LNG terminals could collapse B.C. wild salmon run: SFU scientists

LNG terminals could collapse B.C. wild salmon run: SFU scientists

New study shows that Pacific Northwest LNG and Prince Rupert LNG are in the most sensitive spot for millions of juvenile Skeena salmon, which are eventually harvested by fisheries and First Nations

Mychaylo Prystupa

Vancouver Observier


The gas terminals couldn't be in a worse spot, say scientists.

Two multi-billion-dollar LNG marine export facilities slated for the province’s northwest are under fire for being smack dab in the most critically important waters for rearing millions of wild B.C. salmon, a new Simon Fraser University scientific study reveals.

“The worst case scenario is the [Skeena] salmon population would collapse, and to levels that would not allow commercial fishing,” said Assistant Professor Jonathan Moore with SFU’s School of Resource and Environmental Management.

Malaysia’s state-oil company Petronas is seeking to build the $11-billion “Pacific Northwest LNG” terminal on Lelu Island near Prince Rupert (1,500 km northwest of Vancouver).

Next to it, a British-company -- BG Group -- wants to build the $16-billion “Prince Rupert LNG” project on Ridley Island.

“This area, right where this [LNG] development is proposed, has the highest abundance of some of the most important salmon species within the Skeena watershed," said Moore, an aquatic ecologist.

The SFU researchers netted salmon in 2007 and 2013 in the five possible zones where juvenile salmon swim northward and southward from the Skeena River’s exit onto the Pacific (see graphic).

The area with the highest number of commercially important salmon (Zone #2 in blue-green) is where the two proposed LNG facilities are planned to go.  It contained:

2-8 times more Sockeye in 2007 and 2013 than any other zone
the highest abundances of Chinook in 2007
the highest abundances of Coho in 2013
The study, available online, is under peer review, and was a collaboration between Simon Fraser University, Lax Kw'alaams First Nation, and the Skeena Fisheries Commission.

If granted environmental licences, both LNG projects would dredge hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of underwater sediment to construct berths, for 500 LNG carrier tankers to port each year.

Moore and his research team fear the construction and operation of these natural-gas-export facilities would destroy the salmon's protective grasses and rocky outcrops.

Consequently, the industrial disruption could potentially ruin the Skeena salmon run -- the second largest in Canada, said Moore.

Dozens of B.C. communities, fisheries and First Nations depend on the salmon run for food, tourism dollars, and exports.  The salmon is popularly sold in Vancouver sushi restaurants and supermarkets.

Corporate reaction

The two proponents took the scientists' statements guardedly.

"Pacific NorthWest LNG is committed to the long-term health of the marine environment in the area of our proposed facility. We intend on operating in the area - within the Prince Rupert Port Authority - for decades. Therefore, responsible construction and operation of our project is integral to our success," wrote the company's senior advisor, Spencer Sproule.

"As we stated in our [Environmental Impact Statement], potential effects to fish and fish habitat will be short term, localized and closely monitored to meet environmental standards. Additionally, our project is committed to a suite of mitigation measures and habitat offsetting that will be accompanied with long-term monitoring programs..." he added.

Likewise, the British proponent behind the even larger neighbouring terminal – Prince Rupert LNG – defended the company's understanding of the salmon habitat:

“BG Group understands and respects that the environment, including fish and wildlife habitat and particularly the Skeena River, is of great cultural and commercial importance to the people of northern BC,” wrote David Byford, BG’s Houston-based spokesperson.

“As part of our environmental assessment work, we have conducted extensive baseline and technical studies that we believe meet and exceed provincial and federal requirements,” he added.

But salmon conservationists spoke of the SFU study with alarm.

“[LNG] development shouldn’t take place there.  It should be sited somewhere else,” said Skeena Wild Conservation Trust executive director Greg Knox.

“This research is simply reconfirming [what’s been known since the 1970s].  And [the habitat there] is probably more important that we thought,” he added.

The non-profit commissioned some of the underwater and aerial photography in this story.

Moore said the area is special because it is a "migratory bottleneck" for the salmon. 

Young salmon smolts use the underwater eelgrasses of Flora Banks and the surrounding shallow channels to adjust to the Pacific’s salt waters, following their outbound migration from the Skeena River watershed.

“This is an estuary at the base of river watershed that is the size of Denmark, and so you have all this amazing biodiversity and salmon, and it all has to go through this pinch point [near Prince Rupert],” said the aquatic ecologist.

The SFU researchers submitted comments about their study to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency to consider.

As adults, the Pacific salmon swim back through the estuary and up the northern watershed in the millions where they are caught.

Last year, the adult Skeena sockeye salmon numbers plunged to one of the lowest levels in 50 years.  Many recreational and food fisheries were ordered closed.

LNG company hopes to “double” the salmon

Under Canadian law, the habitat for commercially important fish cannot be destroyed or harmed unless authorized.  So the Department of Fisheries and Oceans' (DFO) policy is to ensure projects result in “no net loss" of fish.

But Pacific Northwest LNG states it will do one better, pledging to double the number of fish.

“We’ve said that for every square metre we will create the productivity value of that square metre by two more metres, so the basically the productivity of what we impact, we will double the productivity,”  said Brian Clark, the company’s Environmental Advisor.

“I know why people are skeptical, [the fish habitat] is important to them, they care a lot about it.  But we have to follow the federal rules, and the federal rules say you cannot destroy fish habitat without replacing the value.”

Industrial efforts to improve fish habitat have had mixed results.  A 2005 DFO compliance audit showed that of 52 industrial habitat compensation projects in Canada, 58 per cent failed to improve fish numbers.

Still, the company says the high-elevation design of its jetty-trestle over the critical Flora Bank will minimize the aquatic impact.  The peer-like structure would be six to 11 metres above high water, creating no loss of light or water flow for migrating fish, said Clark.

Dredging up toxic chemicals

Both terminals would require massive dredging of Port of Prince Edward to allow for LNG carriers.

Trouble is, the harbour’s sediments are laden with toxic chemicals and heavy metals going back decades.  An old paper mill once spewed effluent in the area, causing a dramatic decline in aquatic life.

“These contaminated sediments are buried right now, so they’re sort of locked up, they’re safe right now.  But the worry is, if you dredge [700,000] cubic metres, you might mobilize some of it,” said Moore.

Both companies have tested the underwater sediments.

Pacific Northwest LNG consultants found a nasty brew of Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), metals and dioxins and furans in the estuary mud. 

Some of the toxic levels are not safe, but below levels where adverse effects are typically observed, states the report.

A question of location?

BG's Canadian president told the Prince Rupert community last year that the location of the Prince Rupert LNG terminal was less damaging to the environment, because it's slated for the already industrially busy Ridley Island, whereas Lelu Island is a "green field."

Likewise, an often-cited 1973 Department of Fisheries and Oceans report said the Lelu Island should be a no-go zone for industrial development due to the "high biological significance" of the salmon rearing habitat.  But development on Ridley Island would have the least environmental harm, it said.

Complicating matters, the region is seeing a boom in other industrial projects.  A potash terminal is proposed, and two more LNG terminals are also proposed north of Prince Rupert near Grassy Point:

Woodside Energy LNG – by Australia’s Woodside Petroleum
Aurora LNG – by a Chinese-Japanese consortium led by a Nexen (a subsidiary of the Chinese state-oil company CNOOC)
There are now 14 LNG terminal proposals in B.C. -- the latest, from Port Alberni, was announced Tuesday.  Experts suggest only three may be viable, as the global price of natural gas continues to slide.