Tsawout First Nation councillor John Paul Etzel stood up and posed a central question for hundreds of people gathered this week to preserve the future health and prosperity of the Salish Sea.
At what cost do we pursue economic growth when faced with the anticipated surge in oil tanker and shipping traffic when the Trans Mountain pipeline and Roberts Bank terminal expansion projects come online?
The numbers around how much vessel traffic will increase vary, said Etzel, but his nation on southeastern Vancouver Island is already feeling ecological and cultural impacts from shipping right now.
Despite steep declines in salmon populations, Tsawout fishers still rely on their territorial waters to provide food, but pollution from nearby marine corridors is affecting harvesting grounds.
“All you can see is black soot that comes up with our traps and that’s just one little corner of a [shipping] corridor,” Etzel said, speaking at an event at the Salish Sea Symposium hosted by Transport Canada in Vancouver this week.
Collective action is urgent to preserve the ecologically sensitive and rich inland sea that stretches the border from Olympia, Wash., north to Campbell River in B.C., he stressed.
“I’m all for economic growth … but we need to be proactive instead of reactive when it comes to … marine shipping through our territories,” he said.
“If we don’t protect the waters before there’s a big economic explosion, what are we going to live on when there is no more salmon and when there is no more shellfish? When marine life is decimated from the pollution from all the vessels?
“Can we eat economic growth? I don’t think so.”
Oil tanker traffic in the Salish Sea from Trans Mountain’s Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby is expected to spike when the delayed and over-budget pipeline — set to nearly triple the flow of crude oil from Alberta to the West Coast — is complete in the first financial quarter of this year.
A federal review determined the Roberts Banks terminal project would destroy habitat in the Salish Sea for endangered southern resident killer whales and the chinook salmon they rely on, as well as increase underwater noise pollution and the threat of vessel strikes on whales.
However, greenlit by the federal government in April, the Roberts Bank expansion will double the capacity of the Port of Vancouver and the Westshore facility (near Delta, B.C.), extending it further into the Fraser River estuary at Roberts Bank by the middle of the next decade.
The expansion is necessary to guarantee supply chains and alleviate bottlenecks at the Canada Pacific Gateway, the country’s largest trade corridor worth $275 billion annually, the port authority said.
The project will provide economic benefits including approximately 18,000 construction jobs and an estimated $3 billion in annual GDP once complete, according to the port, which also cites collaboration with Indigenous groups to develop key environmental mitigation initiatives.
T’Sou-ke First Nation Chief Gordon Planes, a panel member at the symposium, acknowledged Etzel’s question was a difficult one, especially given the region’s economic dependence on shipping.
“These are hard questions,” Planes said
“It does make people uncomfortable, but it should make us all feel uncomfortable.”
It is critical to collect information on the impacts and use it collectively to devise strategies for action, he said.
There’s the need to widen the scope of protecting the Salish Sea by paying attention to the degradation of watersheds on land due to industries like forestry or mining.
In addition, the scale of investment needed to protect the length of the Salish Sea has to be in the billions rather than millions, Planes said, also questioning if shipping should remain “free” given the impacts on the marine ecosystem and the costs to protect or restore it.
“There should be a toll coming across the straits for ships coming in,” Planes said.
“Seriously. I think of the billions of dollars going by our front door every day to invest in the environment to ensure that [shipping] has that highway.”
The baseline for success when talking about restoring nature like salmon populations must reflect the knowledge of abundance passed down by his elders and what he experienced during his own youth, Planes said.
“I’m able to pass [those stories] down to my grandchildren because they won’t see that,” he said.
“It’s really important not to forget what it used to look like.
“Maybe we can bring salmon back to where they were so our grandchildren can tell those stories.”
— With files from Natasha Bulowski / Canada’s National Observer