Water expert raises alarm about coal-bed mining in salmon rivers

By Mark Hume

VANCOUVER — When John Stockner talks about water, people listen.

Dr. Stockner, now retired from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, is one of Canada’s most eminent scientists in the field of limnology, the study of lakes and other fresh water.

More than 30 years ago, he did groundbreaking research that allowed DFO to boost sockeye productivity by fertilizing nutrient-starved lakes in British Columbia.

Dr. Stockner was among a small group of scientists who first realized that the harvesting of adult salmon on the West Coast was robbing lakes and rivers of annual injections of marine nutrients.

Instead of decomposing after spawning and thereby releasing phosphorous and other valuable nutrients into the water, the bodies of the salmon were going off to market.

As the level of nutrients fell, stocks declined even more because young salmon feed on plankton, and the plankton crops were failing because of a lack of fertilizer.

When Dr. Stockner looks at a watershed in B.C. then, this is what he sees: an intricate web of life that involves everything from the top predators down to the tiniest algae.

And all of that, he knows, has to be in balance if salmon are to flourish.

So it is significant that Dr. Stockner is now raising alarms about the threat coal-bed methane mining holds for salmon rivers in northern B.C.
Dr. Stockner raised his concerns recently in an e-mail letter to Premier Gordon Campbell.

“I have studied and written about lakes and reservoirs in this province for over 35 years, including studies on lakes of the Nass, Skeena, Fraser, and Nechako rivers and lakes of the north and central coast, Queen Charlotte and Vancouver islands,” he wrote.

“I have also studied lakes in Montana, Idaho and Washington states and collectively written about the productive capacities of Pacific Northwest lakes to support wild sockeye salmon; offering, where possible, effective means of enhancement and run restoration. I have read and talked with colleagues in the Pacific Northwest about the implications of coal-bed methane extraction on lakes and rivers and seen pictures of the effects of their operations in Wyoming on aquatic biota and their habitat.

“I strongly object to this province even contemplating the extraction of methane and allowing a multi-national company to enter a pristine region of B.C. – wherein lies the birthing-place [source] of three of B.C.‘s major northern rivers. To use a medical analogy, the environmental damage from coal-bed methane extraction operations are not as some would like to believe – ‘benign,’ rather they are ‘malignant’ and of long-term duration. Effluents once in the ground then entering groundwater and eventually surface flows can severely impact the physico-chemical balances of rivers and streams for several decades!”

It is not like Dr. Stockner to use an exclamation mark in his writings.

But he is deeply worried about the threat coal-bed methane mining poses in an area known as the Sacred Headwaters, where three of B.C.‘s greatest rivers – the Skeena, Nass and Stikine – are born.

“In my vision as an aquatic scientist, I firmly believe that this Province cannot afford to play with any exploration or production of coal-bed methane in the headwaters of these major salmon bearing systems,” Dr. Stockner wrote.

“Please carefully consider the options before you – to preserve the sanctity of these three major northern rivers and their wild salmon or continue the madness of pursuing coal-bed methane in their headwaters. In my eyes, your legacy as a forward-thinking ‘green’ premier is at stake with my three children and six grandchildren.”

The Premier’s office gets flooded with e-mails every year and it is likely that Dr. Stockner’s letter was probably never put in front of Mr. Campbell to be read.
If that’s the case, the Premier’s staff should dig it out of the pile now and make sure he gets it.

Dr. Stockner knows water better than just about anybody in Canada.

And if he’s this worried about coal-bed methane mining, Mr. Campbell should know about it.

Shell Canada Ltd. has been granted tenure to drill on 412,000 hectares of land about 150 kilometres northwest of Smithers, where the Skeena, Nass and Stikine all have headwaters.

Shell’s project is in the early exploratory stages, but the plans call for more than 1,000 wells to be dug to extract methane.