Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Port at Roberts Bank, Vancouver
A proposed expansion of British Columbia’s Roberts Bank would add a new shipping terminal and nearly double the number of container ship berths. Photo by SuperStock/Alamy Stock Photo

Expanding Canada’s Biggest Port Will Be a Blow to Wildlife

A new environmental assessment raises plenty of concerns about the proposed new terminal at Vancouver’s Roberts Bank*

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by Amorina Kingdon

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The long-awaited federal assessment of the contentious Terminal 2 project, a new container terminal at Roberts Bank, 30 kilometers south of Vancouver, British Columbia, is finally ready, and it cites a daunting list of problems, including the potential for serious harm to the region’s killer whales and salmon.

The assessment, initiated in 2016 to examine the environmental impact of the proposed port expansion, appears to validate the concerns of conservationists, citizens’ groups, federal scientists, and others who raised opposition to the project.

The Port of Vancouver says the new terminal would be built alongside the existing container terminal, which sits on an artificial island at the end of a five-kilometer causeway extending into the Fraser River delta at Roberts Bank in Tsawwassen is a necessary addition to the port’s capacity. It says the expansion of Canada’s largest port is critical to handle growing trade with Asia. The addition would double the size of the island and increase the number of container ship berths at Roberts Bank from four to seven.

The federal review panel agrees that though the project would increase port capacity and provide jobs, much of the 627-page report catalogs the potential for significant environmental impacts in the Strait of Georgia and the lower Fraser River.

A chief concern in the panel’s report is that increased ship traffic associated with a larger port would be a problem for the area’s 72 remaining southern resident killer whales. The expanded port would reduce the critically endangered killer whales’ habitat, as well as the availability of chinook salmon, their favored prey.

The panel wrote that chinook would face “significant adverse and cumulative effects” from the project. Misty MacDuffee, a conservation biologist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, one of the organizations that commented extensively throughout the assessment period, says the new terminal would fragment chinook habitat.

When juvenile chinook leave the Fraser River in the spring, they lurk around the marshy, estuarine coast of the Strait of Georgia for several months as they prepare to head to the open ocean. MacDuffee says the expansion would be a physical barrier to their migration. It would force them away from the coast and into saltier, deeper water before they were acclimated to it.

The new terminal would also bring a small increase in underwater noise that would affect the killer whales and chinook, as well as increased noise and light above the water that would affect the migratory and resident birds, including barn owls, which feed in the vast Fraser River delta.

A particular concern that arose during the assessment period, but which didn’t make it into the panel’s list of concerns, was that the mudflats adjacent to the terminal would become less nutritious for the birds that feed there. Most of the world’s western sandpipers stop there to feed on their biannual migrations between Alaska and South America. The panel acknowledged that although ongoing research suggests the Terminal 2 project would alter the biofilm that provides a key source of fatty acids for the migrating sandpipers, it is too soon to say if this nutritional shift would hurt the birds.

In a statement, the Port of Vancouver wrote that it “acknowledge[s] the panel’s conclusions that the project would have effects on areas such as southern resident killer whales, juvenile chinook salmon, and certain Indigenous practices and interests. … This is not something we take lightly.”

Next, the report will go to Jonathan Wilkinson, the federal minister of environment and climate change. Wilkinson has until November 22, 2020, to consider the report and make a decision about whether the project should go ahead, and if so, with what conditions. According to the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, the federal agency in charge of the assessment process, if the minister agrees with the panel that the damage would be significant, the project will instead go to cabinet for a decision.

*Correction: This story has been updated throughout to reflect the fact that while Terminal 2 would be an expansion of the Roberts Bank port, it is technically a new terminal to be built alongside the existing one, not an expansion of the existing terminal.