The National Energy Board says renewables are responsible for 66 per cent of Canadian electricity, with 60 per cent of all power n Canada coming from hydro.
A young male grizzly bear peers over his feeding grounds in the Great Bear Rainforest’s Mussel Inlet on Aug. 31, 2016. File photo by Elizabeth McSheffrey
Inside the story:
- How climate change, resource development and trophy hunting threaten salmon, whales and bears
- Which legislative loopholes leave the Great Bear Rainforest at risk
- How provincial government decisions have left B.C. wildlife in the lurch
- What kind of action is needed to preserve the province’s northwest coast
Stimo’on. Misoo. Gyne’es. Ye’ee. Uuux.
These are the names of the five species of Pacific salmon in Sm’algyax, the language of the Gitga’at First Nation on the northwest coast of British Columbia.
It’s a territory they’ve occupied for thousands of years, long before the names ‘pink,’ ‘sockeye,’ ‘chum,’ ‘chinook,’ and ‘coho,’ were conceived by scientists.
The salmon are the lifeline of the First Nation, says Gitga’at Councillor Cameron Hill. As the salmon go, they go.
“Salmon keep us connected to our language and culture,” he tells National Observer. “This whole ecosystem is our way of life. We depend on it so much that we can’t do without it.”
The Gitga’at, who live in the remote community of Hartley Bay, harvest 90 per cent of their food from the land, sea, rivers and streams. Their territory encompasses roughly 7,500 square kilometres of mainland, water and coastal islands, and is the permanent home of nearly 200 of the nation’s members.
They have watched “disheartened” and “devastated” for decades, says Hill, as the rainforest’s wildlife has been ravaged by industry, climate change, trophy hunting, and weak environmental policy.
The great natural bounty of the region, known today as the Great Bear Rainforest, has never failed them before, but for the first time in their lives, they’re worried it will.
The Gitga’at will not let the Great Bear Rainforest go down without a fight: As stewards of the territory, they will “fiercely defend and protect” their land and way of life, says Hill.
Coastal Guardian Watchmen from the Gitga’at First Nation watch over Gribbell Island, home to some of the Great Bear Rainforest’s moved beloved Spirit Bears. Photo by Elizabeth McSheffrey
The beating heart of the rainforest
The Great Bear Rainforest is the largest coastal temperate rainforest on Earth, stretching 64,000 square kilometres from the northern tip of Vancouver Island to Alaska. It’s a rare and remarkable ecosystem roughly twice the size of Belgium, whose misty fjords, glassy waters, mossy mountains and thundering waterfalls paint a landscape of overwhelming natural beauty.
For thousands of years, the rainforest has sustained indigenous populations as one of the richest and most productive ecosystems on the planet. Its spectacular circle of life includes grizzly bears, orcas, sea wolves, Sitka deer, and the elusive white Spirit Bear — a bear found nowhere else in the world.
And the heart of it all, says B.C. biologist Alexandra Morton, are the salmon.
“They are a blood stream, a power cord,” she says from her home in Echo Bay, where she has studied Pacific salmon and their habitat for more than 30 years.
“They feed everybody. If we pull them out, this coast will go dim.”
Salmon are what’s known as a ‘keystone species’ in the Great Bear Rainforest, Morton explains, a creature whose impact on an ecosystem is disproportionately large compared to its biomass.
Their carcasses are rich in nitrogen, sulfur, carbon and phosphorus, and when bears and wolves drag them through the forest, these nutrients are deposited in the soil and landscape. From there, scientists estimate they find their way into more than 190 species of the rainforest’s food chain — from moss to mink and seals to Spirit Bears.
Isotopes from salmon who return to spawn in the rainforest have even been found in its old-growth trees, says Morton. And the bigger the salmon run, the bigger the trees grow.
A Pacific salmon passes its nutrients on to the Great Bear Rainforest’s ecosystem during spawning season in August 2016. Photo by Elizabeth McSheffrey
Warming waters wearing down salmon
But Pacific salmon — even those who spawn in the far away Great Bear Rainforest — are in trouble.
According to scientists from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, exceptionally warm conditions partnered with extreme climate events like El Niño have compromised their diet by bringing smaller, less nutritious plankton into B.C. waters.
With them come migratory predators like shark and mackerel that feed on salmon — a dangerous combination of events that has resulted in lower river flows and higher water temperatures that make it difficult for the fish to spawn and survive.
