.” PLoS ONE 10(3): e0118988. (pdf).)) Moore said that a LNG project on Flora Bank would have a 25 times worse impact on salmon than other proposed eelgrass areas. Moreover, his data points to the estuary being “of critical importance” for the feeding, rearing, and growing of salmon. This is something, he said, that was known as far back as 1973, referring to the technical report on development of a superport for Flora Bank. ((RJ Higgins and WJ Schouwenburg, “A Biological Assessment of Fish Utilization of the Skeena River Estuary with Special reference to Port Development in Prince Rupert,” Northern Operations Branch of Fisheries and Marine Service Department of the Environment, May 1973. (pdf).))

The 1973 report recognized the waters near Lax U’u’la as “of high biological significance as a fish (especially juvenile salmon) rearing habitat” a place where construction of a superport “would destroy much of this critical salmon habitat.” ((Higgins and Schouwenburg, p. 65.))

Moore told the Salmon Nation Summit that “data don’t lie”: Lax U’u’la and its waters are an awful location for the LNG project which would pose a severe risk to fish and the people who rely on the fish. ((See video of doctor Moore at Salmon Nation Summit.))

“The data indicate that what happens in his area, this small area, could have enormous consequences. And if the [LNG] project is built,” said Moore, “it’ll be ignoring science and it’ll be ignoring the risks to fish and the risks to people…” while stewardship of this small area would provide widespread benefits. ((“The [LNG] proposal highlights a troubling blind spot in Canada’s environmental decisionmaking. This gap could enable decisions that insufficiently consider risks to both environment and people. Science can help decrease these blind spots.” In JW Moore, C. Carr-Harris, AS Gottesfeld, D. MacIntyre, D. Radies, M. Cleveland, C. Barnes, W. Joseph, G. Williams, J. Gordon, B. Shepert, “Selling First Nations down the river,” Science 349: 596, 2015, (pdf).))

Read the next part: “Yes” to Wild Salmon; “No” to BC Premier’s Name Calling”

• First published in American Herald Tribune.

Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at Read other articles by Kim.