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To Save the Heart of a Mighty River

An innovative new initiative aims to better protect a stretch of the Fraser River, one of the most productive stretches of river anywhere in the world.

By Mark Angelo

This post is part of a special news series on global water issues.

The Fraser River is British Columbia’s largest and most ecologically diverse waterway. At its very heart, not too far from the City of Vancouver and between the towns of Hope and Mission, lies a meandering section known as one of the most productive stretches of river anywhere in the world.

river intro - Fraser.jpgPhotograph by Kelly Pearce.

Commonly called the ‘Gravel Reach’ because of the gravel and cobbles deposited there by the torrential currents of Fraser Canyon, this stretch of river wanders across a complex, ever-changing landscape of floodplains, side channels, wetlands, and backwaters, screened by native black cottonwoods and cedars and hidden far from the constant din of Highway 1.

The humble name belies a rich ecosystem that supports an exceptional diversity of fish, birds and other wildlife; a truly unique natural bounty that, in turn, underlies extensive cultural, spiritual, aesthetic, recreational and economic values for First Nations, local communities, and indeed, for all Canadians.

river intro - Fraser Heart pictograph.jpgPhotograph by Mark Angelo.

But the heart of the Fraser is also increasingly at risk. The growing pressures of urbanization, agricultural expansion, resource extraction, and land development are rapidly claiming the remains of this once extensive ecosystem.

To counter this, a number of organizations such as the Nature Trust of British Columbia, the North Growth Foundation, the Rivers Institute at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), the Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council, and the BCIT Fish and Wildlife Program are leading an initiative to bring together political, corporate, and public interests to restore and protect what’s left of these aquatic habitats and landscapes for future generations.

Exceptional Abundance

The Fraser is a river of exceptional abundance. It remains the world’s greatest salmon river and the Hope-to-Mission stretch is widely viewed as the heart of the watershed, sustaining BC’s (and perhaps North America’s) largest single spawning run of salmon. More than 20 million pink salmon will reproduce in the main channel of the Gravel Reach while some of North America’s largest runs of Sockeye salmon (34 million and counting this year) migrate annually through this corridor to spawn upriver. Chum salmon also spawn in the side channels while juvenile Chum and Chinook salmon feed along its gravel bars.

All told, the Gravel Reach supports more than 30 species of fish, including several considered at risk. It has the largest population of white sturgeon in North America of any river corridor not influenced by dams. As the largest and longest living freshwater fish in North America, sturgeon can grow to over five meters in length, weigh more than 600 kilograms, and can live for 150 years or more.

The list of species supported by this remarkable ecosystem goes on and on; seals, sea lions, beaver, martin, bears, deer, cougar and coyote. Extensive bird populations include red-tail hawks, green and great blue herons, bald eagles and turkey vultures. It’s also home to amphibians such as the Oregon spotted frog, western red-backed salamander, and the Pacific giant salamander. This extraordinary abundance has sustained First Nations for thousands of years and today provides exceptional cultural, recreational, aesthetic, and economic values for all of southwestern British Columbia. All this is made possible by the wild, rambling nature of this stretch of the Fraser, the very attributes we have so often sought to tame.

While this complex mix of land and waterscapes continue to nurture and sustain much of the Fraser’s abundance, it also faces increasing developmental pressures. Particularly worrisome is the lack of any collaborative plan or vision to safeguard its many values and, despite past studies and recommendations to preserve remaining habitat, governments of all levels have not yet been able to effectively protect this world-class ecosystem.

In contrast, downstream from Mission, there has been progress in mitigating impacts to the Fraser through initiatives such as Metro Vancouver’s “Greenway Network” and the Fraser River Estuary Management Plan (FREMP). In a similar vein, decisive and quick action is now needed to protect and maintain the ecosystem values of the Gravel Reach before they are lost forever. The Heart of the Fraser initiative seeks to achieve this with a multi-pronged approach that includes boosting public awareness of the area’s outstanding ecological, cultural, and recreational attributes while promoting the need for a collaborative plan for the corridor.

river intro - Fraser Heart RD canoeists.jpg

In addition, a major focus of this campaign, in conjunction with the Nature Trust of BC, is on the acquisition of key private lands to be set aside for conservation purposes. With progress now being made on this front with a dozen major properties purchased thus far, groups leading this initiative hope this will encourage various levels of government and First Nations to develop collaborative approaches to protect key crown (or public) lands. On an encouraging note, the McGillivrey Slough, a crown land parcel in the midst of this part of the Fraser, was recently protected because of its important fisheries and wildlife values.

The Heart of the Fraser initiative signals hope that we can avoid the mistakes that have been made in so many other parts of the world, where once productive habitats along great rivers have been lost, or severely damaged. Few places on Earth still have such a rich and intact stretch of river so close to a major urban center. Consequently, we have a chance to do things differently–but there is an urgent need for action if we are to protect the heart of one of the world’s greatest rivers.

Mark Angelo is the chair of the Rivers Institute at the British Columbia Institute of Technology and an internationally acclaimed river conservationist. He has received the Order of Canada, his country’s highest honor, in recognition of his river conservation efforts both at home and abroad. He received the United Nations International Year of Fresh Water Science, Education and Conservation Award, the Order of British Columbia, the National River Conservation Award, and an honorary doctorate from Simon Fraser University. He is a Fellow International of the Explorers Club. Angelo is the chair and founder of World Rivers Day, an event celebrated across dozens of countries on the last Sunday of each September. He has traveled on and along close to 1,000 rivers around the world over the past 5 decades. He has authored numerous articles and papers about rivers and his expeditions, including the Riverworld presentation launched in concert with National Geographic Online in 2003 and shown to audiences across North America.

Read more blog posts by Mark Angelo.

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