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What Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Anniversary Has To Do With Canada's Wild Salmon

Posted: 03/23/2014 6:50 pm

Exxon Valdez

Canada's northwest coast stands alone as one of our planet's last unspoiled coastlines. Its rich assemblage of wildlife, wild rivers, and intricate landscapes makes it qualitatively different from any other place in the world.

British Columbians have increasingly come to cherish this maritime commons of waters, islands, and forests. According to an Angus Reid public opinion poll, wild salmon -- the foundation species on which this coastal bounty is built -- are as important to British Columbians as the French language is to Quebec.

With March 24 marking the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, this disaster provides a lens into considering the Enbridge Northern Gateway project and the risk it poses to wild salmon, one of our country's greatest natural assets.

A recent report by the Raincoast Conservation Foundation concluded that the consequences just to wild Pacific salmon from Enbridge's project are not a risk worth taking. The report, "Embroiled: Salmon, Tankers and the Enbridge Northern Gateway Proposal", explores the connections between the oil industry's anticipated activities on the B.C. coast and how those activities could adversely affect salmon.

The Queen Charlotte Basin, the backdrop for Enbridge's oil tanker routes, is home to more than 5,000 spawning populations of wild salmon. These fish represent 58 per cent of Canada's Pacific salmon and are the foundation of B.C.'s remarkable coastal ecology, the iconic wildlife that rely on them, and the basis for multi-million dollar economies in eco-tourism, salmon-based tourism and the salmon resource sector.

Salmon naturally have poor odds for survival. On average, only one salmon for every thousand eggs that a female lays will return to spawn. These odds have further declined in recent years due to intense human activities in salmon watersheds and in the ocean. Oil tankers and terminals present a new, added threat to salmon survival.

With a fresh oil spill, toxic vapours from the oil threaten living organisms that breathe in air and water. In contrast, other components in oil, known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are of equal, if not greater, concern. These compounds can persist in the environment for years, if not decades, and can continue to harm organisms long after the oil first spills. Even low levels of exposure to PAHs -- in parts per billion -- can have lethal and sub-lethal consequences for salmon.

The most vulnerable period for salmon to be exposed to oil is during their egg incubation in the spawning gravels. Embryos and larvae are 10 times more sensitive to oil than adult salmon because their high lipid content attracts oil. In the gravels, chum and pink salmon are at the highest risk to marine oil spills because their parents tend to spawn in the lower reaches of streams, where oil residue can reach the gravels.

Early life is the next most vulnerable period from an oil spill. When young salmon first migrate to sea, they rely on estuaries and near-shore waters for food, protection, and safe migration. These areas are usually the most heavily impacted by oil spills.

Importantly, there are threats from industrial oil activities even in the absence of large spills. Oil tankers and terminal activities bring routine small spills, dramatically altered shorelines, river water extraction, increased underwater noise, ship wakes, turbidity, and impacts to salmon food sources.

In Alaska's Port of Valdez in Prince William Sound, the rise and accumulation of PAHs in ocean sediments from small, chronic oil spills (while loading tankers), tracks perfectly the volume of oil shipped. In B.C., stressors from oil industry habitat loss and toxicity would add to cumulative affects that push salmon -- most of which are already at their lowest levels of known abundance -- beyond their ability to survive.

Enbridge has maintained there are no significant risks or consequences to salmon from their proposed Northern Gateway project. This is based on their wholly inadequate assessment of baseline conditions and project impacts, and is exacerbated by their failure to adequately consider cumulative impacts, including climate change. Consequently, the conclusions arrived by Enbridge cannot be scientifically supported in many cases.

In the absence of an adequate assessment of risk by Enbridge, (risk defined as the probability of an oil spill times the consequence of an oil spill), Raincoast performed a limited risk assessment to demonstrate the type of analysis that should have been undertaken. Our assessment found that more than 400 spawning populations of salmon lie adjacent to the confined channels of the tanker routes and that these streams contain some the highest densities of spawning salmon on the B.C. coast. These salmon streams drain into Enbridge's highest risk routes for tanker accidents.

Salmon, and the wildlife and human communities that they support, are the very soul of British Columbia and the lifeblood of our coastal ecosystem. Despite the National Energy Board's blessing that Northern Gateway should go ahead, British Columbians are clearly not willing to surrender these values and way of life to the oil industry.

This article was co-authored by Misty MacDuffee, a biologist and fisheries ecologist with Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

A version of this article previously ran in The Island Tides.

