First Nations battling the prospect of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) facilities on ecologically fragile Lelu Island got a boost from a group of Russian scientists last week who have seen what LNG can do: decimate salmon stocks.
“You either have LNG or salmon, you can’t have both,” Alexander Vedenev from the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology said during a visit in Smithers, B.C. Speaking to hundreds of people in Northwest British Columbia last week, Russian scientists from the Sakhalin Island in eastern Russia, where two gas facilities have been operating since 2009, were clear about the realities of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) development.
The group of scientists and conservationists have been touring aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities across the province, telling their story about the damaging impact the Sakhalin II LNG project has had on what used to be one of the world’s largest and most productive pink salmon runs on Sakhalin Island.
“Sakhalin Island and Lelu Island have two things in common—wild salmon and LNG,” said Director of Sakhalin Environment Watch Dimitry Lisitsyn after visiting the proposed site for Malaysian-owned company Petronas’s Northwest Pacific LNG facility on Lelu Island and Flora Bank. “We have a chance to help the people of the Skeena watershed protect one of the most famous and rich wild salmon sanctuaries in the world. With the dramatic decline of our wild salmon, I really hope this will not be replicated in the Skeena estuary.”
The Russian delegation held a joint press conference with the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, reiterating their support for the recently signed Lelu Island Declaration, and denounced Premier Christy Clark’s comments referring to opponents of the PNW LNG project as “a ragtag group of people.”
“It remains the position of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs that any large-scale development proposal such as the PNW LNG facility on Lelu Island must carefully consider the science,” Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said. “Must consider the immediate, mid-term and long-term impacts to fish, and must recognize and respect aboriginal title, rights and the future of our children and grandchildren.”
In 2009, the last pink salmon harvest before LNG tankers started to make their way across salmon migration routes in Aniva Bay, fisheries netted more than 60,000 metric tons of pink salmon. After a year of LNG operation that number fell to approximately 10,000 metric tons and has never recovered.
An independent scientific review conducted by Simon Fraser University researcher Jonathan Moore found that 25 times more juvenile salmon fry remain in the eel grass areas of Flora Bank than anywhere else in the Skeena Estuary. More than 200 million juvenile salmon exit the Skeena River each year, making it one of the most productive salmon runs on the Pacific coast.
During their presentation in Smithers, Russian group unanimously agreed that Lelu Island and Flora Bank is the worst place to build an LNG export terminal, noting that the damage to salmon stocks would be “catastrophic” and far worse than what they’ve witnessed in Aniva Bay.
Last week the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agencies released a draft report of the PNW LNG project, which has drawn criticism from many northern residents, environmental organizations and scientists for dismissing and understating the impacts the project could have on Skeena salmon. The $11 billion project is currently in the final stages of its environmental assessment and is awaiting approval from federal Environment and Climate Change Minister, Catherin McKenna.
However, the overwhelming opposition toward the project and public outcry to reconsider the potential impacts on wild salmon, coupled with the warning from Russian experts with firsthand experience, may be the catalysts needed to keep LNG off Lelu Island. At the press conference on the last day of their tour, Aleksandr Shubin, a salmon ecologist with the Sakhalin Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography, pointed out that the differences between the Russian LNG project put Skeena salmon at even more risk.
“The Sakhalin LNG site is 30 kilometers (20 miles) away from the closest major salmon river,” he said, “while the PNW LNG site is located right on top of the most critical salmon habitat in the Skeena Estuary—the impacts will be much greater here in the Skeena.”