By Craig Orr
In early 2008, some 340,000 cubic metres of prime gravel was scalped from the top of a large bar in the lower Fraser River near Chilliwack. All this was sanctioned by the federal and provincial governments under the pretext of flood control. But qualified hydrologists who reviewed the largest single Fraser River gravel removal in history found no evidence of the sort. One of government’s own consultants concluded that “It does not appear that large scale gravel removals...are effective in lowering the flood profile.” Another even claimed government was deliberately misleading the public.
Anglers, conservationists, and others who cared about the Fraser were up in arms. “Flood control” measures were said to be nothing more than “gravel grabs” done at the expense of valuable fish habitat. Science and common sense suggested that some of the most productive chinook salmon habitat left on Earth had been destroyed, along with a vast stretch of prime pink salmon spawning gravel. Concerns were also raised over threatened sturgeon.
A moratorium in place since the late 1990s to protect Fraser River salmon and sturgeon habitat was lifted by the provincial government early this decade. Liberal environment minister Barry Penner and ex-solicitor general John Les both campaigned for the lifting of the moratorium, and shortly after, the province and Fisheries and Oceans Canada signed a five-year deal authorizing the removal of massive quantities of gravel, with more than 420,000 cubic metres up for grabs in 2009 alone.
None of this bodes well for the future of the lower Fraser River, one of the world’s last great salmon rivers. Perhaps one day when humans look back on how we mistreated our once-bountiful salmon resource, the name “Spring Bar” will resonate sombrely with those wondering how we could have allowed the squandering of so much with so little resistance.
But Spring Bar is sadly just one blotch in a much tarnished tapestry of neglect, abuse, and betrayal of wild salmon and public interest. When it comes to our rivers, we are currently engaged in the greatest fire sale in history. Private power corporations have staked claim to the water flowing in more than 700 rivers and creeks, and mere citizens are told to be quiet and be happy because this is all good for them. Government and industry PR teams tout the benefits of “green hydro” projects and actively downplay the impacts of such developments.
In truth, citizens have been all but shut out of decisions on the merits of privatizing and developing our rivers, including the massive project proposed for the Bute Inlet, where Plutonic Power hopes to divert water from 17 rivers and build a gigantic web of roads, pipes, and transmission lines. The resulting public outcry and show of concern has thus far prompted little deviation from business as usual. Projects are still reviewed individually, under narrow terms of reference, and with no consideration of cumulative impacts or of the other values that British Columbians associate with rivers and wild places.
And if the assault on freshwater habitat weren’t enough, consider the plight of our salmon in marine waters, where both the federal and provincial governments continue to champion the growth of industrial aquaculture. The public controversy over the impacts of aquaculture has intensified since 2002 when the provincial Liberals lifted a seven-year moratorium on fish-farm expansion—also the same year in which Broughton pink salmon collapsed by 97 percent. Stories of sea-lice impacts on juvenile wild salmon and collapsing pink salmon stocks are common media fodder. These now-familiar yet always-painful stories serve to reinforce concerns of myopic and destructive government policies, but calls for funds to transition the industry go unheeded.
Back on land, a Forest Practices Board study of 1,110 road crossings over fish streams in 19 B.C. watersheds finds that less than half of the crossings offer salmon safe passage. Still, industry pressures government to “modernize” laws to make it easier to develop in and near salmon habitat. Management of our forests is dealt a serious blow with the cutting of 800 jobs from the Ministry of Forests—nearly half in enforcement and compliance—during the first Liberal mandate, and the relentless gutting of environmental enforcement in favour of industry-led “results based” self-regulation.
This all begs the questions: Why is our wild salmon heritage treated with seeming contempt by government? And can we do anything to elevate the level of care and concern, before it is too late? Programs like the federal Wild Salmon Policy and the provincial Living Water Smart program may offer hope, but only if adequately resourced and mandated. Nongovernmental organizations, weary of years of inaction and damage, are also trying to work with industry to reduce sea-lice impacts on baby salmon now making their way past salmon farms. Such offerings may not be enough, though, given the human record, including a well-documented history of what one scientist sadly terms “resource management pathology”.
Our wild salmon resource, while much abused, remains a remarkable world treasure. If we don’t wish to see it squandered, we will all need to become more engaged in saving it. After all, it is people, not salmon, that give governments a mandate.
Craig Orr is the executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society.