The Skeena River Storm

In northern British Columbia, river communities band together to fight gas export terminal, protect salmon

In today’s voracious world, it seems like any place rich in cultural and natural beauty eventually faces monumental attempts to wreck it. Think drilling for oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon, or converting Borneo into a vast palm oil plantation.

Photo of California coastPhoto by Skeena Media Wet’suwet’en leaders head to Lelu Island, where oil and gas companies want to site a massive natural gas cooling and export facility.

The sprawling, undammed Skeena River basin in northern British Columbia is no exception. But the place has more battle scars than most. Indeed, it has come to be as deeply defined by the litany of existential threats it has thrown off as it has by the vibrant, multilayered millennia-old salmon culture that thrives amidst dramatic glacially carved fjords and dripping temperate rainforests haunted by white-coated spirit bears. 

Now, the Skeena community, which has the fortune of sitting right between interior North America’s oil and gas deposits and the markets of Asia, must rise to stop what could be a death blow for its salmon: a $12 billion gas terminal built right on the most important rearing ground for young salmon along the entire 350 miles of the Skeena River. “This is a fight for all humanity,” Murray Smith, a Tsimshian elder from the lower river said recently. It’s also a chance for this place to once again demonstrate the unique humanity it has forged through struggle.

At the heart of the Skeena are its world-class salmon and the people who hunt them. Here, anglers from around the globe chase elusive steelhead, sea-run rainbow trout that grow as large as anywhere in the Pacific. A vestigial fleet of 350 settler and First Nations gillnetters works the river’s mouth, while Indigenous dipnetters, seiners and trap fishermen work in the Skeena’s canyons and upper reaches for bright red sockeye and humpbacked pink salmon, as their ancestors have for thousands of years.

All told, the salmon economy brings $110 million into the region annually, on par with the local timber industry. It’s one of most lucrative salmon systems in Canada after the might Fraser, in southern British Columbia. And it’s a life-giving source of sustenance, jobs and culture for 20,000 First Nations people across the river system (40 percent of the watershed’s human population), who are working to restore cultural and economic prowess after a dark century of corrosive federal policy. Resurgent First Nations are now gaining more political and legal clout, bolstered by a strong federal court record in recent decades in favor of aboriginal rights.

Aboriginal fishermen, their hereditary chiefs, and elected officials do bicker over who gets how many fish, especially when the salmon runs are down. Settler boat captains and recreational fishing guides pile on their own gripes.  But time and again in recent decades they have all stood shoulder to shoulder on the Skeena’s country roads, joining a network of grassroots environmental groups to confront a revolving door of ill-considered projects.

Photo of Skeena RiverPhoto by Skeena MediaFishing on the Skeena River.

They’ve kept the river wild in the face of repeated efforts to dam the headwaters. They fought successfully to keep Norwegian fish farms out of the river estuary. They battled to a stalemate against the Enbridge pipeline that would have delivered tar sands oil from Alberta to the coast while crossing 1,000 salmon streams. They stopped a planned clearcut in the largest remaining unlogged watershed on the West Coast, converting the area instead into an indigenous heritage park. And they convinced Shell to walk away from a methane reservoir in the so-called Sacred Headwaters region at the source of the Skeena, as well as the neighboring Nass and Stikine rivers. 

Skeena activist leaders and their supporters have different names for the phenomenon that forms a fiercely loyal cadre out of independent, even adversarial groups. Bruce Hill, a Haight-Ashbury hippie-turned-logger-turned-campaign strategist, calls it the “folk storm.” Ivan Thompson, a local educator who eventually oversaw funding for Skeena and other important wild salmon ecosystems for the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, calls it the watershed’s “immune response.”  

“There [are] about 50,000 people living in the Skeena watershed,” Thompson told Commonplace a few years ago,  “And the health of the Skeena system is not despite those people, it’s to some degree because of those people and because of the way they are connected to every part of that watershed.”

Now the swarm is being called together once again, to protect Flora Bank, the 1,000-acre sand bar full of eelgrass that serves as resting place and biological bottleneck for the vast majority of the Skeena’s hundreds of millions of juvenile salmon as they enter salt water. A conglomerate of Asian state oil companies, led by the Malaysian giant Petronas, wants to site a massive natural gas cooling and export facility at nearby Lelu Island and then stretch a bridge the length and width of the Golden Gate over Flora Bank, to reach a deep water shipping berth beyond. 

Recent science suggests that the Flora Bank, which has been building via a careful dance between Skeena River flow, coastal tides and wave action since the last Ice Age, will not survive this project, though the gas companies assert that it will not be harmed.

“They couldn’t have put [this project] in a worse possible place,” says Donnie Wesley, a steely-eyed commercial fisherman and hereditary chief — Yahaan is his traditional name — from one of the nine allied tribes of the lower river Lax Kw-alaams First Nation. 

