Approval of Controversial Gravel Mining Threatens Fraser River Sturgeon

On December 4th, 2014, Fraser Riverkeeper participated in an agency-stakeholder meeting that was attended by representatives from the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society (FRSCS) and BC Wildlife Federation (BCWF), as well as habitat assessment staff from the BC Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO) and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), in regards to a proposal by the Seabird Island First Nation to mine gravel in the Fraser River at the upper end of Seabird Island.

At this meeting, the concerned stakeholders provided extensive proof that this proposed project presented the risk of causing serious harm to both the Lower Fraser's at-risk population of white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus), as well as its economically important wild Pacific salmon runs. Of particular significance were references to studies conducted in 2014 by both the FRSCS and FLNRO's own ecosystem biologists using side-scan sonar and egg-collecting mats that confirmed the area located directly adjacent to the proposed mining site is, in fact, one of only two known spawning sites for white sturgeon in the gravel reach of the Lower Fraser River (English, Beveridge, and Bychkov; 2014).

The Fraser River is home to one of North America's only three remaining populations of white sturgeon. 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 British Columbia's membership in the Dominion of Canada.

First Nations living on the banks of the Fraser River have traditionally harvested sturgeon since time immemorial, their huge bodies providing them with a veritable cornucopia of resources; from food and medicine to tools and drum-skins. However, with the arrival of Europeans came an industrialized commercial fishery that decimated the Lower Fraser's sturgeon stock during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, bringing these survivors from our province's prehistoric past to the brink of extinction. Provincial and Federal agencies acted together to ban commercial and recreational sturgeon fishing on the Fraser in 1994, but with white sturgeon females taking up to 18 years to reach sexual maturity, and males as much as 14, they have been slow to recover from this industrial-scale slaughter.

Unlike salmon, dying 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. Upon hatching, sturgeon larvae use the gravel on the river's bottom to shelter from predators while their bodies mature. As such, the removal and compaction of gravel as a result of mining activities 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, with a 60.4% drop in young sturgeon (<100 cm in length) between 2004 and 2013, further exasperating an already dire situation. Whether gravel mining in particular is responsible for this marked decline in recruitment is not yet certain, but the correlation is hard to ignore.

In response to these concerns, previous assurances were made by Fisheries and Oceans Canada to the Auditor General of Canada that gravel extraction in the Fraser River would only be authorized in areas where gravel is accumulating and, therefore, creating a potential flood-risk. But statements made by Michael Church, a professor emeritus in the department of geography at the University of British Columbia, in a 2008 Globe and Mail article indicate that the area in which the proposed mining site sits has actually been degrading, or losing gravel, for the past decade. Indeed, it would seem that the only obvious motivation for this project is the generation of profits through the sale of aggregate material.

However, in spite of a very clear rationale for rejecting Seabird's gravel mining application, both Provincial and Federal regulatory agencies have inexplicably gone ahead and approved a project that stands to cause significant harm to fish and fish habitat in the Lower Fraser River. These kinds of irresponsible approvals set dangerous precedents and serve to further erode public confidence in our governments' oversight of our province's ecologically diverse and economically important aquatic species. Fraser Riverkeeper is urging you to help by contacting BC Minister of the Environment Mary Polak, BC Minister of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations Steve Thomson, and Federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Gail Shea and telling them to withdraw their approval for this incredibly destructive project.

You can also help us fight to protect Fraser River sturgeon by becoming a donor. A monthly contribution of $50, $25, or even just $10 will go a long way in helping us to protect your right to swim, drink, and fish in BC's waters. 

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