A Pacific salmon hub is under threat

Juvenile salmon in Skeena Estuary.  Credit: Tavish Campbell
Juvenile salmon in Skeena Estuary.
Credit: Tavish Campbell

The Skeena River snakes out of fir-lined fjords on the misty northern coast of British Columbia, and washes over a thousand-acre sandbar. Flora Bank is a biological bottleneck over which millions of finger-length young salmon enter the sea each spring. Scientist Allen Gottesfeld calls Flora Bank the “Grand Central Station” for the watershed. All streams in the Skeena system lead here.

One of the last great undammed salmon systems in Canada, the Skeena still supports five Pacific salmon species. It has yielded some of the biggest Chinook and steelhead ever recorded. Its fish feed indigenous First Nations, and supply sport and commercial fisheries up and down the British Columbian and Alaskan coasts. And Skeena help underpin the food chain for the world-renowned Great Bear rainforest, a 250-mile long archipelago of islands and coastal enclaves populated by white “spirit bears,” supersized bald eagles, and healthy pods of orcas. That all makes Flora Bank one of the most important stretches of salmon habitat on the West Coast.

And yet Canada’s Trudeau administration is now conidering granting permission to a conglomerate of Asian state oil companies to build an $11.4 billion liquefied natural gas cooling and export terminal over Flora Bank. One of the most threatening components in the project is a Golden Gate-sized bridge that would be built over the bar to carry processed gas from neighboring Lelu Island out to waiting ships. Scientific studies suggest the enormous towers for the bridge could permanently alter the countervailing forces of tides, wind, and river current that have created and sustained Flora Bank for thousands of years. The heavy dredging, drilling and blasting during the bridge and terminal’s construction threaten enormous impact.

A whole salmon-dependent region could vanish. Murray Smith, a Tsimshian elder from the lower Skeena River said flatly, “This is a fight for all humanity.”

First Nations activists protest Pacific Northwest LNG at Lelu Island.  Credit: Skeena Media
First Nations activists protest Pacific Northwest LNG at Lelu Island.
Credit: Skeena Media

That means you, too. Because if we lose Flora Bank, we also lose a battle in the crucial struggle to stabilize our climate: approving this energy-intensive project to extract and ship climate-lethal methane reverses all the good climate progress made by world-leading British Columbia. And it would fly in the face of the fresh climate promises that Justin Trudeau wrote in ink on Earth Day in New York.

Salmon experts point to the Skeena as a long-term refuge in the face of climate change and development. It stands as an intact, healthy river fed by cold-water flows. It has strong runs of adaptable wild fish.

Once mighty systems like the Sacramento and the Columbia are shadows of their former selves. Summer fish die-offs due to low, warm-water flows are becoming more common.

The unique diversity of Skeena salmon runs is matched by its vibrant collection of salmon cultures and economies. Anglers, commercial fishers, and indigenous dipnetters, seiners, and trap fishermen work in the Skeena’s canyons and upper reaches for bright red sockeye and humpbacked pink salmon, as their ancestors have for five thousand years.

The salmon economy brings $110 million into the region annually. It’s a life-giving source of sustenance and culture for 20,000 First Nations people across the river system (40 percent of the watershed’s human population), who are working to restore cultural and economic prowess after a dark century of corrosive federal policy.

But British Columbia’s leadership is willing to risk all of that, for the lure of inflated jobs numbers and promised royalties from the gas industry. The province accelerated the project with friendly legislation last summer that exempted it and future natural gas terminals from new taxes and carbon emission constraints. Premier Christy Clark marches lockstep with the gas project developers, led by the Malaysian state oil company, Petronas. Clark and her natural resources staff and ministers have flown to Ottawa to personally lobby the Trudeau administration on the project this spring.

Development threatens salmon habitat. Credit: Tavish Campbell
Development threatens salmon habitat.
Credit: Tavish Campbell

Because of Flora Bank’s importance to Skeena people and fish and to the world, British Columbia activists are now calling out internationally for help. As Trudeau and his cabinet mull over the fate of this place, it’s time for all who care about the interconnection of wild places, wild food, and local cultures and economies to speak up. It’s time for people who care about the global climate to speak up. One very important sandbar hangs in the balance. It’s here today. Let’s not let it disappear tomorrow.

TAKE ACTION

Email the Trudeau cabinet to reject Petronas’ Pacific Northwest LNG project.

Changing Planet

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Meet the Author
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN.com and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.