Feds failing to protect key Fraser River spawning ground from off-road vehicles: Biologists

Click to play video: 'Action needed to protect salmon in the heart of the Fraser River'
Action needed to protect salmon in the heart of the Fraser River
WATCH: Biologists expressed growing alarm at government inaction to protect the Gill Bar near Chilliwack. The area is considered the most important piece of river habitat in all of British Columbia. But 4x4s driving on the gravel bar are killing the salmon eggs laid there – Aug 5, 2021

Biologists and conservationists say the federal government is failing to protect a key Fraser River fish habitat, despite its own investigation confirming off-roaders are damaging the area.

At issue is large gravel feature known as Gill Bar on the the south bank of the river in Chilliwack.

It’s the epicenter of an area known as the “heart of the Fraser,” and, according to BCIT Fish and Wildlife program instructor Marvin Rosenau, the most important piece of river habitat in all of B.C.”

“At Gill Bar we have juvenile chinook that rear, we have pink salmon that spawn, we have sturgeon that spawn and incubate, we have cutthroat trout, chum salmon, we have a whole host of native species,” he said.

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“It is one of the most biodiverse areas from a fish perspective probably in all of British Columbia.”

Click to play video: 'Ottawa commits $647 million in budget to protect B.C. salmon stocks'
Ottawa commits $647 million in budget to protect B.C. salmon stocks

The problem is that the wide gravel bar and side channels have become a popular location for off-roaders, who conservationists say are crushing eggs and juvenile fish that rely on the bar, while stirring up sediment that suffocates the animals.

Following a Global News report in February, the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) visited the site, and confirmed the damage.

“Recreational vehicle activity disrupted at least 1,000 m2 of aquatic habitat which fish depend directly or indirectly on to carry out their life processes (i.e., rearing, feeding and refuge habitat),” the probe concluded.

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“In addition, recreational vehicle activity temporarily altered at least 1,000 m2 of channel bed which supports the food supply (e.g., benthic invertebrates and algae) that fish depend on directly or indirectly to carry out their life processes.”

In a statement to Global News, Fisheries and Oceans Canada said it was actively monitoring the area, and “actively investigating” several vehicle incidents in the area, while working on a long-term management plan.

Click to play video: 'Concern over possible destruction of Fraser River fish habitat'
Concern over possible destruction of Fraser River fish habitat

But advocates say federal officials have had no visible presence at the Gill Bar or done anything obvious to deter off-road activity.

“DFO needs to step up because they have this information, they have confirmation that this damage is occurring,” Biologist John Werring said.

“They need to quickly put a stop to it. They need to say this activity can no longer take place. And those people who continue to do it, they should be prosecuted under the act.”

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Werring said fisheries officials have known about the problem for years, and despite plenty of promises continue to fall back on education, rather than enforcement.

He said a recent federal pledge of $647 million to protect wild salmon shows the government has the resources to take action

“There has to be some money available to enable our federal government to enforce the federal Fisheries Act, in particular the section of the act that deals with destruction of fish habitat,” he said.

The call comes as British Columbians are increasingly aware of the plight of the province’s beleaguered salmon stocks.

A July poll from Insights West found 86 per cent of B.C. residents were concerned about declining wild salmon stocks, ahead any other environmental issue.

Click to play video: 'Growing questions about future of Squamish Spit'
Growing questions about future of Squamish Spit

“When we asked people their level of concern, we found that declining salmon stocks rated about 10 points higher than the next highest, which is climate change,” Insights West president Steve Mossop said.

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“A bit of a surprise, because climate change does tend to get the headlines, but we do have this ongoing issue in the province that B.C. residents are quite concerned about, and that is the continual erosion and decline of salmon stocks.”

In June, the federal government announced the closure of nearly 60 per cent of commercial salmon fisheries for the 2021 season, citing critically low population numbers “due to a complex combination of climate change, habitat degradation, and harvesting impacts.”

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