The content of this Situation Report was written by:
- Charmaine White, Food and Agriculture Institute, University of the Fraser Valley
- Robert Newell, Royal Roads University & Food and Agriculture Institute, University of the Fraser Valley
The Skeena Watershed is one of the last remaining intact watersheds in North America and among the most biologically diverse and productive places in Canada (SkeenaWild Conservation Trust [SWCT], 2020). The watershed encompasses an area of over 54,000 km² (Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition [SWCC], n.d.), and it is home to more than 60,000 residents (SWCT, 2020). The area is abundant in natural resources, and thus, it is of significant interest to resource extraction industries, with currently over $100 billion in proposed industrial projects (SWCT, 2020). First Nations peoples have occupied this territory for millenia and have maintained a rich culture, deeply connected to their ancestral land and the salmon once abundant in the watershed. Indigenous people and communities continue to be active stewards of the land and water in the Skeena that support the local salmon populations and ecosystems, and this has become increasingly challenging in the face of resource exploitation pressures and climate change (Vovo Productions, 2021).
The Skeena Watershed is situated on the traditional territory of many Indigenous communities. These include the Gitxsan, Tsimshian, Wet’suwet’en, Gitanyow, Tāłtān Konelīne (Tahltan), Talka, Nisga’a, Dene, Stk’emlupsemc Te Secwepemc, Gitxaała, Kitselas, and the Yekooche First Nations, as well as the Tlingit People, Lax Kw’alaams Band, and the Kitsumkalum Band (Native Land, 2021). The watershed is located in the northwest of what became known as British Columbia (BC), post-contact with European settlers. The Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan Peoples have never surrendered their land or had their title extinguished through treaties, and it remains largely unceded territory (Wood, 2021a).
Indigenous communities have lived in the Skeena since time immemorial, and the land is deeply tied to their culture. Salmon are foundational in the way of life of many First Nations communities in the Skeena, holding a key role in ceremony and traditional practices of conservation and ensuring ecological sustainability for future generations (Skeena Watershed Initiative [SWI], n.d.; Gitxsan Media, 2021). Pre-contact with European settlers, the Gitxsan occupied a territory of 33,000 km² in the Skeena area, and they had a thriving economy and society that involved using rivers as trade routes and subsisting off the land throughout all seasons (Gitxan Huwilp Government, 2021; Gitxsan Media, 2021). When European settlers arrived and imposed their system of government, laws were implemented that displaced the Gitxsan and other Indigenous communities by forcing them into government-created reserves, thereby separating them from their traditional foods and medicine (Gitxsan Media, 2021). Those who did not comply with the new European government system were imprisoned or killed (Gitxsan Media, 2021). Children were removed and detrimentally separated from their families, language, and their land to residential schools far from their homes (Gitxsan Media, 2021).
The Skeena River begins at the Sacred Headwaters (also known as the Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Provincial Park), which is an alpine basin in northern BC where the Skeena, Nass, and Stikine begin. The river flows south between the Skeena Mountains, through the city of Terrace, and turns westward to eventually meet its freshwater with the Pacific Ocean at Eleanor Passage (SWCC, n.d.). The Skeena River and its tributaries drain a total landmass of over 54,000 km² (SWCC, n.d.), which covers seven geographically-diverse biogeoclimatic zones, ranging from glacier-capped mountains and lush coastal temperate rainforest to dry interior boreal forest supporting a large diversity of habitats.
The Skeena Watershed is fed with approximately 1393 mm of precipitation a year, with most of this occurring during the fall season (Sharpe, et al., 2021). Glaciers also serve an important role in the hydrology of the area. Glaciers and icecaps in the Stikine, Skeena, and Babine ranges in the northern interior comprise 540 km² of the total 22,000 km² glacier and ice cap surface area in the Coast Mountains of BC (Moore, et al., 2009). These glaciers function as freshwater sources during spring snowmelt, contributing to water availability in the summer and early autumn (Sharpe, et al., 2021) and influencing streamflow, water quality and water temperatures (Moore, et al., 2009).
The Skeena Watershed provides habitat for grizzly bears, wolves, eagles, otters, and other wildlife, including numerous species of fish, such as five species of salmon (chinook, chum, coho, pink, and sockeye) and steelhead trout (Skeena Watershed Initiative [SWI], n.d.). The Skeena is the second most significant salmon-producing watershed, with the largest being the Fraser Watershed (Pacific Salmon Foundation [PSF], 2015; Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition [SWCC], n.d.). Wild salmon are a significant part of the food web and ecosystem in the Skeena, and are integral to cultural activities and as a wild food source for First Nations communities (Shanley, et al., 2015). These species are also economically important, contributing over $110 million annually to the region’s economy, through commercial, Indigenous, and spot fisheries (Sharpe, et al., 2021).
