The Skeena

🕔Dec 04, 2006

“This is the only place I can think of where we have a major watershed totally intact,” says Steelhead Society of British Columbia vice-president Poul Bech, just moments after standing up for the Skeena River as “the last of the best steelhead streams” at a public hearing on fish farms in the area.

“It really is the last—and not just in BC, but on the planet,” he says.

Bech has left his home in Langley, BC for a month of every year for the last decade—around the time the Lower Mainland’s own steelhead stocks started to decline—to drop a line in the Bulkley Valley’s pristine waters. He says he’s concerned about recent development proposals that could change the face of the watershed.

“It’s clearly important,” he says about his favourite pastime. “There are people who devote their lives to it.”

Apart from an unexplainable force that draws anglers from around the world to the Skeena, there are more tangible benefits to this watershed that starts in Northern BC’s Spatsizi Plateau, an area known to First Nations as the Sacred Headwaters, flowing 570 kilometres to its mouth at the Pacific Ocean. For thousands of years, First Nations have made their homes along the river’s banks, most often at convergences where fish are plentiful and river travel feasible.

According to a recent IBM report commissioned by the Friends of Wild Salmon, the Skeena’s wild salmon stocks generate close to $110 million annually in direct revenue. It is the second largest watershed located entirely within BC’s boundaries, and one of the world’s longest un-dammed rivers, hosting up to five million spawning salmon each year.

But the Skeena is also rich in mineral resources. As the price of metals and oil climbs, extracting resources previously thought to be unprofitable or inaccessible has become more economically viable, creating a flurry of exploration activity within the watershed’s 54,400-square-kilometre area.

As the Skeena’s diverse community strives to educate itself in the face of increasing development proposals for the North—filling social calendars with public forums and information sessions—it seems impossible to find statistics on how the cumulative effects of numerous projects could affect the watershed as a whole. But many fear that it could add up to disaster for the Skeena—Northern BC’s greatest resource.


With Enbridge proposing two pipelines, Pembina Pipelines a third and PNG an additional gas pipeline for Wet’suwet’en territory, natural resources manager David deWit likens current oil and gas development in the North to a “fox in the henhouse” scenario.

The pipelines would carry natural gas, crude oil and condensate from the Alberta oil sands to Kitimat, via Prince George and Burns Lake, along the north side of Francois Lake and the south side of the Morice River to the upper Kitimat River.

Crossing a prime sockeye salmon spawning area at the headwaters of the Morice River, which drains into the Bulkley and then the Skeena rivers, deWit fears that a major spill could wipe out an entire salmon lifecycle.

“It seems like the Oil and Gas Commission is knocking on our door and they’re just going to be another player in our territory that is fragmenting our landscape and taking away the land-base for our future,” he says. “All this proposed activity is on the table, but we don’t have a good handle on managing our fisheries or our water resources.”

The proposed pipelines would run 1,150 kilometres and one of the four has the capacity to carry more than 400,000 barrels of oil every day to the Pacific, according to Enbridge’s website.

“This really has to open up to a more global approach to managing fisheries resources,” says deWit.


Mining isn’t new to the upper Skeena watershed, but the fervor with which it is being pursued certainly is.

“It’s crazy,” Iskut band chief Rhoda Quock says, responding to the overwhelming proposals for mineral extraction in the Sacred Headwaters area, source of the Skeena, Stikine and Nass rivers. “It’s unbelievable the amount of mining industry coming in.”

Vancouver-based bcMetals recently won a court injunction against native protesters, allowing heavy machinery to plow through a trout spawning stream south of Dease Lake where the company is exploring for a possible gold and copper mine.

“Sure, we can say let’s go for the money now, but in 30 or 40 years, when it’s a boom and bust, what are the kids going to have?” Quock says about a culture that still lives primarily off the land. “No amount of money will get us to sell Klappan. It’s just not for sale.”

Also underway within the watershed is a feasibility study for a mine near Babine Lake, just north of the Bell and Granisle copper mines, undertaken by Vancouver-based Pacific Booker Minerals Inc. If it goes ahead, the open-pit gold and copper mine would have an ore production rate of 25,000 tonnes per day in an important sockeye spawning region.
Skeena Fisheries Commission head scientist Allen Gottesfeld sums it up simply: “That’s a place you’d better be careful about screwing up,” he says.

Coalbed methane

The Tahltan Nation is just happy to have had Shell Canada pull out of the Sacred Headwaters region—it doesn’t even want the company back to do reclamation work. But it’s unlikely that issues surrounding coalbed methane extraction are going entirely disappear anytime soon.

At a recent forum to educate Bulkley Valley residents about potential CBM drilling in the Telkwa area, it seemed clear that there is still much to be learned about this relatively new practice of extracting methane gas from buried coal seams. That, coupled with what Citizens Concerned about Coalbed Methane describes as a bad track record for CBM extraction in other areas, has residents leery about the process.

If it goes ahead, the Telkwa CBM project would be a first in British Columbia, after similar proposals were shut out of other communities around the province. Unlike the mining industry, oil and gas companies aren’t required to complete an environmental impact assessment before tenure is granted for CBM exploration.

Concerns about going ahead with a project in the Telkwa area are mostly based around potential pollution of groundwater, harm to fish stocks, landscape impacts, landowners’ rights, and disposal of wastewater produced when drilling.

Fish farming

Many are wondering why the province would even consider jeopardizing a booming industry based on wild salmon by allowing fish farms in the mouth of the Skeena.

Two out of 18 possible sites have already gained approval, but lapsed while the province grapples with public reaction as a third remains on the table. Recent months have seen a government aquaculture committee touring Northern BC to gather public response to the proposals.

“It’s foolish to think about putting a farm there,” Skeena Fisheries Commission head scientist Alan Gottesfeld says about the currently debated Strout’s Point location, a major migration path for salmon destined for Babine Lake. “It would be prudent to avoid putting salmon farms in a place that is the travelling corridor for nearly a billion juvenile salmon.”

Conservationists warn that sea lice, along with the unknowns of colonizing a foreign species, could negatively affect wild salmon stocks, just as they have in areas surrounding fish farms further south in BC, and in Europe.

“We’re seriously concerned about potential impacts of fish-farming in the Skeena,” Friends of Wild Salmon co-ordinator Pat Moss says.

“Suppose all these things were to go ahead,” she muses. “Coalbed methane, mining, pipelines and fish farms: What chance would the fish have?”