Wild Salmon, Pipelines and the Trans Mountain Expansion

Given the year-round presence of salmon in the Lower Fraser and the potential consequences of exposure to diluted bitumen, there is no time when the risk to salmon is low or acceptable.

A quiet sunny day on the The Fraser River.

Photo by April Bencze.

As the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population continues to struggle from the combined forces of noise, pollution and food (i.e. Chinook) availability, Raincoast Conservation Foundation has released a report that highlights the risks posed to wild salmon in the Lower Fraser River from an expanded Trans Mountain pipeline.

The report, “Wild Salmon, Pipelines and the Trans Mountain Expansion,” details the year-round presence of different salmon species, the river’s unique features, the nature of diluted bitumen, and the failures of Trans Mountain’s environmental assessment, as well as the inadequacy of the National Energy Board (NEB) review.

Raincoast submitted the essence of the report as a component of the expert scientific evidence we presented as intervenors in the NEB review of the Trans Mountain pipeline. We still have a legal challenge before the courts on the approval of the project; this Thursday the Federal Court of Appeal will release its decision on our case.

In 2013, Kinder Morgan applied to the NEB to expand their existing oil pipeline. The proposed expansion, which would run for 1,150 kilometres from central Alberta to Burnaby, B.C., requires construction of approximately 994 kilometres of new pipeline across more than 500 watercourses, roughly half of which support habitat for recreational, economic and culturally important fish species. Tripling oil capacity from 300,000 barrels to 890,000 barrels per day, the new pipeline would cross roughly 250 streams and rivers that support spawning salmon in the Fraser River watershed. The increased capacity would also necessitate a dramatic increase in the number of oil tankers transiting the waters of the Salish Sea.

We know that the simple straight channel, assumed by Trans Mountain in their spill modelling, does not exist.  Tweet This!

Despite declines, the Fraser River still remains one of the world’s greatest salmon rivers. It supports dozens of unique populations of Pacific salmon including interior and coastal populations of steelhead and trout. Overall, the Fraser River and its tributaries are home to 42 different species of fish. However, many of these species and populations now face a crisis due to decades of habitat loss, overfishing, and more recently, climate change.

Given the year-round presence of salmon in the Lower Fraser and the potential consequences of exposure to diluted bitumen, there is no time when the risk to salmon is low or acceptable. Whether as embryos, juveniles or adults, salmon are present in the Lower Fraser River every month of the year, using the river and its estuary for migration, rearing, and spawning. With nine species of salmon and trout spawning in the tributaries of the Lower Fraser River and using the main channels and sloughs to rear, a spill of diluted bitumen into the river or its tributaries would be catastrophic, rendering many of these areas unsuitable for the growth and survival of salmon embryos and fry.

Raincoast’s report highlights how the Fraser River’s man-made features like log booms, kilometers of riprap, armoured shorelines, and developments provide many opportunities for spilled oil, especially diluted bitumen, to be stranded along shorelines. Once on these shores, it will be extremely challenging, if not impossible, to recover that oil.

We know that Trans Mountain did not address the possibility of submerged and/or sunken oil in their modelling or spill response plans, despite the river’s high sediment load.  Tweet This!

These features, and the Lower Fraser River itself, are increasingly familiar to us as we finish a third year of juvenile salmon research in the Lower Fraser and continue to examine the broader potential for habitat restoration. We know that the simple straight channel, assumed by Trans Mountain in their spill modelling, does not exist, and Trans Mountain did not address the possibility of submerged and/or sunken oil in their modelling or spill response plans, despite the river’s high sediment load.

Raincoast’s Lower Fraser salmon conservation program, including our research into the distribution of juvenile salmon in the Fraser estuary, and our Fraser estuary connectivity project, were initiated precisely because of the estuaries’ ecological importance. Unfortunately, many juvenile salmon species are particularly vulnerable to oil spills in the Fraser estuary, and other estuaries in the Salish Sea, as they rely on its sheltered habitats for extended periods when young. It may be impossible for them to avoid spilled oil as they adapt to life in salt water.

This report comes at a time when one-third of the wild salmon populations in the Fraser River are considered at risk of extinction. Given this reality, a precautionary approach indicates that there is no time when the risk to salmon from exposure to spilled oil is low.

The status of Fraser wild salmon is a clear indication that economic, social and environmental considerations are not in balance. If the federal government does indeed build the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, it must do so knowing this decision clearly jeopardizes Canada’s premier salmon river and a fish considered the lifeblood of British Columbia.

The Lower Fraser River, its salmon and all the species of this neglected ecosystem deserve better.

New report: Wild Salmon, Pipelines, and the Trans Mountain Expansion

Misty MacDuffee and Dave Scott are biologists with Raincoast Conservation Foundation’s wild salmon program. Chris Genovali is Raincoast’s executive director.

A version of this article was originally published in the Vancouver Sun on August 18, 2018.

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