The gravel reach of the Fraser River is a stretch of the Fraser running between the communities of Hope and Chilliwack where all of the river’s gravel, made from the weathering rock of the Fraser Canyon or carried down from mountain tributaries, is deposited in a braided alluvial fan through the Fraser River valley.
The incredible biological diversity of this part of the river has earned it the affectionate title of “the Heart of the Fraser”. Some thirty species of fish can be found here, including steelhead, pikeminnow and shiners; not to mention the millions of pink and chum salmon that return to the gravel reach’s channels to spawn and die each year.
A Living Fossil
In addition to salmon, the gravel reach also contains critical sturgeon spawning habitat. The Fraser is home to one of North America's only three remaining populations of white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus).
These incredible animals, survivors from the Mesozoic era who swam alongside dinosaurs, are the largest and longest-lived North American freshwater fish species; achieving lengths of over 6 meters and weights in excess of 600 kilograms. Their lives can span more than 150 years, making certain elderly individuals potentially older than our province’s membership in the Dominion of Canada! And unlike salmon, which die after a single spawn, a mature sturgeon can breed continuously throughout their lifetime; with large, fertile females laying up 4 million eggs at a time.
Flood Protection Or Profit Creation?
But despite the incredible diversity and ecological significance of this beautiful stretch of river, the insatiable demand for aggregate materials to fuel urban development throughout the lower mainland is bringing the Heart of the Fraser under threat.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada placed a moratorium on gravel removal from this part of the river back in the mid 1990’s in response to concerns raised about the reach’s importance as fish habitat. However, despite strong evidence to the contrary, the BC government and industry lobbyists maintain that gravel accumulation in the Lower Fraser is causing the riverbed to rise, creating a flood risk. As a result, mining operations in the gravel reach have been allowed to continue in the guise of flood control measures under the auspices of Emergency Management BC.
Digging Out The Heart Of The Fraser
Gravel mining in the reach can have a devastating effect on juvenile salmon and sturgeon. In 2006, a road built to access a gravel mine on Big Bar cut-off the water flow to a spawning channel, killing an estimated 2 million pink salmon fry and making headlines across the province.
Furthermore, sturgeon larvae depend on the gravel to act as a shelter against predators while their bodies mature. The removal and compaction of gravel as a result of mining activities, therefore, has a significant negative impact on sturgeon recruitment. Indeed, research has shown that recruitment of juvenile white sturgeon has collapsed since large-scale mining of gravel bars began on the Fraser in 1995, indicating a 60.4% drop in young sturgeon (<100 cm in length) between 2004 and 2013.
Whether the removal of gravel in particular is responsible for this marked decline in recruitment is not yet certain, but the correlation is definitely hard to ignore. Sadly, despite this strong evidence, both Federal and Provincial authorities issued permits allowing a gravel mining operation to go ahead directly adjacent to one of only two known spawning habitat for white sturgeon in the entire Lower Fraser. Only time will tell how this irresponsible decision will effect sturgeon recruitment in the years ahead.
Taking Action To Protect the Gravel Reach
Fraser Riverkeeper is proud to be a member of the Fraser River Gravel Stewardship Committee (FRGSC), keeping a close watch and speaking out on gravel mining operations in the Heart of the Fraser. More recently we have become engaged with other BC water advocates and local stakeholders to ensure that ecological considerations are included in a new regional flood control plan that is currently under development. Stay tuned for more!