​The pink salmon runs in Aniva Bay, once among the largest largest in the world, collapsed after Shell built its LNG facility on the Russian island of Sakhalin in the late '90s.

There's no conclusive evidence that the plant is linked to the the collapse of the salmon fishery and the LNG plant was 30 kilometres away from the closest, important spawning river, but Dimitry Lisitsyn — a Russian scientist visiting British Columbia — said the plant had a “significant and sometimes catastrophic impact on the very many species.”

Lisitsyn said that the proposed Pacific Northwest LNG plant for Lelu Island in B.C. is liable to have a much larger impact on the salmon as it sits right on top of the most critical salmon habitat in the Skeena estuary.

He's part of a delegation of visiting Russian scientists to B.C. who are warning of the potential damage the Pacific Northwest LNG project might cause to the salmon spawning grounds near Lelu Island.

“It is absolutely clear that Lelu Island is the worst location for such a facility,” Lisitsyn, director of Sakhalin Environment Watch, told National Observer Tuesday after visiting the site.

Lisitsyn is one of three scientists in B.C. at the bequest of a number of northern First Nations and community groups in the Skeena region.

The scientists have previously studied the only LNG facility in Russia, the Sakhalin II LNG project, and have been sharing their research with communities, town councils and watershed groups throughout northern B.C.

The Sakhalin Island LNG plant in Russia. Photo courtesy of Dimitry Lisitsyn

Construction on the Sakhalin Island LNG plant started in 2003, with production beginning in 2009. The Russian plant includes three offshore oil and gas platforms, 800 kilometres of pipeline, the LNG plant on the island’s south side and LNG and oil export terminals.

The construction of the plant damaged spawning rivers and marine life with landslides and mud flows. It harmed populations of scallops, crabs and sea cucumbers, among others, and decimated a smelt fishery. ​

Lisitsyn warns the damage to B.C.'s Skeena estuary spawning grounds could be far worse.

He likened the estuary to a border, where all the salmon juveniles and adults swim through continuously.

“It’s an absolutely key place for the salmon migration here.”

Flora Bank, just off the coast of the island, contains about 60 per cent of the eel grass habitat in the Skeena Estuary, according to Greg Knox, a staff member with the Skeena Wild Conservation Trust.

Flora Bank is abundant with juvenile salmon; up to 25 times more spend time there than in other places in the estuary as they come from the rivers in the spring and summer. Over 200 million juvenile salmon leave the Skeena River watershed annually.

But Knox said one of the other Russian scientists warned that the proposed construction of LNG infrastructure, including a suspension bridge, could cause erosion, damaging Flora Bank and what is critical habitat for the second-largest salmon run in Canada.

Also with the delegation is Alexander Vedenev, head of the ocean noise laboratory at the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology, Russian Academy of Sciences. Vedenev said that noise from the tankers associated with the LNG plant will be heard by the salmon from three kilometres away. The noise is likely to lead them to avoid the Flora Bank, changing their behaviour.

Pacific Northwest maintains that construction and operation of the plant will not cause damage to the environment.

“All of our scientific research to date indicates that Flora Bank is a highly stable environment and our marine infrastructure is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects on Flora Bank, fish or fish habitat,” the company contends in an environmental assessment document.

The proposed $11-billion LNG plant would contain two liquefaction and purification plants, two LNG storage tanks, a marine terminal and would link to a new pipeline TransCanada will build.

A 30-day public comment period on the project finishes March 11th with a decision on the project expected in late March.

The Russians will finish off their tour in Vancouver on Thursday, where they will hold a press conference with Grand Chief Steward Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs; Chief Bob Chamberlin, vice-president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs; and First Nations actor Duane Howard, who most recently starred alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant.

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