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‘Steady progress’ as crews prepare to clear Big Bar landslide despite weather: DFO

Pacific Salmon Foundation says time running out for Big Bar slide work
WATCH: (Dec. 17, 2019) Pacific Salmon Foundation says time running out for Big Bar slide work

Crews have made “steady progress” on preparations to clear a passage of the Fraser River damaged by the Big Bar landslide, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans says.

The DFO’s update Friday said the progress was made despite weather challenges including high winds, fog and snow that have restricted helicopters moving crews to the area.

However, officials said crews are hard at work setting up safety measures for workers who will be blasting rocks that are currently blocking a critical salmon migration route.

READ MORE: Contract awarded for crucial winter work to restore slide-impacted Fraser River

Along with installing safety mesh on the west bank of the river, crews have also been constructing overland access to the river and drilling on the East Toe to prepare for the blasting work.

Trails for heavy equipment including excavators have also been completed.

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The DFO says blasting work will commence “shortly,” and are currently implementing an environmental in-river work mitigation plan to ensure that blasting has the “lowest possible impact to fish and fish habitat.”

Big Bar landslide could mean extinction for B.C. salmon runs
Big Bar landslide could mean extinction for B.C. salmon runs

If fish are present near blast zones, teams of qualified workers will catch and move the fish to a safe location, according to the ministry. If that’s not possible, “hazing tactics” will be used to scare the fish away.

Hydroacoustic monitoring will be performed in areas where the potential presence of fish overlaps with anticipated blast pressures,” the ministry adds.

Engineering firm Peter Kiewit and Sons ULC was contracted by the DFO earlier this year for the work to clear the slide. The contract is worth just over $17.6 million.

READ MORE: ‘High risk’ many salmon species threatened by Big Bar landslide won’t be rescued, DFO says

The slide, believed to have occurred in October or November of 2018, created a five-metre waterfall that was nearly impossible for millions of salmon to clear in order to return to their spawning grounds.

Just 275,000 salmon were able to make it up river in the 2019 season, down from an early-season estimate of nearly five million.

Many of those who did clear the slide were unable to spawn, according to government officials.

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READ MORE: B.C. salmon runs face ‘meaningful chance of extinction’ due to Big Bar landslide: officials

In December, the DFO said time was of the essence in restoring the river, warning that “unless sufficient rock debris is removed” before water levels rose in the spring, early migrating salmon populations could be “significantly affected.”

The agency added that there was a “high risk” crews would not be successful at clearing enough rock in time.

DFO scientists have said at least three salmon runs are at risk of extinction, with three more facing “considerable risk,” depending on how operations to clear the slide play out in 2020.

More than 2 million salmon at risk due to Big Bar landslide
More than 2 million salmon at risk due to Big Bar landslide