British Columbia

'The fish can't get through': Tsilhqot'in issues salmon closure notice after Big Bar landslide

The Tsilhqot'in National Government has issued a salmon closure notice effective immediately due to extremely low levels of sockeye, chinook and coho salmon in the Chilcotin, Chilko and Taseko rivers. 

Only 26 chinook have been spotted near spawning grounds along Chilko River, says fisheries manager

Having to put a salmon closure in place has 'really hit home for everyone,' said Randy Billyboy, fisheries manager for the Tsilhqot'in National Government. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

The Tsilhqot'in National Government has issued a salmon closure notice effective immediately due to extremely low levels of sockeye, chinook and coho salmon in the Chilcotin, Chilko and Taseko rivers. 

At the beginning of August the Tsilhqoti'in Nation declared a local state of emergency because of a massive obstruction caused by a landslide in the Fraser River north of Lillooet, which is preventing salmon from going upstream. 

As of this week, just over 200 sockeye and only 26 chinook have been spotted near the spawning ground along the Chilko River, said Randy Billyboy, fisheries manager for the Tsilhqot'in National Government.

Normally, they would see more than 500,000, he said.

"It is shocking. [There's] not really much we can do," said Billyboy. "It's not really anybody's fault. So it just happened and the fish can't get through."

The federal and provincial governments and local First Nations have been working together since June to try to help salmon reach their spawning grounds.

On Tuesday, the province said salmon stuck at the obstruction point can now be transported upstream by truck after crews completed a successful test run over the weekend.

Video taken from a helicopter shows the extent of damage from a landslide near Big Bar, just north of Lillooet, B.C. 2:28

An estimated 28,780 salmon have passed the slide on their own, while nearly 57,000 have been transported by helicopter. 

However, the low returns seen by the Tsilhqot'in Nation have been "devastating" for the community, said Billyboy.

Multiple closures

Billyboy estimates around 75 per cent of the nation relies on salmon fishing.

During a bad year, about 25,000 salmon are harvested in the area, and during a good year, between 50,000 and 60,000.

"This is a sacrifice our people have to make if we want this run, this cycle to replenish," said Chief Joe Alphonse, tribal chair of the Tsilhqot'in National Government.

Between the moose closure after the 2017 wildfires, and the closure of the steelhead fishery because of low returns last year, many primary food sources have been lost in the community. 

"We're traditional people. We depend on traditional foods, we depend on moose meat, we depend on wild game meat, we depend on sockeye," said Alphonse. 

"It's not only a diet, but it's a practice. It's a traditional way of our people going down to the river and passing on the knowledge of the areas, our customs, and our beliefs, and our respect for the man and Mother Nature."

The Tsilhqot'in Nation is now helping community members through the emergency operations centre that they have established, said Billyboy.

"The good thing about [the closure] is [it's] no surprise that the majority of the chiefs agree to an actual closure but in reality it does have to happen," he said. 

"So it kind of hit home for everybody."

 

With files from Jenifer Norwell and Daybreak Kamloops