BC needs to stand up to the federal government on salmon issues

Will the province stand by as the federal government permits the destruction of vital salmon habitat in BC?

While approved by the Canadian federal government, the contentious Roberts Bank Terminal 2 expansion project still requires a green light from the province of BC, which recently announced a 30-day public comment period for its set of conditions to be presented to the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority. 

Buried beneath layers of policy-speak and technical jargon, the province’s Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) lays out a lukewarm set of binding conditions for the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, of which most can be summarized with the following statement: you must plan to make a plan.

The province has stated that “wild salmon are crucial to the success of our economy, the prosperity of coastal communities, and the lives, culture, and history of indigenous peoples.” It is perplexing then, that missing from the EAO’s 17 conditions are any mention of requirements to protect, monitor, or otherwise think twice about the impacts the project will have on the Fraser River estuary, one of the most important salmon nurseries on the Pacific coast.

While Pacific salmon species are technically under federal jurisdiction, the provincial government has responsibility over salmon habitat and aquatic habitat more broadly, under the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy and the newly established Ministry of Water, Land, and Resource Stewardship. The province can no longer defer to the federal government on issues impacting species in BC, and needs to do more than just the bare minimum to ensure that salmon and their habitat are protected. For example, the province could have included in its set of conditions a requirement to ensure that multiple causeway breaches be constructed as a method to reconnect estuary habitat alienated by the project.    

On top of this, British Columbians are expected to trust a rigorous environmental review process that has been muddied by a premier who can’t seem to say enough positive things about Terminal 2. Speaking to the Delta Optimist, Premier David Eby overlooked the clear ecological concerns raised by numerous scientists, the Canadian Impact Assessment Agency, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Lummi Nation, and multiple conservation groups, by proclaiming that there is no conflict between economic development like Terminal 2 and environmental protection, and that the province has “proved that that’s a false choice.” 

But where is that proof? The province, through successive governments, has a dubious track record when it comes to managing the ecological impacts of megaprojects. These impacts have perpetuated habitat loss for threatened and endangered wildlife, including species of salmon, caribou, and owls. A case in point is the Site C Dam, which was originally approved based on uncertain projections of future demand in energy. It has now failed on both financial and environmental grounds; it will destroy large swathes of habitat for at-risk species while costing taxpayers $16 billion and counting.

The Fraser River has more than over 50 unique and irreplaceable salmon populations. Nearly two-thirds of them have been assessed as threatened or endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Habitat loss, and the government decisions that drive it, are a significant factor in the decline of BC’s wild salmon populations and the biodiversity crisis unfolding in BC. 

Our communities deserve to be fully informed about the risks Terminal 2 poses, to be given adequate time to comment, and to be confident that their submissions will be considered in an unbiased provincial decision-making process regardless of the premier’s opinion. 

British Columbia now has a choice. The provincial government can either stand up in its responsibility to protect the irreplaceable ecosystem of the Fraser estuary or it can continue to stand by and watch its decline.

A version of this was published in The Province.

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Research scientist, Adam Warner conducting genetics research in our genetics lab.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.