B.C. First Nations call for emergency declaration on Fraser River salmon obstacle

Leadership council claims that last summer's Big Bar landslide threatens salmon runs with extinction

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      The political leaders of B.C.'s First Nations have demanded that the federal and provincial governments declare a "state of emergency" over last spring's Fraser River landslide at Big Bar.

      In a December 9 news release, the First Nations Leadership Council (FNLC) also called for the removal within 60 days of the fallen rock that it says could cause the extinction of some salmon runs above the slide.

      The FNLC is made up of the political leaders of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), the First Nations Summit (FNS), and the B.C. Assembly of First Nations (BCAFN).

      The landslide—which narrowed the Fraser River near Big Bar to 40 metres from 100 metres, according to the release—created a five-metre-high waterfall/rapids barrier to most salmon ascending the river to their spawning grounds.

      “Without the immediate provision of resources to clear the remaining debris from the landslide before the winter season takes hold, there is a serious risk of extinction to Fraser River salmon stocks such as Early Stuart Sockeye and Early Chinook, as well as significant risk to the food security, culture, and traditions of First Nations communities along the length of the Fraser River and beyond,” the release stated.

      UBCIC secretary treasurer Judy Wilson said the landslide "continues to threaten salmon to extinction, as well as First Nations' food sovereignty and security. The federal and provincial governments must act on this immediately and not make unilateral decisions. The alarming decline in salmon potentially will collapse the fishery for our future generations."

      Although Fisheries and Oceans Canada airlifted about 60,000 salmon past the landslide during summer spawning and thousands more large salmon managed to swim past the waterfall on their own, doubts were expressed about the ability of millions of smaller fish to make it past. 

      Regional Chief Terry Teegee of the BCAFN noted: "To this day, B.C. First Nations have maintained a sacred relationship with the salmon that migrate through their territories and beyond. Every aspect of our lives revolves around this once rich and dwindling resource. Extreme efforts and resources must be put forth immediately to preserve cultures and ways of life that have existed for thousands of years".

      Ottawa issued a tender notice on November 7 for "construction and environmental remediation services necessary to re-establish fish passage in the Fraser River in response to the Big Bar landslide".

      The tender closed on December 6.

      The FNLC also urged Ottawa "to identify and fund a working group, including representatives from impacted First Nations, to monitor the efforts and develop contingency plans in response to this salmon fisheries crisis".

      Lydia Hwitsum, of the FNS political executive, said in the release that the obstruction, if not removed quickly, could cause damage to key salmon stocks in the future, and not only for First Nations communities along the river and its tributaries.

      “The continuing impact of the Big Bar landslide on key chinook, steelhead, Coho and sockeye salmon runs on the Fraser River remains an urgent matter. Immediate and permanent mitigation efforts, in consultation with impacted Fraser River First Nations, must continue to be the top priorities for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and associated provincial ministries," Hwitsum wrote.

      "The remaining blockage will undoubtedly impact upstream First Nations’ access to food sources next year and has the potential to severely impair future cycles of salmon stocks which will be cause for huge losses to First Nations, commercial and sport fisheries in future years.”