Wesley hasn’t waited for the slow bureaucratic wheels of government and industry studies to determine how best to manage Flora Bank: This summer he set up an occupation camp in Lelu Island, adjacent to the sandbar, and filed for aboriginal title to the area. His lieutenants, based at a makeshift camp on the island, continue to engage in a testy daily stare-down with gas company representatives who are probing the bank with drills.

The gas parties, which paid $5 billion for gas reserves in eastern British Columbia and have plans for a pipeline to terminate nearby, are doubling down on the site, even as dozens of other similar projects have ground to a halt in BC — victims of cratered oil and gas prices. Petronas and partners are actively currying favor with lower Skeena First Nations, which by law must give consent to industrial projects on their traditional territory. Gas interests have signed at least two benefits agreements worth undisclosed amounts with First Nations, promising cash payments, access to jobs and support for cultural activities should the project be approved. In May, the gas companies’ local affiliate offered $1.15 billion to Wesley’s Lax Kw-alaams First Nation in hopes of earning its collective consent. But the members unanimously rejected the money, citing concerns for salmon.

British Columbia, for its part, accelerated the project with friendly legislation this summer that exempted it and future natural gas terminals from new taxes and carbon emission constraints. Premier Christy Clark marches lockstep with the Petronas group, having promised her province 100,000 gas jobs and then watching all but this one development evaporate with the souring market as an election looms next year. Even the Canadian federal environmental agency agreed to proceed with a review this winter, a major milestone after holding up the process three times because gas companies’ scientists could not explain how impacts to Flora Bank would be mitigated. A new Trudeau government in Ottawa has promised to scrutinize new oil and gas projects for climate impact and full First Nations consent. But in principle, the new Prime Minister supports gas development.  

Amid all the uncertainty, more than 300 of the Skeena’s defenders — this time operating under the trial moniker “Salmon Nation” — gathered in late January for a two-day summit to openly strategize on just how they would stop this terminal. Warming up the room at a hotel in Prince Rupert, the river’s major port just ten miles north of Flora Bank and Lelu Island, Wesley reasserted his defiance. “We’re not going to give up this island. If it’s jail time for myself, that’s where it’s going to be.”  

Photo of Lulu DeclarationPhoto by Skeena Media The Salmon Summit in Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Hereditary Chief Donnie Wesley holds the up the Lulu Declaration following a signing ceremony.

Dr. Jonathan Moore, of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC, then offered a clinical rebuttal of industry claims that Flora Bank was insignificant to salmon. Detailing three years of research with students and tribal scientists that was published in Science, Moore depicted a virtual Grand Central station for juveniles on the bank, where the fingerlings were 25 times more plentiful than in any other eel grass bed in the Skeena estuary. He found at least 40 distinct populations of salmon that had descended through 10 First Nations territories throughout the watershed to Flora Bank, where they spent between two weeks and two months as their gills adjusted to salt water.

The following day, dozens of hereditary First Nations leaders from up and down the Skeena signed the Lelu Island Declaration, stating that “Lelu Island, and Flora and Agnew Banks, are hereby protected for all time, as a refuge for wild salmon and marine resources, and are to be held in trust for all future generations.” The freighted signing ceremony was punctuated by the pulsating rhythm of hand drums and full-throated female chants, and the hereditary chiefs clad in signature red and black North Coast button blankets embroidered with animal crests. It moved even the veterans of Skeena environmental causes and conflicts. 

“I’m speechless,” said Haisla elder Gerald Amos, one of the summit organizers, afterwards.

BC Premier Christy Clark quickly denigrated the Lelu Island Declaration signers as the “forces of no” the next day, while speaking to press in Vancouver. 

But the Skeena salmon community recognized an emerging, defining moment. “The Premier is right about one thing, and only one thing — we are a force, a growing force, and we are a force to be reckoned with,” Des Nobels, a lower river fisherman and elected district leader, responded.  “If she thinks she can just come up here and destroy critical salmon habitat, to threaten the very basis of an economy that has shaped our culture and sustained our families for untold generations, well, of course we say ‘no’ to that.”

“What we say ‘yes’ to is to wild salmon, to real respect for Aboriginal rights and title, and to a green economy in the north that will be a model for how British Columbia can lead a global transition to a fossil-fuel-free future,” Nobels added.

Nothing, not even the billion dollar momentum of multinationals, is set in stone at the mouth of the Skeena. A legal stalemate might turn out to be the community’s only option in stopping a bull-headed commercial interest. But one endgame that has allowed companies to walk away with dignity in the past in the Skeena is a formal acknowledgement of the community’s will to put some places off limits to development. 

The state oil companies and the provincial government intent on developing over Flora Bank will need to understand local people’s remarkable attachment to the Skeena watershed and the way a protected area at the river’s mouth validates a universal value: interdependence with place.  Our job is to tell their story, again and again, until it’s truly heard.

TAKE ACTION: Support the mighty Skeena River and its salmon culture by signing the Lelu Island Declaration, in which First Nations promise to protect the river estuary for “all time.” 

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