The Fraser River has been the focus of a nearly decade-long battle between government, the gravel industry and local conservation groups.
In recent years, the river has become a major source of gravel for B.C.'s construction industry but it is also home to significant—and commercially important—populations of fish, including salmon and sturgeon. The health of these fish is threatened by industrial scale, in-river gravel mining because gravel bars and beds are critical components in the local population's life-cycle.
Despite a halt on gravel extraction by the federal government in the 1990s to protect fish habitat, the B.C. government pushed for continued mining as a flood protection measure. In 2004, the federal government relented and signed an agreement with the province to allow massive, large-scale gravel removals from the Fraser. Just two years later, B.C. experienced one the largest documented fish kills in the province's history in an area of the river known as Big Bar. Gravel extraction resulted in the death of millions of juvenile salmon eggs and alevins due to water diversion from a known spawning area.
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Immediately following the destruction at Big Bar, the David Suzuki Foundation helped form the Fraser River Gravel Stewardship Committee (FRGSC)—a coalition of groups including the B.C. Wildlife Federation , the Fraser Valley Salmon Society and the Sport Fishing Defence Alliance as well as local scientists and citizens concerned about the protection of fish and fish habitat. Since then, the group has held a spotlight on the B.C. government's continued plans to allow gravel mining on the Fraser River.
Protecting the Lower Fraser White Sturgeon
Many of the areas of the river selected for mining were also believed to be the spawning and rearing habitat of the Lower Fraser White Sturgeon. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has listed the lower Fraser population of white sturgeon as endangered and identified gravel removal as one of the key threats affecting this species. Provincial biologists even advised against gravel removal at several locations because of the potential impacts on sturgeon but their concerns were largely ignored by other branches of government and licenses to mine were given the go ahead.
The FRGSC and the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society (FRSCS) became incensed by the callous disregard for health and welfare of the sturgeon and undertook a campaign to shed more light on this issue. The groups pointed out that both the federal and provincial governments had made a commitment to protect this highly vulnerable and threatened fish.
In 2010 the B.C. government commissioned studies to examine proposed gravel extraction sites for sturgeon habitat. However, at the same time, the province proposed gravel mining at Tranmer Bar, an area identified by biologists as possible prime sturgeon habitat. Under relentless pressure and public outrage from conservationists and scientists, the Tranmer Bar was not mined in 2011.
While there was talk of new plans to mine Tranmer Bar, it now looks it looks like the fish and fish habitat of the Fraser River will continue to be protected well into 2012. The FRGSC has recently received correspondence from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) that there are no proposals to move forward with gravel extraction on the Fraser in the year ahead. The correspondence also states that, "DFO has had discussions with the province in relation to initiating a process for developing a long term plan to guide sediment management in the gravel reach." This is something that the David Suzuki Foundation, the FRGSC and others have been calling for over the past five years.
We are hopeful that a meaningful process will now be developed to address this issue before any new licenses for gravel removal from the Fraser River are issued and we are committed to being involved in that process each step of the way.