That in turn, he adds, weakens the resilience, density and diversity of salmon forests like the Great Bear Rainforest. It has a particularly strong impact on the ecosystem’s vulnerable and threatened predators, including grizzly bears and northern resident killer whales, whose diet mainstay is salmon.Just south of the rainforest, a decrease in salmon stocks also threatens to obliterate their southern resident killer whale neighbours — a distinct species of orca whose population has dwindled to fewer than 90 members. The southern resident feeds almost exclusively on chinook salmon, which are declining rapidly across both the Salish Sea and Columbia River basins.
But it’s not only climate change that threatens salmon and the animals that rely on them for food — it’s liquified natural gas (LNG) projects, pipeline proposals, forestry, and fish farming as well.
As British Columbia inches closer to its provincial election on May 9, all four have been thrust into the spotlight as jobs, economy, and resource development dominate political conversations.
Can tankers tank the Great Bear’s wildlife?
BC Liberal Premier Christy Clark has vowed that the province will see its LNG heyday.
Despite low global oil prices and an increasing supply of natural gas that has depressed its value on the international market, she has campaigned in communities inside the Great Bear Rainforest, promising not to give up on LNG because “quitters can’t be leaders.”
The party did not respond to requests for comment on this story and the premier’s office declined to comment. But the B.C. Ministry of Energy Mines has touted LNG as a source of clean energy, and an “opportunity to achieve significant GHG emissions reductions” while boosting provincial jobs and revenues.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), Canada’s oil and natural gas industry advocate, declined to say whether it felt LNG or crude oil projects could be done safely in the Great Bear Rainforest or on B.C.’s northwest coast at large. Instead, it said the onus is on governments to decide whether a project is “acceptable to proceed” in an email statement to National Observer:
“Any major development must undergo a rigorous environmental assessment prior to construction… We’ve seen several projects in northern B.C. meet the environmental requirements and gain approval.”
As it stands, there are 19 LNG export proposals in various stages of development in the province, about two thirds of which include infrastructure or shipping routes that would plough through or beside the Great Bear Rainforest.
The $36-billion Pacific NorthWest LNG project, for example — already given the green light by the B.C. and federal governments — aims to build a natural gas pipeline that would cut straight through the rainforest to get to a proposed terminal on Lelu Island.
This will bring it right next door to Flora Bank, a sensitive and ancient underwater habitat in northwestern B.C. where new research indicates all five species of Pacific salmon feed and grow for weeks at a time.
According to Pacific NorthWest’s consultants, Flora Bank is a temporary stop for juvenile salmon, not a rearing site. Federal conditions placed on the project also require the company to monitor the area, and ensure that its marine terminal does not result in adverse effects on Flora Bank and its salmon. If constructed, the project is expected to generate roughly $2.5 billion in tax revenue for governments and 4,500 jobs during peak construction.
But according to whale researcher Janie Wray, LNG infrastructure — and the fracking that accompanies it — pose an enormous risk to wildlife that in many cases, cannot be mitigated. Add in the tanker traffic for its overseas shipments, she says, and it could spell catastrophe.
A humpback whale dives to the depths of a channel in the Great Bear Rainforest after surfacing for air near a tour boat. File photo by Elizabeth McSheffrey
“When these tankers go through, the wave action hitting the shoreline has got to be having an effect on the environment forage fish may be spawning in,” she explains. “There’s just so many factors to think about beyond the incidence of a spill, which is devastating no matter what.”
To reduce the risks of a disastrous oil spill in the Great Bear Rainforest, the federal government is enacting a crude oil tanker moratorium for B.C.’s north coast. But there is little legislation to protect the ecosystem from LNG tankers, whose most egregious impact may be acoustic pollution, says Wray.
Wray, stationed at Cetacea Lab in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, has been listening to the songs of humpbacks, orcas, and fin whales for more than 20 years. They return to the region annually, she says, likely because they know the waters to be safe, quiet, and full of prey.
Whales use vocalization not only to hunt and herd their food, she explains, but also to court one another, play, and navigate through the Great Bear’s dark waters. Other reasons for their melodic cries are “still a beautiful mystery,” she says, describing resident orcas as “chatty,” and humpbacks as having “a lot of culture.”
Experts agree that if tankers start roaring through this habitat, the noise disturbance would seriously disrupt whale communication, resulting in symptoms ranging from deafness to death. They would also dramatically increase the odds of a whale-vessel collision, says Wray: tankers can’t turn on a dime to avoid whales, which have a habit of surfacing unexpectedly.
And while landmark conservation agreements protect much of the terrestrial habitat in the Great Bear Rainforest, she says the lack of protection for its marine inhabitants is “embarrassing.”
