Comment: Give salmon a chance, don’t expand Port of Vancouver

A commentary by the executive director of Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Given the ecological challenges that Fraser River salmon, including juvenile salmon, face at this juncture, now is not the time to increase pressure on their rearing grounds in the Fraser estuary by increasing the footprint of the Terminal 2 project on Roberts Bank.

The Port of Vancouver is proposing to expand the existing terminal at Deltaport, in Tsawwassen, doubling their capacity to offload containers through the creation of an 108-hectare berth in the heart of the Fraser River delta at Roberts Bank.

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Due to the potential for impacts to federally managed species, this project has undergone an extensive environmental assessment conducted by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, which commenced when the initial project description was submitted in 2013.

A review of the environmental impact statement by Raincoast Conservation Foundation salmon biologist Dave Scott revealed the proposed expansion poses several potential problems for juvenile chinook and other salmon that prefer to use the productive eelgrass beds at Roberts Bank.

Primarily, the expansion increases the barrier to natural movement of juvenile salmon that was created by construction of the original four-kilometre-long causeway and terminal back in 1969; this was added to with the creation of three additional terminal pods in the early 1980s. The large structure now extends five kilometres from the shore, forming a physical barrier which juvenile salmon must navigate around. To do so requires swimming through deeper and saltier water to reach the eelgrass beds to the south.

The proposed expansion would force juvenile salmon to swim further out and away from their preferred habitat as they transition to the more saline conditions of the outer estuary. While the magnitude of this impact remains unknown, Raincoast salmon biologists think it likely has some level of adverse effect on juvenile chinook that choose to move south out into the Roberts Bank portion of the estuary.

Assessing the impact of the Terminal 2 expansion is hampered by the fact that there really is no data on juvenile salmon use of Roberts Bank prior to the construction of the terminal in 1969, or prior to the construction of the Tsawwassen ferry terminal in 1962. The discharge from the mouth of the Fraser River is now deflected away (into the Strait of Georgia), and so too are the sediments it carries, resulting in water which is clear, salty, and ideal for the growth of eelgrass. While this has resulted in the expansion of the eelgrass beds in the inter-causeway, it has meant the disconnection of what was once a fully connected and open estuary ecosystem. The eelgrass beds that lie between the causeways are very productive, but the question is, can juvenile salmon get there?

Raincoast has been conducting surveys in the eelgrass for the last three years. The data show the eelgrass is where we catch the most fish, and the numbers of juvenile salmon are small in comparison to the numbers we catch in other parts of the estuary not far away.

Back when the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency review started in 2015, the concern was focused almost solely around potential impacts to southern resident killer whales — both from shipping noise and the loss of chinook salmon as their primary prey.

Since 2015, the number of whales has decreased and so too has the number of chinook. In late 2018, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada released an assessment of 13 Fraser River chinook populations, showing most are threatened or endangered. Only one, the South Thompson ocean-type population, was listed as “not at-risk.”

In 2018, such low numbers of adult chinook returned to the Fraser River that Fisheries and Oceans Canada made the decision to close 2019 fisheries until August, including no salmon harvesting for the food, social and ceremonial purposes of First Nations. DFO has also begun to invest in habitat restoration projects, such as the support Raincoast received through the Coastal Restoration Fund to address physical barriers in the Fraser estuary.

Phase one of our project to create openings in the Steveston Jetty for juvenile salmon passage took place just months ago, and we are already observing its benefits.

In light of the substantial efforts being made to recover Fraser River chinook salmon and restore their habitat, why would we risk jeopardizing recovery efforts? After being involved in this process for the last four years, we hope the review panel will realize this is not the time to put further stress on the vitally important Fraser River ecosystem.

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