British Columbia

Higher salmon returns celebrated upstream of 2019 Big Bar rockslide north of Lillooet, B.C.

First Nations are cautiously celebrating upstream of a 2019 landslide that dealt a devastating blow to salmon populations reaching the Upper Fraser River to spawn.

Big Bar rockslide north of Lillooet dumped 85,000 cubic metres of rock into Upper Fraser River in 2019

Fish monitoring crews tag a chinook salmon near Lilloiet, B.C. on June 17, 2022, as part of the salmon recovery operation after a disastrous 2019 Big Bar landslide across the river.
Fish monitoring crews tag a chinook salmon near Lillooet, B.C. on June 17, as part of salmon recovery operations after the disastrous 2019 Big Bar landslide across the river. (Submitted by Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

First Nations are cautiously celebrating upstream of a 2019 landslide that dealt a devastating blow to salmon populations reaching the Upper Fraser River to spawn.

This year, preliminary data suggest that more of the fish are finally reaching their spawning grounds upriver, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).

As of this week, more than 280,000 salmon have migrated past a monitoring site roughly 40 kilometres upstream of the rockslide. Over 80 per cent of those are sockeye, and the rest are chinook salmon, according to the DFO.

"What we're seeing is pretty good passage results right now at the slide site," said Gwil Roberts, DFO's Big Bar Landslide Response director, at a press conference Friday.

"Upwards of 39,000 salmon are passing through the Big Bar area on a daily basis."

The Big Bar rockslide north of Lillooet, B.C., dumped 85,000 cubic metres of rock into the Upper Fraser River; it was reported to authorities in July 2019. 

The rock fell from a 125-metre high cliff face, creating a waterfall too high for salmon to leap up, trapping them below.

The Big Bar rockslide north of Lillooet, B.C., dumped 85,000 cubic metres of rock into the Upper Fraser River in 2019. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

It meant thousands of salmon were unable to reach the upstream waterways in which they were born, and where they must reach in order to spawn.

Experts at the time feared the complete blockage of such a vital salmon run, thousands of kilometres from the coast, was just one more threat to the future of the province's already-struggling salmon species.

In response, First Nations, B.C. and Ottawa spent years helping fish overcome the blockage, attempting a variety of emergency measures, including carrying salmon in buckets, and attempting to build a bypass channel.

Last year, DFO and local First Nations released more than 200,000 salmon fry into the Upper Fraser River watershed.

Those efforts may be paying off, but DFO warned Friday the data from sonar monitoring and salmon tagging are preliminary at this point.

The early data has everyone celebrating, including more than 20 First Nations upstream of the rockslide.

"It's important not just to Indigenous people, but to all who rely on the Fraser," said Greg Witzky, operations manager with the Fraser Salmon Management Council and a member of Cstelnec' First Nation, also known as Adams Lake Indian Band, First Nation.

"We do celebrate, people will eat this year up above the slide."

Although salmon stocks have seen a significant recovery this year, their populations are still below their historic levels.

The DFO said the ongoing decline in salmon stocks appears to be "an ocean-side decline," Roberts said. "What we see here on the river is the tail-end of the spawning cycle when the salmon return.

"Obviously, it's important for the spawning cycle to be as smooth a process as possible."

Fisheries and Oceans Canada officials and members of the B.C. Wildfire Service move salmon in a temporary holding pen on the Fraser River in July 2019. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

But with salmon stocks still struggling at sea, this week's celebrations by Indigenous communities dependent on salmon fishing are tempered by ongoing fears for the future of the species.

"The next two years, in the early runs? That's a different story," Witzky said. 

"We'll be examining that, working hard all winter."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David P. Ball

Journalist

David P. Ball is a multimedia journalist with CBC News in Vancouver. He has previously reported for the Toronto Star, Agence France-Presse, and The Tyee, and has won awards from the Canadian Association of Journalists and Jack Webster Foundation. You can send story tips or ideas to david.ball@cbc.ca, or contact him on Twitter.

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