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  • In this April 4, 1989 file photo, the grounded tanker Exxon Valdez, left, unloads oil onto a smaller tanker, San Francisco, as efforts to refloat the ship continue on Prince William Sound, 25 miles from Valdez, Alaska. (AP Photo/File)

  • A dead sea otter coated with crude oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill is found on the beach of Green Island in Prince William Sound, Alaska on April 2, 1989. Nearly 19 years to the day that an Exxon oil tanker hit a reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear one of the final lawsuits left lingering from the nation's worst environmental disaster. On Wednesday, February 27, 2008, the court will hear ExxonMobil's appeal, a 14-year effort that, if successful, would overturn a $2.5 billion punitive damage award, one of the largest ever against a U.S. corporation. (Bob Hallinen/Anchorage Daily News/MCT)

  • Thick crude oil washed up on the cobble beach of Evans Island sticks to the boots and pants of a local fisherman in Prince William Sound, Alaska, on April 11, 1989. The Exxon Valdez tanker oil spill on March 24, 1989, blackened hundreds of miles of coastline. There's not many fishermen in Cordova planning to note the 20th anniversary of the spill on March 24, 2009. "It's hard to keep dwelling on this thing that has caused so much pain in this community," said executive director Cordova District Fishermen Rochelle van den Broek. "The term anniversary kind of offends a lot of fishermen. The term implies celebration and there's nothing to celebrate." (John Gaps III/AP)

  • Spill workers, one wearing a respirator, hose beach during Corexit application test (wide shot) - Quayle Beach, Smith lsland (Prince William Sound). (Photo courtesy of <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/arlis-reference/4907901757/" target="_blank">Alaska Resources Library & Information Services</a>)

  • This ship's barges and tug head to the worst of oil spill in Alaska's history in Prince William Sound to clean up the oil on the surface of the water, March 25, 1989 in Valdez. The oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled 270,000 barrels of crude oil. This is the worst oil disaster in Alaska's history. (Rob Stapleton/AP)

  • VALDEZ, UNITED STATES: An oil cleanup worker walks through the oily surf at Naked Island on Prince Williams Sound 02 April 1989 as beach cleanup goes on in background, a week after the beginning of an oil disaster which occurred when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground 24 March 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound off Alaska, near Oil Pipeline tanker terminal in Valdez Harbor.

  • Three tugboats (R) push the oil tanker Exxon San Francisco (C) into place beside the crippled tanker Exxon Valdez (L) in Prince William Sound 30 March 1989 to begin off-loading the remainder of crude oil in Valdez, a week after the beginning of an oil disaster which occurred when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground 24 March 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound off Alaska.

  • A sea otter pup covered in crude oil at the Homer, Alaska Center after the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster March 30, 1989. (Ken Graham/<a href="http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/en/" target="_blank">Greenpeace</a>)

  • A clean-up worker uses high pressure, high temperature water to wash crude oil off the rocky shore of Block Island, Sunday, April 17, 1989. It was part of a demonstration of different techniques of beach cleaning, to be used against the oil left over by the spill of the tanker Exxon Valdez. (John Gaps III/AP)

  • Oily rocks glisten in the sun - Green lsland (Prince William Sound). This section of beach was signed off as being environmentally stable by both Exxon and the Coast Guard, was re-oiled July 4, 1989. (Photo courtesy of <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/arlis-reference/4750613516/" target="_blank">Alaska Resources Library & Information Services</a>)

  • This Red Necked Greb is covered in oil resulting from a spill on Friday, March 24, 1989, when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound about 25 miles from Valdez, Alaska. This bird found Thursday, March 30, 1989, on Knights Island, about 35 miles from the spill, was taken by photographers to the bird cleanup center in Valdez. (AP)

  • Fishermen Greg Will (L) and Matt Kinney, both of Valdez, stand in protest outside an Exxon news conference room which was closed to local residents, 02 April 1989 in Valdez, more a week after the beginning of an oil disaster which occurred when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground 24 March 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound off Alaska.

