Skip to main content

It has been described as the megaproject that you have likely never heard of: the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 project located in British Columbia’s Fraser River estuary. As one of the largest estuaries on the West Coast of North America, this expansive ecosystem is home to Canada’s most important salmon-rearing habitat and critical foraging grounds for endangered southern resident killer whales.

The estuary already hosts a shipping terminal 85 hectares in size with a significant ecological footprint. Now, this vital ecosystem is slated to lose an additional 112-hectare area to a second artificial island.

In approving Terminal 2, the federal government has seemingly ignored the findings of their own review process, which found the project will have lasting effects on threatened Chinook salmon and endangered southern resident killer whales. The panel report from Canada’s Impact Assessment Agency has also made clear these effects cannot be simply “offset” with habitat compensation projects as the project proponent, the Port of Vancouver, has proposed. When projects are approved after damning conclusions like these, one has to question what influence environmental assessment agencies actually hold and what role they play in these decisions?

Southern resident killer whales are a transboundary species that are federally protected both in Canada and the United States under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) and Endangered Species Act (ESA), respectively. Under SARA, destruction of legally designated critical habitat constitutes a violation of law. Terminal 2 will be built directly within the defined critical habitat of southern resident whales, and the corresponding increase in shipping, underwater noise and reduced water quality from the project are also considered activities that destroy critical habitat. These are concerns that were also raised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, citing cross-boundary threats to the recovery of southern resident killer whales.

The approval of Terminal 2 contradicts recent commitments made by the Canadian government to protect biodiversity. Just four months ago at the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Montreal, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault said to an international audience: “We are facing an unprecedented biodiversity crisis with more than one million species facing extinction globally, including 640 at-risk species in Canada.”

The decision to approve Terminal 2 is an enormous step backward when it comes to stemming the biodiversity crisis. It further reduces the Fraser estuary’s ability to support more than 100 at-risk species, including threatened Chinook salmon. The construction of the project will destroy the limited eelgrass habitat remaining to juvenile Chinook salmon, which will have consequences for salmon that are fundamental to the survival of southern resident killer whales. The federal environmental assessment found that the negative impacts from reduced prey for hungry southern resident killer whales would be “permanent in duration, irreversible, and continuous.”

The evidence is overwhelming that human-caused threats to southern resident killer whales must be lowered for the population to recover. Approving Terminal 2 does the opposite. By reducing the whales’ ability to acquire sufficient prey and impairing their communication, the project will increase their likelihood of extinction.

It is clear the Terminal 2 decision defies recommendations of Canadian and U.S. scientists, the findings of the federal environmental assessment process, the opposition of local governments and the sentiments of many residents of British Columbia and neighbouring Washington state.

In light of the growing public desire for government policy to reflect the environmental limits that face the Salish Sea region, and support the pro-active effort to recover wild salmon and southern resident killer whales, the federal government had an opportunity to pursue improved economic and ecological resilience that supports people, communities, and ecosystems. They failed.

Kristen Walters is a biologist and Lower Fraser Conservation Program Director for Raincoast Conservation Foundation. Misty MacDuffee is a biologist and Wild Salmon Program Director for Raincoast. Chris Genovali is executive director for Raincoast.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles