World Rivers Day founder and Chair Emeritus of BCIT’s Rivers Institute Mark Angelo and prominent fish biologist and BCIT professor Dr. Marvin Rosenau have launched a dynamic new initiative to conserve the enormous ecological values of a critical stretch of the Fraser River just East of Vancouver. Known as the Gravel Reach or, “Heart of the Fraser” for its prime spawning habitat – home to dozens of species of salmon, trout, sturgeon and other lesser known but ecologically significant fish – the region between Mission and Hope is threatened by a laundry list of industrial impacts. That’s why these two conservationists, along with their students and the support of a number of other environmental organizations have developed an innovative new program to help protect it.
Watch this short video on the launch of the program:
The “Shared Vision” document for the program – whose sponsors also include the Nature Trust of BC, the Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council, and the North Growth Foundation – describes the nature of the threat to this critical ecosystem and what is required to protect it:
Political, corporate, and public efforts must be coordinated and applied in order to counter the rapid disappearance of one of the most diverse and valuable aquatic and lowland ecosystems in British Columbia. Our goal is to identify, conserve, protect and restore key portions of the Gravel Reach in order to sustain and secure the biological and ecological integrity of the area…The lower Fraser River riparian lowlands continue to rapidly disappear due to continued encroachment through land development, agriculture, and industrial activities that include extensive resource extraction (i.e., logging and mining).
See videos below on gravel mining in this stretch of the Fraser River – including a talk by Dr. Marvin Rosenau.
This important stretch of habitat, which “functions in a biologically rich and diverse manner because of the extensive lateral and vertical inundation of islands, gravel bars, and the riparian/terrestrial ecosystems over the period of the hydrological year,” is home to an unmatched collection of fish and wildlife values. A list of these values contained in the program’s “Shared Vision” document gives one a sense of just what’s at stake here:
“These attributes include:
- the largest-single spawning run of salmon in British Columbia, and perhaps North America (these are pink salmon which reproduce in the main channel of the Gravel Reach and may well exceed 10 million fish on the spawning grounds in some years);
- the largest population of white sturgeon in North America not influenced by dams or aquaculture (white sturgeon are the largest and longest-living freshwater fish in North America — they can attain lengths in excess of 6 meters, weights of over 600 kilograms, and they can live for over 150 years);
- a spawning stock of Pacific eulachon, which up until only a few decades ago was one of the largest runs of eulachon in British Columbia; this small, anadromous smelt leaves the marine environment to spawn in the lower Fraser River in April and May and all individuals die after spawning; the oil- and protein-rich carcasses provide a significant source of food and nutrients for the aquatic, avian, and terrestrial ecosystems of the Gravel Reach, and are an important, traditional food of Fraser River First Nations communities;
- a migration corridor for some of the largest spawning runs of sockeye salmon in North America (most of these originate from upstream populations);
- juvenile-feeding habitat for local-chum and migratory-chinook salmon stocks that rear along gravel bars and within side channels;
- spawning habitat for local chum salmon stocks in the large side channels, which in some years may exceed 1 million returning adult fish;
- habitat that supports approximately 30 different species of fish, including at least eight fishes that are considered to be at-risk: cutthroat trout, bull char (both resident and anadromous), Dolly Varden char, eulachon, white sturgeon, green sturgeon, mountain sucker, and brassy minnow.
There are also many other non-fish species of animals living in the Fraser River Gravel Reach that are found in complex combinations occurring nowhere else in Canada, including:
- aquatic mammals (seals, sea-lions, river beaver, martin);
- large terrestrial/aquatic omnivores including black (and the occasional grizzly) bear;
- other large vertebrates include blacktail and whitetail deer, cougar, coyote;
- extensive populations of various species of rarer birds including red-tail hawk, green and great blue heron, bald eagle, assorted dabbling ducks, wood duck, purple martin, sandhill crane, turkey vultures;
- the Pacific water shrew (a species at risk);
- amphibians such as the Oregon spotted frog, western red-backed salamander, and the Pacific giant salamander.”
Besides the work of BCIT students continuing to research and map the fish and habitat values of the Gravel Reach, the program is seeking to develop a “Lower Fraser River Ecosystem” working group, comprised of program participants, First Nations, representatives of all levels of government, NGOs and other key stakeholders. The goal of this team would be to advance these conservation objectives through the following tools:
- outright purchase of private properties – Nature Trust or other such entity to manage in perpetuity;
- donations of private land into a protected area envelope;
- evaluation of existing Crown forests within this area to ascertain if a more advantageous land allocation arrangement might be offered to forest companies which would allow the reversion of some sensitive habitats into non-harvestable lands, and subsequent protection;
- conversion of existing, non-used Crown lands into Section 108 reserves, protected areas, and/or Wildlife Management Areas (WMA’s);
- restrictive-covenant agreements on non-purchasable lands; and
- alternative options for protecting First Nation lands need to be explored such as the purchasing of outside-of-dike properties, to be added to existing titles, in exchange for not undertaking development on the lowland riparian lands, or the restoration of currently impacted FN properties.
It’s an ambitious program – but given what’s at stake in this rich ecosystem, what it represents to the people of British Columbia, and the dire challenges it faces for survival, it would also appear a necessary one.
The Common Sense Canadian will endeavour to keep its readers updated as to the progress of the “Heart of the Fraser Initiative” as it evolves.
Videos on Gravel Mining the Heart of the Fraser: