Skip to main content
The roiling waters of the Fraser River near Lillooet, where a landslide this summer put giant rocks in the path of migrating salmon. Courtesy of the Big Bar Unified Command

In late June, fisheries officials learned of a landslide along the Fraser River near Lillooet, about 250 kilometres by road northeast of Vancouver. Rocks, some as big as cars, had sheared off a 125-metre cliff and lodged in the river, creating a five-metre waterfall below.

For wild salmon, it might as well have been a brick wall.

The Fraser River is a migratory path for five species of wild salmon, which return to fresh water from the ocean to spawn.

Story continues below advertisement

The fish are a food and cultural mainstay for First Nations, the backbone of B.C.’s sport and commercial fisheries, and essential food for other species, including endangered killer whales.

Even before the slide, Fraser River salmon were in trouble.

Chinook – big, powerful fish that are a dietary mainstay for killer whales – are at risk of disappearing. Federal assessments last year found 12 of 13 Fraser River chinook populations to be at risk. This year’s sockeye run has been dismal.

Harvests have been cancelled or restricted and, this month, labour and First Nations groups called for federal disaster relief for fishing-dependent communities.

So the slide could hardly have come at a worse time, or place.

As long-term questions rumbled – Could it have been detected sooner? What impact would it have on future runs? – the immediate focus was clear.

Save the fish.

Story continues below advertisement


at the scene: big bar landslide

In late June, a landslide along a remote stretch

of the Fraser River north of Lillooet dumped

tonnes of rock 125 metres into the water below.

The submerged debris impeded the path of

migrating sockeye salmon and other species,

necessitating the mobilization of hundreds of

scientists, engineers, pilots and other workers

to clean up the site as well as count, trap and

transport the fish past the slide.

B.C.

ALTA.

Detail

Big Bar

landslide

Pacific

Ocean

Vancouver

Fraser River

BRITISH COLUMBIA

99

Lillooet

N

0

10

Seton Lake

KM

Note: photo

taken July,

2019

60 m

Landslide

125 m

Debris

5 m

Submerged debris

Landslide site

Fraser River

BRITISH

COLUMBIA

Map key

Fish capture

Fish holding site

Helispot

Rock scalers area

Direction

salmon are

swimming

Medivac site

john sopinski/the globe and mail,

source: big bar unified command; noaa

fisheries; TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP

CONTRIBUTORS; HIU

at the scene: big bar landslide

In late June, a landslide along a remote stretch of the

Fraser River north of Lillooet dumped tonnes of rock 125

metres into the water below. The submerged debris

impeded the path of migrating sockeye salmon and

other species, necessitating the mobilization of hun-

dreds of scientists, engineers, pilots and other workers

to clean up the site as well as count, trap and transport

the fish past the slide.

B.C.

ALTA.

Detail

Big Bar

landslide

Pacific

Ocean

Vancouver

Fraser River

BRITISH COLUMBIA

99

Lillooet

N

0

10

Seton Lake

KM

Note: photo

taken July,

2019

60 m

Landslide

125 m

Debris

5 m

Submerged debris

Landslide site

Fraser River

BRITISH

COLUMBIA

Map key

Fish capture

Fish holding site

Helispot

Rock scalers area

Direction

salmon are

swimming

Medivac site

john sopinski/the globe and mail, source: big bar

unified command; noaa fisheries; TILEZEN;

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU

at the scene: big bar landslide

In late June, a landslide along a remote stretch of the Fraser

River north of Lillooet dumped tonnes of rock 125 metres

into the water below. The submerged debris impeded the

path of migrating sockeye salmon and other species, neces-

sitating the mobilization of hundreds of scientists, engi-

neers, pilots and other workers to clean up the site as well

as count, trap and transport the fish past the slide.

B.C.

ALTA.

Detail

Big Bar

landslide

Pacific

Ocean

Van.

Fraser River

BRITISH COLUMBIA

Note: photo

taken July,

2019

99

Lillooet

N

0

10

Seton Lake

KM

60 m

Landslide

125 m

Debris

5 m

Direction

salmon are

swimming

Submerged debris

Fraser River

Site of landslide

BRITISH COLUMBIA

Sockeye salmon

Oncorhynchus nerka

Map key

0

Fish capture

METRES

840

Fish holding site

Weight: 2 to 7 kg

Length: 45 to 75 cm

Helispot

Rock scalers area

Range: Northwest Alaska

to the Deschutes River in Oregon

Medivac site

john sopinski/the globe and mail, source: big bar unified command; noaa fisheries;

TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU


A tough spot

The Big Bar slide is at the foot of a cliff. Even assessing the site was a challenge. Before anybody could go about blasting or moving rocks to help fish get through, loose rock had to be removed from cliff walls.

Rock scalers tackled the wall with hand tools. Helicopters dumped water from giant buckets to sluice loose debris.

As of early September, an estimated 2,000 cubic metres, or 300 truckloads, had been removed.

The river flow is unpredictable, making basic tasks – such as installing sonar counters to see if any fish were making it upstream – a challenge.

In July, flooding on the Chilcotin River, north of the slide site, sent water and debris downstream.

Canyon walls form a wind tunnel and summer temperatures in the area can be scorching.


Near Big Bar on July 24, workers gather on a cliff near the rockslide site. The slide has narrowed the river, creating a five-metre waterfall.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

A salmon leaps out of a vessel being used to transport fish up the Fraser River by helicopter.

B.C. Premier John Horgan, second from left, helps Fisheries and Oceans Canada officials and B.C. Wildfire Service firefighters pull a net to catch the salmon.

Photos: Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press


The players

British Columbia did not declare a provincial state of emergency over the Big Bar landslide, as it did for wildfires in August, 2018. (The province ended that state the following month as weather cooled.)

But the approach to tackling the slide has had the hallmarks of emergency response, including a co-ordinated effort featuring federal and provincial governments, First Nations and multiple agencies, all working from a command centre in Lillooet.

There have been up to 180 people working on the response, ranging from hydrological engineers to helicopter pilots to wildfire service employees who carried flopping, slippery fish from nets to buckets for transport by helicopter.


Watch the process of catching the salmon, putting them in buckets and helicoptering them to safety farther up the Fraser River.

The options

To a layperson, it might seem simple: Blow up the slide so fish can get through. But the site had to be assessed, a helipad built. By early September, the team was still working on getting an excavator to the site.

Teams weighed the possibility of moving fish by helicopter, by truck or with a fish cannon, a device that would essentially shoot the fish over the slide.

The door was thrown open for advice. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was tapped for technical suggestions (the agency had little to add to what teams on the ground were already doing, officials said on a recent technical briefing). A suggestion from a Yinka Dene member resulted in a plan to ship up to 200 Early Stuart sockeye to a rearing facility in Chilliwack. (Early Stuarts, which migrate to the Stuart Lake system near Fort St. James, are one of the stocks flagged as “of concern” by federal authorities.)

Story continues below advertisement

Over the past couple of months, crews built a road for trucks. Helicopter transports began, shuttling fish caught using seining, dip-netting and a fish wheel, a system of buckets that turns with the river’s current.

Glitches were tackled as they happened. Cultural and archeological assessments were part of the process. As water levels dropped, workers were able to start moving rocks, using hand tools, small blasts and muscle to create new pathways for the fish.

The rock moving involved “lots of physical labour and lots of kind of playing chess," Sam Fougère, a senior engineering geologist with BGC Engineering, said in a Sept. 6 technical briefing.

“If we are not sure what is going on, we actually just look at what the fish are doing,” Mr. Fougère added. “Within minutes of doing work, they will either make passage through that section we are working on or they won’t. And we have to do additional work.”


Stuart LePage of Fisheries and Oceans Canada sprints to place a salmon in one of the transport buckets.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

What’s next

In early September, the momentum appeared to shift. Salmon were swimming past the slide. The fish included pink salmon, which are smaller and weaker than chinook and sockeye that had been making their way past the obstacle.

In a Sept. 11 update, the incident command team said 160,000 fish had swum past the landslide since the response began.

Story continues below advertisement

Over the preceding six weeks, more than 60,000 salmon had been captured and flown by helicopter upstream of the landslide.

With monitoring showing that 85 per cent of salmon were making their way past the slide, the command team put transport operations on hold. If there are problems with pinks – about 800,000 are expected in coming weeks – transports could start up again.

The incident command team estimates it moved about a third of the chinook and a quarter of the sockeye that arrived below the slide between the time the response began in June and early September, when it was put on hold because most fish were getting through.

For some sockeye, the only spawners this year will be those moved by human crews.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies