A photo of workers scaling the cliffs above the Big Bar Slide on the Fraser River. (Trevor Mack photo)

First Nations want Big Bar landslide blockage cleared ASAP

‘State of emergency’ should be declared on the Fraser River without further delay

First Nations leaders from across B.C. are calling for immediate action on the Fraser River to remove the blockage at the Big Bar landslide site within 60 days.

A “state of emergency” should be declared on the Fraser River, said Regional Chief Terry Teegee of First Nations Leadership Council (FNLC) urging the federal government to “urgently prioritize resources” to take on the fisheries crisis.

The tender process for removing the slide obstruction, being finalized now by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, may not be adequate or completed in time to save some runs from extinction, some leaders are warning.

The 2020 impacts on Early Stuart and chinook from Big Bar blockage in particular constitute an emergency in the making right now, according to STC Grand Chief Ken Malloway, a Sto:lo fisherman, and member of the advisory panel on the Big Bar Slide from the Lower Fraser.

“At this time of year with the water dropping, is there is still some very large rock that needs to be removed,” said Malloway. “They need to be in there now blasting and removing rock.”

DFO issued a request for information (RFI) on Nov. 27 to seek the contractors with expertise in construction and remediation needed “to re-establish natural fish passage” at Big Bar by removing the obstruction.

READ MORE: Establishing free fish passage was goal

“The intention is to ensure that construction activities begin as soon as possible, and while water levels in the Fraser River are low,” according to DFO spokesperson Leri Davies on Dec. 2.

But the First Nations Leadership Council (FNLC) is also calling on the federal government to identify and fund a working group, including reps from impacted First Nation communities, to monitor efforts and develop contingency plans in the face of disaster.

“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,” according to the FNLC release.

Chief Joe Alphonse, tribal chair of the Tŝilhqot’in National Government, said the salmon stocks need “all the help” they can get — and immediately.

“Right now there are low water levels on the Fraser. So if anything substantial is to happen it has to happen by the month of January,” Chief Alphonse said, not February or March.

The crisis affects all tribes north of Big Bar, not just his Tŝilhqot’in community located within 100 to 150 kilometres from the blockage site.

“There is only a small window of opportunity. They have to get on it,” Chief Alphonse said about DFO and other agencies who are planning further response for 2020. “If they don’t, it threatens to wipe out all the runs north of Big Bar.”

Last summer the Tŝilhqot’in were expecting to see a return of a million fish from the Chilko Lake run, the “healthiest, strongest run” of sockeye on the Fraser, he said.

“The wild salmon stock, we live on it and are dependent on it,” Chief Alphone underlined. But only about 170,000 sockeye returned to natal streams in Tŝilhqot’in territory.

READ MORE: They tried transporting fish by helicopter

Starting in July 2019 an unprecedented government-to-government-to-government protocol was put in place, led by the Incident Command Post management team based in Kamloops. Unifed team efforts brought together provincial, DFO, and First Nations, who all worked toward freeing the fish.

Big Bar landslide updates can be found here .


@CHWKjourno
jfeinberg@theprogress.com

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