The federal fisheries minister was in Lillooet last week to check in on the effort under way to help spawning salmon bypass a blockage in the Fraser River that is keeping them from their spawning grounds.
Thousands of fish are trapped below the obstruction, with millions more on their way upriver, and time is running out in which to help them get past it and get to where they need to go.
“This is the most important priority for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in British Columbia right now, and we are dedicating all of the resources and the personnel that we need to dedicate to make the progress that we need to make and that will stay as it is until we figure out what we’re actually going to do and we start to implement it,” Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said, shortly before leaving Lillooet following a day of conferences and a helicopter flyover of the affected area.
“I’m out here to see it for myself and also to sit with the folks and try to figure out what we’re going to do have a conversation with them,” Wilkinson said.
“I would say it’s pretty sobering. The drop there is over five metres so it is really a very significant barrier for fish passage.”
That was in reference to the waterfall created when a rockslide largely blocked a narrow portion of the river on June 21. A small number of fish are making their way past the blockage.
“It would be different for chinook than for sockeye, but what we are finding is that on the left-hand side there is a piece of it where some can get around, so we think five to 10 per cent of them are actually getting up.”
“Initially, a lot of them were chinook, so they’re bigger, we do believe that a few of the sockeye are getting through too, but certainly the chinook were the most successful, so it’s very sobering because it’s very clearly not an insignificant blockage, and it’s in a very narrow part of the river where they had the slide so there’s obviously concern about additional slides if we’re trying to do work there,” he said.
“With it being high, the water is extremely fast, so it’s almost a kind of a perfect storm in terms of a place that’s as difficult as you could imagine to get to.”
Wilkinson had a detailed consultation with the experts at the incident command centre prior to meeting later in the day with representatives of First Nations communities to discuss some of the options that are being considered to try to help the fish get past the obstruction.
“Going and seeing it actually helped me to visualize what may work and what may not,” he said
One of those options is trapping the fish downstream from the slide and trucking them above the blockage for release.
This would require trapping the fish in the vicinity of the ferry, quite a long way from the slide, because access to the river is so limited and dangerous at the obstruction. The same lack of access would complicate getting them back into the water, Wilkinson said.
“The problem is there’s no easy way to get back down to the river upstream in order to put them in. You would have to transport them a long way, which would mean probably some deaths of the fish because they probably wouldn’t handle it very well.”
It is also not an intervention that would ultimately result in moving a very large percentage of the trapped fish.
“We estimate that we’re talking millions of fish, and probably if you trucked, maybe you’re going to save another 10,000.”
Whether or not an effort with such a limited impact would even be worth carrying out is one of the considerations facing the responders, Wilkinson said.
“The other option is to helicopter them, put them in buckets and helicopter them up. That’s a lot easier, and you could transport a lot more of them, but obviously there’s a cost associated with doing that.”
Another possibility is a fish-passage technology from Whooshh Innovations, in Seattle.
“You would put it up right beside the blockage and you would essentially convey fish over the top of it,” Wilkinson said
It would work; the problem is we’re not at all convinced that we can get this piece of equipment in to the area where it is.”
This apparatus floats as a barge and would have to be assembled just below the blockage and then moved into position.
“And then of course there’s manipulating the rocks, either moving them or blowing them up or just trying change that, but until the water goes down, we don’t even have a sense of what the rocks look like,” he said of the other option on the table.
“What we’re trying to do is narrow it down to what are the short-term things we can start to do and what are the medium-term things that we can think about doing. We haven’t landed yet, we’re in the process, but certainly being here today was very helpful for me in engaging that consultation with DFO staff.”
That consultation is taking place with awareness that there isn’t an unlimited amount of time in which to responds to the situation.
“It’s probably a matter of weeks. The fish obviously expend a lot of area even just trying to stay in the relevant area with all of the current. You know that salmon, once they start their migration, stop eating, so there’s a certain amount of energy in their body that they can use up and then they’re kind of done, so we are worried about that. It’s hard to put a specific amount of time on it but it’s certainly at best week’s, not months, and so we need to take some action soon,” Wilkinson said.
“Right now, we estimate that there’s probably about 2,000 fish a day coming to the blockage, but as the sockeye migration starts in earnest, we’re going to be talking tens of thousands a day.”
It’s a situation that affects a whole lot of people, in addition to millions of fish, and for that reason, Wilkinson said, proper communication is crucial throughout the response.
“We’ve set up an integrated command, it includes federal representatives, provincial representatives and First Nations representatives. We’ve also set up a First Nations advisory committee that essentially discusses a lot of the issues,” he explained.
“Some of them are local but of course First Nations all across B.C. have an interest.”
That includes those living along the Fraser River, but also Indigenous people on Vancouver Island who rely on the same stocks. Wilkinson said the First Nations committee includes a broad range of representation and provides input to the representative who sits on the integrated committee.
“We’re very, very committed to ensuring this is done collaboratively. We understand that First Nations rely on these salmon even more than any of the rest of us do,” Wilkinson said.
“It’s also important that B.C. is at the table because some of this relates to the water and some of it relates to the land so we don’t want to get into a situation where people are pointing fingers about who’s responsible, so the best way to do that is to have us all in the same room making the decisions together and I would say that the province has been great, as far as the collaboration, as have the First Nations.”
Provincial Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development Minister Dour Donaldson was also in town for most of the day to tour the site, visit the incident command post and meet with First nation representatives and other technical experts with regard to the slide.