Fraser River from Peg Leg gravel bar near Chilliwack. (Jennifer Feinberg/ Chilliwack Progress file)

Fraser River from Peg Leg gravel bar near Chilliwack. (Jennifer Feinberg/ Chilliwack Progress file)

Habitat protection needs teeth to save salmon in ‘Heart of the Fraser’: B.C. coalition

‘Given critical state of our wild salmon, we need to pull out all the stops,’ says Eddie Gardner

A bold new call to give habitat protection some teeth to save Fraser River salmon went out to provincial officials.

An Oct. 18 letter fired off to Katrine Conroy, minister of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resources and Rural Development, calls for the Heart of the Fraser wildlife management area (WMA) to be established from Mission to Hope.

“Establishing a WMA will provide legal protection for the ‘Heart of the Fraser,’ and help prevent activities like diking and gravel mining that threaten the river’s vital ecosystem,” said Calvin Sandborn, legal director, UVIC Environmental Law Centre.

The pitch to the minister to use her powers to create the WMA is coming from a coalition of groups led by BCIT Rivers Institute and the UVIC Environmental Law Centre, with 28 environmental and river stewardship groups signing on.

“Given the critical state of our wild salmon, we need to pull out all the stops to make sure they have a chance to rebound,” said Eddie Gardner, founder of Wild Salmon Defenders Alliance, and Skwah First Nation elder.

“This restricted zone idea in the Heart of the Fraser has been talked about for a few years. It calls for doing everything we can to ensure the waterway is kept in a condition for the salmon to swim in and thrive.”

A new angle is that signatories of the proposal ultimately envision the area under stewardship of local First Nations, as an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area, fitting with B.C.’s commitment to reconciliation.

Creating a management area on this part of the Fraser might require “an adjustment” all all levels to accomplish the aim of saving salmon, Gardner said, but is an important measure to curb what’s coming with the climate crisis.

“It’s a tall order. But without it there are other consequences,” Gardner said. “Because the salmon are on the brink. It would be beyond tragic if they disappeared. Salmon are really a climate regulator, as well as their social, spiritual, and economic benefits.”

How would it work? Once a WMA is established in the Mission-to-Hope corridor, a regional manager and ministry reps would regulate development and resource-based activity, create buffer zones and habitat corridors, and make conservation and management of wildlife a priority for local governments.

There are 31 existing WMAs in B.C.

What’s at stake they argue “is an incredibly diverse mosaic of floodplains, side channels, wetlands, and gravel bars, and islands that are home to dozens of important species of birds, amphibians, and fish, including the Fraser River White Sturgeon and all five Pacific salmon species.”

Dikes and human development have already cut off salmon from 85 per cent of their floodplain habitat in the area. Some of those salmon runs are on the verge of collapse, which has already led to the closure of commercial, recreational and First Nations fisheries.

Final word goes to Jesse Zeman, director fish and wildlife restoration, for BC Wildlife Federation:

“In a generation, a number of runs of Fraser River steelhead and salmon have gone from abundant to endangered and some are facing extinction.

“This is costing us our identity as British Columbians. We cannot continue to lay waste to the Fraser River with unsustainable development and expect healthy returns of salmon. Minister Conroy has a tremendous opportunity to show British Columbians the province is serious about the future of salmon in British Columbia.”

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