  • Members of the Oil Spill Task Force during tour of facility, surrounded by large pile of oily waste - Dayville Incineration Site, Valdez July 4, 1989. (Photo courtesy of <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/arlis-reference/4911271277/in/photolist-8tZxQZ-8vDq64-8zyzLx-8zyzo8-8zBJ1L-8zyzft-8zDakf-8zyzU4-8zyzva-8zDaaJ-8zDawq-8vGH9J-8vGH23-8vGHgd-8By2cE-8By2mU-8By2xE-8x6zCd-8x6ymf-8x6zhQ-8x3ydr-8x3yQX-8x25cB-8x54X3-8x4RnW-8x1RYV-8x1RKt-8x4S6o-8BxPCk-8Byyr6-8Byewt-8ByywD-8vDFDr-8vGGQu-8zQmbB-8zSfq7-8zSeZG-8zP89T-8zF4bo-8zSeSq-8zSfeY-8zBVsB-8zF4o9-8zSf8d-8zBVNH-8zBVBe-8zTtdu-8zQmpX-8zTtHW-8zRNuB-8zU23S/" target="_blank">Alaska Resources Library & Information Services</a>)

  • A pod of sea lions swim through a slick of crude oil off the shore of Ingot Island, Alaska, Thursday afternoon, April 14, 1989, three weeks after the oil tanker Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef, March 24, and spilled nearly 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. (John Gaps III/AP)

  • Sea lions sun themselves on oil polluted rock formation 02 April 1989 in Prince Williams Sound near Valdez more than a week after the beginning of an oil disaster which occurred when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground 24 March 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound off Alaska.

  • VALDEZ, UNITED STATES: An oil skimming operation works in a heavy oil slick near Latouche Island in the southwest end of Prince William Sound 01 April 1989 in Valdez, Alaska, one week after the beginning of an oil disaster which occurred when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground 24 March 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound.

  • A heavily oiled loon found dead in Kenai Fjords, Alaska after the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster March 30, 1989. (Ken Graham/<a href="http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/en/" target="_blank">Greenpeace</a>)

  • Two staffers with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation are pictured patrolling the beach, May 1, 1989, in Anchorage, picking up oil-coated birds before they become toxic treats for predators. Steve Eng, left, and Max Schwenne were photographed on East Amatuli Island in the Barren Island group in the Lower Cook Inlet. That's about 225 miles from where the Exxon Valdez ran aground March 24, generating the nation's worst oil spill. (Marion Stirrup/AP)

  • (Photo courtesy of <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/arlis-reference/5012705055/" target="_blank">Alaska Resources Library & Information Services</a>)

  • U.S. petroleum giant Exxon Corporation shipping President Frank Iarossi comments the cleanup operation 02 April 1989 in Valdez, a week after the beginning of an oil disaster which occurred when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground 24 March 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into the waters of Prince William Sound off Alaska, near Oil Pipeline tanker terminal in Valdez Harbor.

  • This March 26, 1989 file photo shows the Exxon Baton Rouge (smaller ship) attempting to off load crude oil from the Exxon Valdez after it ran aground in the Prince William sound, spilling more than 270,000 barrels of crude oil. (AP Photo/Rob Stapleton, File)

  • In this June 23, 1989 file photo, the Exxon Valdez is towed out of Prince William Sound in Alaska by a tug boat and a U.S. Coast Guard Cutter. (AP Photo/Al Grillo, File)

  • VALDEZ, UNITED STATES: One baby and five adults oil-soaked sea otters lie dead on Green Island beach 03 April 1989 on Prince Williams Sound near Valdez more than a week after the beginning of an oil disaster which occurred when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground 24 March 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound off Alaska.

  • In this April 9, 1989 file photo, crude oil from the tanker Exxon Valdez, top, swirls on the surface of Alaska's Prince William Sound near Naked Island. (AP Photo/John Gaps III, File)

  • VALDEZ, UNITED STATES: Cleanup workers scrub large rocks on the oil-covered beach of Naked Island on Prince Williams Sound 02 April 1989 as beach cleanup goes on, a week after the beginning of an oil disaster which occurred when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground 24 March 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound off Alaska, near Oil Pipeline tanker terminal in Valdez Harbor.

  • VALDEZ, UNITED STATES: A sea otter, nicknamed 'Belle' by mammal rescue center volunteers, peers over towels while being dryed 31 March 1989 in Valdez, after being cleaned of oil, a week after the beginning of an oil disaster which occurred when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground 24 March 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound off Alaska.

  • A pylon marks the location of the Exxon Valdez shipwreck on Bligh Reef on April 6, 2004 near Valdez, Alaska. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

  • In this June 30, 2012 file photo, the Exxon Valdez is anchored some six nautical miles off the Bhavnagar coast near Alang ship-breaking yard in western Indian state of Gujarat, India. India's Supreme Court has allowed the Exxon Valdez, the oil tanker involved in one of the worst U.S. oil spills, to be dismantled in western Gujarat state. (AP Photo/File)

 

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