Aaron Hill, executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society

The Big Bar landslide on the Fraser River is by far the most urgent crisis facing Fraser River wild salmon and there has been a lot of talk about how well (or poorly) our governments have handled this emergency. Watershed Watch attended a detailed briefing in December with the federal, provincial and First Nations officials leading the core response team. They outlined the steps taken so far and the options that have been explored. Here is our take.

First, some background. The slide could not have come at a worse time. Several populations of Fraser River chinook, sockeye, coho and steelhead are considered “endangered” or “threatened” by federal scientists and 2019 was already shaping up to be the worst year on record for returning salmon. And then, sometime last spring or winter, 100,000 tons of rock—including boulders the size of cars and buses—fell into a narrow canyon upstream of Lillooet. The slide created a five metre drop in the river and an impassable barrier for all but the largest salmon, blocking their access to over half of the 240,000 km2 watershed which extends north of Prince George and out to the Rocky Mountains. For the First Nations, wildlife and other residents of this vast area who depend on salmon, it is a profound tragedy.

Photo credit: Government of BC

Aerial bombardment was explored with a site visit from the Canadian Armed Forces but it was determined that bombing the blockage with fighter jets or other means could easily trigger further and more damaging rock slides. Other water flow engineering experts, including BC Hydro and the US Army Corps of Engineers, were also consulted. 

Most of the blockage is underwater in the form of massive boulders that could not be broken apart and removed until the water levels dropped. However, extensive work was needed to be ready for this opportunity.

Photo credit: Government of BC

Safely accessing the site has been a major challenge. The blockage is at the bottom of an extremely deep, steep canyon with large amounts of unstable rock that had to be cleared for crews to work safely beneath it. There was no riverbank to work from and workers have done an impressive job at building up a pathway next to the river. Crews are now working from this man-made riverbank as they demolish the giant submerged boulders and remove them during this crucial low water period.

According to the response team, public communications on the situation were limited so as not to influence the bidding process for the rock removal work. In January, a $17.6 million contract was awarded to American engineering giant Peter Kiewit Sons, and now the rock removal work is underway. They must work quickly before the waters rise with the spring melt. Now that the contract has been awarded, we are calling on the government response team to release more information publicly about work done so far and what is planned over the coming weeks and months. 

Photo credit: Government of BC

Are they doing a good job in dealing with this crisis? Fisheries and Oceans Canada has been criticized for taking too long to discover the slide, not taking action quickly enough once they knew about it and for being wildly optimistic about the efficacy of their fish rescue efforts, which involved trapping and then helicoptering salmon around the blockage. Only a small fraction of the already tiny salmon run was moved around the slide, and only a fraction of the rescued fish survived the ordeal to spawn. Dozens of people worked their tails off, and the government spent a lot of money attempting to rescue these fish. They had to try and they deserve our thanks for doing so. It just would have played a lot better if DFO had not counted those fish before they’d spawned.

But here’s the thing. After 20 years of watching DFO and the provincial government mismanage wild salmon, I have to say that on the whole, and despite some blunders, their efforts at Big Bar have been pretty darn impressive. If they applied this much urgency and funding to salmon conservation every year, and across the province, our rivers would have a lot more salmon in them.

Where the government deserves public scorn, is in all of the other harms they are still permitting to be visited upon our wild salmon. The Big Bar disaster highlights how B.C. wild salmon have been catastrophically mismanaged. Past and current DFO management priorities have reduced many upper Fraser salmon runs to a fraction of their historic abundance, leaving them without the resilience needed to handle a natural disaster like the Big Bar slide. 

While hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars were being spent flying salmon around the blockage, thousands of fish from those same endangered populations were being killed by fishers in the Salish Sea and the lower Fraser River. 

Not only are we overfishing from endangered populations, we continue to destroy valuable salmon habitats, suck too much water out of their streams and expose them to diseases and parasites from fish farms. Obsolete flood control structures are blocking over 1500 kilometres of salmon nursery habitat in the lower Fraser valley. In our warming climate, which is wreaking havoc on ocean food webs and freshwater flow patterns, we need to manage wild salmon populations for resilience. That means protecting and restoring their habitat, getting salmon farms out of the water and changing the way we fish. And those are the things we are pushing for every day here at Watershed Watch.

But make no mistake: upper Fraser salmon runs will be toast if the Big Bar blockage doesn’t get removed, and fast.


More information on the Big Bar landslide:

DFO Big Bar information bulletins

Government response team website

Photos of Big Bar Landslide 

Lessons Must Be Learned from Big Bar Landslide, Jack Emberly, BC Local News, Feb. 8, 2020

Media Release: Federal government measures failed to protect endangered Chinook salmon in 2019, Feb. 5, 2020