Potential and Existing Disruptions to Regional Water Security
Resource development in the Skeena poses one of the greatest risks to the health of the watershed and the species and ecosystems it supports. Mineral exploration activity has increased in the Northwest Region of BC for a fourth consecutive year, and many new potential resource developments are targeting precious metals, such as gold (Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation, 2021). Gold prices are historically high, being a safe-haven commodity spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it reached record levels in 2020 (Government of Canada, 2022). As the price of gold remains at these levels, there will continue to be a strong drive towards development and expansion of mining in the Skeena and greater Northwest Region of BC.
A report released in 2021, Defusing British Columbia’s Ticking Timebombs, provides examples of the environmental risk and impacts associated with BC’s mega mines, and how they can lead to transboundary watersheds that strain cross-border relationships (Salmon Beyond Borders [SBB], 2021). For example, the Brucejack gold and silver mine in the Unuk Watershed bordering the Skeena is 53 km upstream from the Alaska-B.C. border, and over its lifespan (2017-2030), it will produce 3.48 million tons of waste rock with the potential to leech arsenic, antimony, silver and cadmium; the mine has plans to dump some of the waste rock into nearby Brucejack Lake when it closes (SBB, 2021). Long term exposure to contaminants present health risks; for example, arsenic causes birth defects in fish andincreases the risks of cancer and skin conditions in humans when present in drinking water(Wood, 2021b).
Environmental assessments of the expansion of existing mines do not automatically trigger an environmental assessment in BC, and are done so only if the provincial Minister of Environment & Climate Change Strategy deems it to be in the public interest (Wood, 2021b). This can create concerns with respect to water issues, as expanding mining operations can lead to increased threats to and pressures on freshwater systems. For example, the expansion of the Copper Mountain Mine that straddles the Similkameen River in BC, the proposal is to increase the height of the dam to 255 metres (Wood, 2021b). Currently, the tailings pond dam of this mine is already 155 m, four times taller than the Mount Polley mine tailings dam, the site of the largest mining spill in Canadian history (Wood, 2021b).
The economic drive and push to develop mines at high elevations, under glaciers, in the Coast Mountains increases as glacier retreat, as this retreat exposes and makes accessible valuable mineral deposits (Pitman, et al., 2020). Rising temperatures in recent decades have accelerated glacier retreat, more so than over the past century (Huss, et al., 2017), thereby leading to an accelerated rate of new mineral extraction opportunities becoming available. As mining companies harness these opportunities, freshwater water systems become increasingly vulnerable to the effects and impacts of this industry.
Some heavily glacierized areas have been approved for mining due (in part) to them being deemed as low value habitat for salmon; however, this refers to current value, without taking into account the potential for future salmon returns or watershed-wide benefits for salmon from protecting freshwater systems (Pitman, et al., 2020). Such considerations are important, as the preservation of genetic diversity and adaptability of salmon at population levels is essential for their survival in a changing environment. Price et al. (2019) explains that “a disproportionate loss in abundance from larger-bodied, older-aged, populations may have eroded the biocomplexity and stability of the Skeena sockeye aggregate by homogenizing size- and age-at-maturity. Loss in population diversity—and associated life-histories—can destabilize salmon stock complexes by reducing the range of potential responses to varying environmental conditions”.
A lack of diversity in salmon can inhibit their ability to adapt to the warming temperatures, which is critical in the face of climate change (Follett-Hosgood, 2021). Water temperature is affected by retreating glaciers; when the water leaves a glacier, it is close to 0°C, and it warms as it travels from the glacier to glacier-fed water bodies. As glaciers retreat, the distance from glacier to water body expands, thus lengthening its interaction time with air temperature, which is expected to increase as summers trend towards hotter and drier (Moore, et al., 2009). Pacific salmon migrate to freshwater and spawn in late summer or early autumn when glacial melt typically provides these substantial flows and cool water ideal for salmon to successfully complete their lifecycle (Moore et al., 2009). Largely because of the glacier-fed rivers and streams in the Skeena Watershed, salmon have historically been abundant and diverse in the region (Skeena Watershed Initiative [SWI], n.d.); however, the change in water conditions will likely compromise the habitat quality and (in turn) impact the salmon.