Critical habitat for whales
“There’s no coastline like this on the planet,” she insists. “I think we need to seriously think about setting aside an area along the coast of B.C. that is ‘critical habitat for whales.’”
Under the federal Species at Risk Act, a critical habitat designation could help prevent large-scale industrial development that produces intense noise, contaminates or alters the habitat, as it has done for Canada’s North Atlantic right whale.
It’s especially important for the southern resident killer whale, which hunts just below the Great Bear Rainforest, as it faces a seven-fold increase in tanker traffic through its favourite feeding grounds.
The proposed Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion — whose Alberta-B.C. pipeline and crude oil tanker traffic has already been approved by governments — will almost certainly drive them into extinction, says Jason Colby, a University of Victoria professor and expert on orca-human conflict.
It’s impossible to claim you are serious about saving the species, he adds, if you also support projects that result in increased tanker traffic through their habitat.
“Those are absolutely, fundamentally, contradictory positions,” he says in an interview. “We need to ask ourselves what this place will look like, and what our identity is if we lose the southern resident killer whale.
“What will have we lost in our regional and cultural identity, along with our tourist economy?”
An issue of jurisdiction
When it comes to the matter of marine protection, says Colby, it’s important to note that the B.C. government has limited powers. Oceans fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government, which in addition to a crude oil tanker ban for the north coast, has announced a new Oceans Protection Plan to help protect whales from tanker traffic.
According to the plan, researchers will locate and track marine mammals in high tanker traffic areas and relay that information to mariners. They will identify and assess the most pressing local environmental issues, along with the effectiveness of existing mitigation measures.
This plan would be in place by the time Trans Mountain’s tankers roll through, as will the company’s own Marine Mammal Protection Program, which is due to the federal National Energy Board regulatory agency three months before the pipeline starts its operations.
None of that will change the fundamental issue facing the whales, says Colby: a massive increase in tanker traffic is bound for their hunting grounds, carrying either oil or LNG.
While it may not have jurisdiction over marine protection, the B.C. government could have commissioned more intense study not only of endangered whale populations, he argues, but the reason their favourite salmon stocks are declining as well. That would strengthen B.C.’s position in lobbying the federal government for increased protection for marine wildlife, he says, and better equip them to make decisions on the LNG projects to come.
“If you lose healthy salmon runs, you’re not just talking about lost fishing jobs, which has been happening for a long time,” he tells National Observer. “You’re talking about profound ecological change in the water sheds, rivers and forests.”
As it stands, approval of both the Trans Mountain expansion and the Pacific NorthWest LNG project has been taken to court by local First Nations, who say they threaten vital salmon runs throughout their traditional territory.
Meantime, if governments want to start protecting this keystone species — and by extension, the entire Great Bear Rainforest — salmon aficionado Alexandra Morton recommends starting with a crack down on net-pen fish farming.
Farmed salmon a danger to wild Pacific stocks
According to the BC Salmon Farmers Association, there are 109 salmon farms spread throughout the B.C. coastline. Dozens are located in the Great Bear Rainforest, raising Atlantic salmon from Campbell River to Klemtu, home of the Kitasoo/ Xai’xais First Nations.
In total, says the association, these farms occupy half a per cent of B.C.’s coastal waters and at each and every one of them, fish hygiene and safety is a top priority.
“Pen nets are cleaned regularly from top to bottom,” says the unnamed narrator of a promotional video on the association’s website. “Operators are consistently striving to improve farming practices, and underwater monitors guard against overfeeding, ensuring a lower impact on the ocean floor and a cleaner, safer habitat for the fish.”
Oversight of the industry — which generates more than $1.1 billion for the province every year — is a shared responsibility of the B.C. and federal governments. In order to keep their licenses, salmon farmers must adhere to a strict set of rules designed to protect wild salmon by minimizing their contact with farmed fish and stopping the spread of disease and bacteria.
But according to Morton, these measures are failing. While the threat of commercial fishing has largely been extinguished, she says deadly viruses have been detected in B.C.’s open-net cage farms that can make wild Pacific salmon extremely sick.
Compounded with the warming waters and ocean acidification brought on by climate change, she says net-pen farming may push some Pacific salmon runs to the breaking point.
Morton and her lawyers at Ecojustice have taken the federal government to court for allowing the transfer of farmed salmon that have not been tested for a dangerous virus into underwater pens in the wild — a practice they say is illegal under federal fishing regulations.
“The sea lice and the viruses coming from the farms are an enormous threat to them,” the biologist explains. “There is no place in the world that wild salmon and farms are thriving together. It’s like two worlds colliding.”