The proposed Pacific Northwest LNG project and related pipelines located at the mouth of the Skeena River in northern British Columbia would affect more than 40 different salmon populations harvested in at least 10 First Nation territories, according to a letter published in Science.
That is twice the number of First Nations groups that industry proponents identified as needing to be consulted about the impacts of the project, add the researchers who signed the letter.
Pacific Northwest LNG is an international consortium led by Malaysia oil giant Petronas. If approved by an ongoing federal environment assessment, its $11-billion liquefied natural gas terminal would be built on Lelu Island near Prince Rupert.
The waters surrounding the proposed project are critical for the rearing of millions of wild B.C. salmon -- an estuary that Allen Gottesfeld of the Skeena Fisheries Commission calls "the Grand Central Station for salmon."
The letter, penned by fisheries biologists, First Nations leaders from throughout the Skeena River watershed, and Simon Fraser University professor Jonathan Moore, cites research that shows "industrialized estuaries depress salmon survival."
Moore, an aquatic ecologist, explained that the purpose of the letter was to get the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) to properly consider the new data on the importance of the estuary for one of the world's great salmon watersheds.
"This little local spot supports all of these fish from all around," said Moore. As a consequence, he said, the LNG terminal could "affect populations of salmon 10 kilometres away or 400 km away in the headwaters. What happens in the 'Central Station' affects the whole transportation system for salmon."
In addition to presenting new biological data, the letter asks that government and industry acknowledge the full impacts of the project on salmon, the watershed, and aboriginal communities that depend on both.
"The Skeena Watershed is united by salmon; First Nations throughout the watershed should be involved in decisions that could damage their fisheries," says the letter.
To date, B.C.'s Environmental Assessment Office has listed five aboriginal groups among the Tsimshian First Nations as part of the consultation process.
That scope is being challenged in court by the Gitga'at, which is based 120 kilometres away from the project, because two-thirds of its members live in Prince Rupert. The Gitga'at are demanding a judicial review of the consultation process.
"Salmon don't care about boundaries. Degradation of salmon habitat can impact ecosystems and people as far as salmon can swim," explains Glen Williams, Gitanyow First Nation and one of the letter's co-authors in a press release.
Engineering report finds few impacts
The Skeena River watershed drains a mountainous landscape that serves as an enormous natural water and fish factory for a region larger than the country of Switzerland.
The river itself supports the country's second most important salmon run. Every year, hundreds of million juvenile salmon migrate through its estuary.
An earlier study by the Skeena Fisheries Commission and Simon Fraser University found that the areas proposed for development support some of the highest abundances of sockeye, Chinook and coho salmon.
The letter contrasts the findings of an engineering report recently commissioned by Pacific Northwest LNG, which found the terminal would have little to no impact on fish near Lelu Island.
The report largely looked at impacts around Lelu Island. "Based on fish and fish habitat surveys -- and fish, crab and shrimp distribution along the proposed marine terminal and trestle alignment -- there is little or no expectation that proposed project infrastructure could have population-level effects on salmonids, herring, eulachon, crab, shrimp or forage fish."
In 2014, the company informed the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency "the cumulative effects of the Project and other projects and activities are deemed to be low in magnitude, temporary (i.e., can be restored upon decommissioning), and not significant."
But the CEAA recently asked the proponent of the project for more information on the terminal's impacts.
Lax Kw'alaams 'bound' to protect fish
Salmon captured at the mouth of the Skeena include Chinook from the Morice River and sockeye smolts from as far away as Lake Babine. All sustain commercial, recreational and First Nation fisheries.
The biological importance of the estuary at the mouth of the Skeena River has been well known for decades.
Estuaries serve as staging areas and transition zones where young salmon learn how to adapt to saltwater.
In 1975, a five volume report by the Northcoast Environmental Assessment Team rejected Lelu Island as a development terminal site because any causeway across Flora Bank would disturb a critical staging area for salmon, herring and waterfowl.
Despite a vote by Lax Kw'alaams rejecting a billion-dollar deal by Pacific Northwest to approve construction due to concerns about salmon, the B.C. government signed a development agreement this summer with the company's owner, Petronas.
The Lax Kw'alaams say they are "bound by the traditional law of all Tsimshian and up-river communities to protect the fisheries resource -- including the salmon and all other species -- for future generations."
The wealth and energy of salmon in the Skeena watershed has invigorated and sustained First Nations in the region for thousands of years.
In northeastern B.C., the Fort Nelson First Nation, Prophet River First Nation and West Moberly First Nations also argue that the massive LNG project would affect their constitutionally protected rights.
That's because the project will require more Treaty 8 land to be drilled and hydraulically fractured to support the LNG project.