Environmental change affects freshwater ecosystems in the Skeena in other ways, aside from just increases in water temperatures. Flow is decreasing in the Skeena River at a rate of 1.5% per year due to an increase in winter temperatures, and reduced winter precipitation is decreasing snowpack and consequently, spring snowmelt (Sharpe et al., 2021). Reduced water volumes in the freshwater systems presents water quality issues, as a decline results in lower dilution of sediments and pollutants, such as those from industrial or agricultural sources (Moore, et al., 2009).
The Skeena’s estuary contains eelgrass and kelp beds that serve as an important habitat for juvenile salmon, as they provide shelter from predators and habitat for important prey, such as zooplankton (PSF, 2015). A particularly critical habitat in the estuary is Flora Banks, which is a 200 ha space that encompasses a massive sandbar that formed about 8,000 years ago from glacial sediments and is covered in eelgrass meadows (the majority of the eelgrass in the estuary). Flora Banks acts as a nursery by providing food and shelter for Dungeness crabs, eulachon, halibut and migrating juvenile Pacific salmon as they adjust from freshwater to saltwater (Sharpe, et al., 2021; SkeenaWild Conservation Trust [SWCT], 2020). Similar to the freshwater systems of the Skeena, Flora Banks (and the estuary as a whole) experiences threats, challenges, and pressures from industrial activity. Such threats include the Federal Government’s approval of a shipping terminal for liquified natural gas for construction on Flora Banks (SWCT, 2020). Ultimately, the company (Petronas) cancelled the project in 2017 following the occupation of the neighbouring Lelu Island by local First Nations, as well as environmental assessments, multiple court cases, and independent scientific and review studies (SWCT, 2020). Flora Banks is now protected through a development moratorium (SWCT, 2020).
Coastal commercial fisheries will capture salmon that have been supported by enhancement projects, and this can create a false impression among the industry actors and stakeholders that sockeye populations are healthy. In reality, wild salmon populations have declined over the last century, particularly sockeye which declined in the region by 70% and in some remote rivers (e.g., Motase, Sustut and Slamgeesh) have seen losses of returns of more than 90% (Follett-Hosgood, 2021). In addition, SkeenaWild (2021) estimates on local steelhead populations place them below the conservation threshold, with them identifying commercial fisheries and climate change to be the most likely cause of population declines (SkeenaWild, 2021).
Current Initiatives and Efforts
Morice Watershed Monitoring Trust is a collaboration between the British Columbia and Wet’suwet’en government to deliver a long-term, science-based program to collect water quality and water quantity information for the Morice Water Management Area (MWMA). Established in 2012, the MWMT’s goals include defining existing information and identifying where water-related issues exist, filling data gaps, and providing information to others for use in resource management decision making.
SkeenaWild Conservation Trust is dedicated to making the Skeena River and nearby coastal communities a global model of sustainability where large human and salmon populations coexist. Formed in 2007 this regionally-based organization uses scientific indicators to assess impacts. SkeenaWild works with governments, First Nations, communities and individuals to sustain the long-term health and resilience of the wild salmon ecosystems and local communities by supporting responsible development that does not put salmon and communities at risk.
Skeena Fisheries Commission is an Indigenous fisheries research and conservation organization that works for and with Skeena Watershed First Nations and organizations in an administrative and delivery capacity. The Skeena Fisheries Commission Technical Committee is largely composed of fisheries program staff meeting on a monthly basis with Department of Fisheries and Oceans biologists to plan and report on initiatives that include stock assessment, habitat assessment and status, water quality studies, limnological surveys, and selective harvest techniques and to discuss current fisheries research, issues in fisheries biology, and outcomes in fisheries management.
Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition is a grassroots non-profit organization founded in 2004 by a diverse group of people dedicated to cultivating a sustainable future from a sustainable environment rooted in culture and a thriving wild salmon ecosystem. The SWCC aims to protect the headwaters of the Nass, Skeena and Stikine rivers fed from an area that is remote and undeveloped.
Salmon Beyond Borders is a campaign driven by sport and commercial fishermen, community leaders, tourism and recreation business owners and concerned citizens, in collaboration with Tribes and First Nations, united across the Alaska/British Columbia border to defend and sustain our transboundary rivers, jobs and way of life.
- Healthy Watersheds Campaign seeks mining policy reform in British Columbia to reduce threats to downstream states, communities, fish and wildlife.
Rivers Without Borders promotes and protects ecological and cultural values of the transboundary watershed regions of southeast Alaska and northwest British Columbia working with First Nations, commercial fishermen, scientists, community leaders, businesses, conservation advocates, legal and technical experts, media, and others.
Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission (SEITC) is a consortium of 15 sovereign Tribal nations located in Southeast Alaska and is also a registered nonprofit organization. SEITC seeks to protect the vital and sacred rivers that sustain our communities and culture.