Heart of the Fraser River—and the threats it's facing—are highlighted in new documentary

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      Many B.C. residents are unaware of the tremendous ecological significance of the "gravel reach", which is a stretch of the Fraser River between Laidlaw and Mission.

      So Ken Ashley, director of the BCIT Rivers Institute, decided to make a documentary about it.

      Ashley told the Straight by phone that 90 percent of the critical fish habitat in that section of the river has already been lost due to dikes and industrial development.

      The film, Heart of the Fraser, points out that more human incursions would pose an even greater threat to chinook salmon and sturgeon.

      "It's the last of the most important piece of habitat in that part of the Fraser River," Ashley said.

      Watch the trailer for The Heart of the Fraser.

      His comments came a few days after the B.C. government closed fisheries in three spawning channels between Chilliwack and Hope because of concerns over the fate of sturgeon.

      These creatures can live up to 100 years and grow to more than six metres, making them the largest freshwater fish in North America

      In the film, the section of the Fraser south of Mission is compared to the Great Barrier Reef in terms of its importance.

      "The gravel reach is one of the most productive stretches of river anywhere on the planet," former BCIT Rivers Institute director Mark Angelo says in the trailer. "And it is the very heart of the Fraser River."

      Port Moody—Coquitlam NDP MP Fin Donnelly, who swam the length of the river twice, simply declares: "If we continue business as usual, then we're in trouble."

      Nerv Productions

      Ashley spent 25 years working for the Ministry of Environment in fisheries research, rising to section head for fisheries restoration and bioengineering. 

      He said that if people are concerned about southern resident orcas, which rely on chinook for their survival, this area of the Fraser River is "the critical habitat".

      Ashley acknowledged that some have told him not to get too wound up over this part of the river. They've advised him that there are always other environmental issues to worry about.

      But he dismisses this type of talk.

      "This is the hill to die on because this is such a critical thing," Ashley said. "That's why we're putting so much effort into bringing it to public attention."

      Nerv Productions

      The issue has taken on greater urgency because the owners of Carey and Herrling islands have applied to the provincial government to construct bridges connecting them to the mainland.

      "They want to be able to access it year around because they want to turn it into a full-scale farm," Ashley said.

      But he thinks that a better course of action would be for the province to buy these islands from the owners and turn them into ecological reserves.

      That, he suggested, would be in the best interest of Fraser River salmon and sturgeon.

      Nerv Productions

      "We tried to make this documentary to explain the facts," Ashley said. "It's not like an infomercial.

      "Let the public make up their mind," he continued. "We tried to interview the landowners. They didn't want to talk to us."

      In addition to Angelo and Donnelly, the film features comments from UBC researcher Mike Church, whom Ashley described as the world's top expert in large river fluvial geomorphology.

      "The last 10 percent of the river that's still sort of in its wild form allows it to wander back and forth, erode banks and sediment, and create fish habitat, which is what the river has been doing since time immemorial," Ashley said.

      There will be a free screening of Heart of the Fraser at 6 p.m. on Friday (April 5) in the Telus Theatre at BCIT's Burnaby campus. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. It will be followed by a question-and-answer session with Ken Ashley, Mark Angelo, Mike Church, fishing guide Dean Werk, and BCIT student Lori Bartsch.