The Current

Flying fish? Migrating salmon trapped in Fraser River Canyon could be helicoptered out, says biologist

A landslide has trapped thousands of salmon in B.C.'s Fraser River Canyon, preventing the fish from making it to their spawning ground. Scientists are racing to find a way to free them — including the option of using helicopters to airlift the fish.

Fish can't get to their spawning ground, and situation more urgent every day, says Matthias Herborg

Scientists are racing to find a way to free salmon that have become trapped behind a landslide in B.C.'s Fraser River. (Gary Stewart/Associated Press)
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Helicopters could be sent in to airlift migrating salmon trapped behind a landslide in the Fraser River, according to a member of the team working to free them.

"We would have a bucket ... where you would put the fish in and then basically you would hook it up to the helicopter for a 15-minute transport past the [landslide], where we then put them back in the water," said Matthias Herborg, a biologist with the B.C. department of fisheries and oceans.

It would be a gentler process than that of a firefighting water bomber, which "goes in the water ... flies above and dumps it from 500 metres above," he told The Current's guest host Katie Simpson.

"It's a different operation, but the basic principle is the same."

The landslide, which happened in a remote area about 200 kilometres northeast of Vancouver, has created a five-metre waterfall blocking salmon from passing through since late June.

Provincial and federal agencies, in conjunction with local First Nations, are involved in a campaign to help the fish find their way upstream to their spawning sites.

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

The team found thousands of chinook and sockeye salmon are arriving every day, with few making it through the barrier. 

Herborg said that around 80 per cent of salmon need to pass the barrier to get to the spawning grounds, otherwise spawning success will likely be "very low."

He told Simpson that the salmon are very important for commercial and recreational fishing, as well as for "traditional and ceremonial fisheries for the First Nations up and down the Fraser watershed." 

The salmon play an integral part in B.C.'s ecosystem, he added. 

"We also know how important chinook are for southern resident killer whales."

The rockslide created a waterfall. Some salmon have been able to pass it, but many more are stuck in the pool below it. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada via the Canadian Press)

Officials are weighing other measures such as shifting boulders to create "little pools and ripples where the salmon can hide, zip around the next rock where there's a current, and have another resting spot," said Herborg.

Another option is creating an artificial "fish ladder" with a series of little jumps for fish to get over the barrier. 

So far, working on solutions has been challenging because the slide happened at a remote part of the canyon, said Herborg. The terrain is rugged and there is no road access to the shoreline.

"The only people who are at the site are scalers who are hanging off ropes which are a few hundred metres long," he said, referring to workers clearing away loose rocks from the canyon walls to make the site accessible to the rest of the team.

"Those guys are my heroes."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Aruna Dutt. Produced by Jessica Linzey.

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