Federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan is scheduled to visit the Big Bar landslide on Friday, marking a new stage in clearing a slide that has put several wild salmon species at risk of extinction.
The slide, reported to officials in June, 2019, dumped an estimated 75,000 cubic metres of rock into the Fraser River near Lillooet, B.C., creating a five-metre waterfall impassable for wild salmon headed upstream.
Federal and provincial governments, along with First Nations, set up a joint response to clear a passage for migrating fish, and moved some by helicopter. That emergency effort wrapped up in September.
On Monday, a federal government posting confirmed that the engineering company Peter Kiewit Sons ULC had been awarded a $17.6-million contract to help clear the slide before river levels begin to rise this spring. The company is based in Nebraska, but has offices throughout North America, including in Burnaby, B.C.
Without immediate environmental remediation, “many salmon stocks native to the upper Fraser River (a large geographic region of B.C.) may become extinct,” says a request for information posted as part of the procurement process.
That could result in economic losses throughout B.C., and put food security and the culture of many Fraser River Indigenous communities at risk, the document says.
Gord Sterritt, executive director of the Upper Fraser Fisheries Conservation Alliance, on Tuesday said he was “fairly optimistic" that work identified for the winter would be completed.
But it will take time to determine how fish are responding and what other steps may be required, he said.
“We’re going to be studying this for quite a while to determine what the overall impacts are – not just for 2019, but for four years down the road and beyond,” said Mr. Sterritt, who helped co-ordinate First Nations as part of the emergency response.
A procurement document says the work should be done before water levels rise in the spring, which usually happens around mid-March. Lower water levels in the winter would make it easier for workers and equipment to operate at the remote site.
Joe Alphonse, tribal chairman with the Tsilhqot’in National Government, on Wednesday said he hoped work would focus on re-establishing passage for wild stocks, regardless of cost.
In an e-mail this week, Ms. Jordan said “there is no higher priority” for her and her department in B.C. than the slide, and that she will soon announce next steps. In addition to her visit, she said she will meet with First Nations leaders and other stakeholders.
The Tsilhqot’in National Government, which represents Tsilhqot’in communities based west of Williams Lake in the B.C. Interior, in August declared a state of local emergency, saying the slide posed an immediate threat to chinook and sockeye fisheries that are primary food sources.
“Our food supply is gone,” Mr. Alphonse said.
The Big Bar slide is on the traditional territory of the High Bar and Canoe Creek First Nations. But like many other First Nations in the province, the Tsilhqot’in also felt the effects. Up to 140 others may be affected, procurement documents said.
The slide also hit commercial and recreational fisheries.
Last year’s B.C. commercial salmon fishery was the smallest since 1951 in value and weight, said Joy Thorkelson, president of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union.
“Many salmon runs must pass through this constriction and the development of a substantial route through the slide area is crucial,” she said in an e-mail.
“Each year fish passage is blocked is another year towards the extirpation of upper Fraser salmon stocks.”