The B.C. government has just approved a "precedent-setting" gravel mining project along the Fraser River, which conservationists say will have a devastating impact on one of only two known spawning areas for the Lower Fraser River white sturgeon. 

Marvin Rosenau of the BCIT Rivers Institute said he was appalled by the province's decision.

“You’re mining in one of the last sturgeon spawning sites that is known – why would you do it?  It’s just so stupid.”

White sturgeon can live for more than 150 years, weigh up to 600 kilograms and grow more than six metres long. The sturgeon is considered a living fossil because it has survived virtually unchanged for more than 150 million years. They're one of the most ancient fish in the world.

It's one of the last places on earth where "truly wild sturgeon" can be found, according to the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society.

The project is still under review by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and a final decision is expected soon. 

"It looks promising," said Seabird Island First Nation corporate affairs director at Seabird Island First Nation,  Jay Hope. "We're pleased with the outcome." 

Jay Hope 

Seabird Island First Nation plans on mining 105,000 cubic metres of gravel in the area known as the "Heart of the Fraser" from a site called Seabird Bar B, located on reserve lands near Agassiz, B.C. While other areas of the Fraser River have been mined by various parties since the 1950s, Seabird Island First Nation only began extracting gravel from this area in 2004.

The project is in partnership with Jakes Construction, a Chilliwack-based gravel mining company that works with Seabird Island First Nation, providing training and jobs to the area since the mid-90s. Gravel is part of a $300 million-a-year aggregate (crushed rock, gravel and sand) industry, and is used in the construction of roads, home foundations, sidewalks and bridges.

Conservationists opposed the province's decision, saying that the gravel extraction will wreak havoc on prime sturgeon spawning ground, a rich ecosystem where salmon also rear.

The Seabird Island project approval may open the gates to further gravel mining on the river and further disruption of the fish population.

Photo by Andrew S. Wright of Sarah Schreier, Executive Director Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society

Gravel mining along the Fraser sparked controversy in 2006 when an estimated two million pink salmon fry were killed when an extraction company cut off the spawning channel along a channel island called Big Bar. Rosenau said the Seabird Island gravel extraction project goes through, the environmental consequences could be far worse. 

"Biologically, the destruction at Big Bar was trivial compared to what may, and will, happen at Seabird Side B," he said. 

Rosenau said the province has ignored  research that demonstrates gravel mining will damage the sturgeon population. Sturgeon are a federally listed species at risk, though the lower Fraser sturgeon stock, which would be affected by this project, have been left off this list.

Photo of Marvin Rosenau of the BCIT Rivers Institute by Katelyn Verstraten

"The province and federal government both made public statements and commitments to protect the sturgeon and ensure its recovery. This is a slap in the face," said John Werring, Senior Science Advisor to the David Suzuki Foundation. "If it was an absolute necessity to do this to save lives, I would understand."

"They know this is only to provide gravel to someone who wants to buy it (for commercial interests)."

Hope said that his band has already lost between 12 and 15 per cent of their reserve land to erosion from the river. The proposed gravel extraction will help mitigate erosion and flood concerns, he said, although conservationists told the Vancouver Observer that this claim is scientifically unsound.

"Come walk with us"

“It’s about the safety and security of our reserve lands and our community, and erosion and flooding go hand in hand,”  Hope said. “That’s the number one priority for us – not economic gain...We accept that we may not make too much money on this.”

The Seabird band is a part of the Stó:lō Tribal Council, Stó:lō meaning people of the river. There are around 950 members of the Seabird band, said Hope, nearly two-thirds of which live on reserve land.

Gravel mining on the Heart of the Fraser has been a contentious debate that has raged for decades.

Recent data compiled by members of the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society suggests that juvenile white sturgeon numbers are dramatically declining.

“We accept that there is criticism out there,”  Hope said. “We accept that people have different ideas than we do. We’d like to reach out to those people... As Chief says, come walk with us.”

The B.C. government offered approval for the Seabird Island Band to remove gravel until March 15, 2015, subject to conditions including: 

  • An on-site monitoring program to identify and track impacts.
  • Monitoring and compensation for any salmon populations impacted, though the province says salmon populations will not be significantly impacted. 
  • A revised design of the excavation area and the establishment of mitigation measures have addressed concerns regarding impacts to sturgeon.

Hope said that proponents had a "comprehensive sturgeon monitoring program" and were willing to work with the ministry to meet the conditions.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations said the approval "doesn’t set a precedent" and that "decisions are made on a case-by-case basis." 

"This is absolute nonsense," Roseneau said. "If they are going to allow mining in such a sensitive area as this location, the province will allow mining anywhere." He said in addition to sturgeon, juvenile chinook that rear in the area will have their habitat destroyed if the project is approved by the federal government. 

With files from Katelyn Verstraten

Photo below by Andrew S. Wright