This push to bring back salmon is about more than just fish

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There is only one bridge in Takla Landing, and on this June day about three dozen people are gathered there around a blue plastic tub swimming with hundreds of baby salmon. They are preparing to transfer the fish into a nearby creek, hoping against all odds the fry will thrive and reboot the millennia-old migration of Early Stuart sockeye, once millions of fish strong, along the Fraser River from its headwaters to the sea and back again. It’s a last-ditch effort — the staple for the community has been nearly wiped out by habitat loss, climate change and a freak landslide in 2018.

"It's basically one of the reasons we're here as a people," said Takla First Nation fisheries and wildlife co-ordinator Keith West. "We relied on them more heavily in past generations, and it is really important to sustain that into the future."

Larry Dominic helps people scramble the creek banks with buckets full of salmon fry ready to be released. Photo by Marc Fawcett-Atkinson/National Observer

Despite myriad obstacles hampering a salmon resurgence, the mood was hopeful. Kids pitched in to carry plastic buckets filled with fish into the river. A mix of community members, visitors and representatives from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) leaned against the bridge, talking fish and catching up on a rare visit to the remote community about 350 kilometres northwest of Prince George. Donning moosehide regalia beaded with bears and moose, elder Victor West blessed the event and danced to a song for the Sasuchan (bear) people sung by Hannah West.

The release was one of dozens orchestrated by First Nations that took place this spring on rivers throughout the upper reaches and tributaries of the Fraser River. Battling natural disasters, climate change, habitat destruction and a stubborn government bureaucracy, the effort is a quest by the nations to bring back the once-abundant run and reclaim authority over their territories and food.

In Takla Landing, efforts have focused on the Early Stuart sockeye, a run composed of more than 40 genetically distinct populations of sockeye salmon that spawn in the upper headwater streams of the Fraser River. The Early Stuart has seen dramatic declines in recent years with habitat loss, disease, overfishing and climate change slashing the number of fish returning to spawn. Citing these declines, in 2017 the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada recommended the Early Stuart run be considered endangered, though it has not yet been designated as such under Canada's protected species laws.

Takla First Nation fisheries and wildlife coordinator Keith West listens during a release day blessing for the salmon. Photo by Marc Fawcett-Atkinson/National Observer

The situation has worsened since then. In late 2018, a massive landslide near Big Bar, hundreds of kilometres downriver from Takla Landing, created a five-metre waterfall on the Fraser River that prevented salmon from migrating upstream. Dozens of First Nations, including Takla, and DFO mounted a massive effort in 2019 to get fish over the barrier with helicopters, trucks and even a so-called "salmon cannon" that used a vacuum tube to shoot salmon over the barrier. By 2021, authorities had created a "nature-like" fish passage that allows salmon to bypass the blockage, but it came too late for the 2019 Early Stuart run: DFO estimates nearly the entire run never made it to their spawning grounds.

Sockeye salmon typically return to spawn in their native rivers four years after being born. The Big Bar slide broke this cycle by preventing fish trapped downstream from spawning. This summer is the four-year mark since the first run of salmon was blocked by the slide, and it is expected to be exceedingly small, composed largely of stragglers from last year's run and a handful of hatchery-raised fish. The Takla Landing release is an attempt to dampen the impact of these low returns on the overall cycle to save it from a downward spiral to extinction.

Chapter 1

The birth of a hatchery

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The Takla First Nation fish hatchery is housed in a converted shipping container set just outside the community's water treatment plant. Inside the facility, thousands of salmon fry with genetics specific to nearby rivers swim circles in two green plastic tubs, waiting to be released into creeks and rivers throughout the nation's territory.

While the hatchery can't produce the huge numbers of fish commonly seen in the large facilities most familiar to many urbanites and school children, its small size means the nation can haul it across hundreds of kilometres of rough forest roads to Takla Landing. It has shored up their ability to boost salmon numbers by adding to tools like mitigating habitat damage, protecting eggs as they grow in natural streams and lobbying DFO and the provincial governments for stronger conservation measures.

Crucially, the facility has eliminated the nation's reliance on DFO to grow fish — a key move in their fight to reclaim authority over their territories and resources.

Streams around Takla Lake like this one provide ideal spawning habitat for the Early Stuart. Keeping them running free and clear of sediment is essential for the fish to spawn successfully. Photo by Marc Fawcett-Atkinson\National Observer

For over 100 years, colonial policies eroded the nation's culture and political authority, including the ability to manage their lands and waters. Though many of the most draconian policies were slowly eased near the end of the 20th century, until recently the government largely refused to collaborate with the First Nations or implement stringent conservation measures to save the fish.

Frustrations came to a head around 2017. At this point, many of the First Nations whose territories are high upriver for years hadn't been able to catch enough fish for the community's food, social and ceremonial needs, a right protected by section 35 of the Canadian constitution. This was due to DFO management rules that allowed other fisheries to occur downstream before the upstream nations had harvested their catch, and self-imposed restrictions to protect the most vulnerable stocks. The nations and experts attribute the lack of fish to DFO commercial and sport fishing regulations, further exacerbated by fish stressors like habitat loss and climate change.

But DFO "wouldn't do anything…not even acknowledge there was a problem," said Gordon Sterritt, executive director of the Upper Fraser Fisheries Conservation Alliance (UFFCA), a Indigenous fisheries coalition that provides policy and technical support to made up of 23 First Nations whose territories are in the Fraser River watershed upstream from the Big Bar slide.

Upper Fraser Fisheries Conservation Alliance executive director Gordon Sterritt said that have years of inaction by the federal government, First Nations along the river have started taking conservation into their own hands. Photo by Marc Fawcett-Atkinson/National Observer

"Fed up" with the ministry's inaction, the nations took matters into their own hands. They bolstered existing conservation programs and started new ones, monitoring water quality and restoring critical spawning habitat. Takla and a few others invested in small, portable fish hatcheries and set out to learn what West, the fisheries and wildlife co-ordinator, calls the "rocket science" of raising endangered fish.

Chapter 2

'We have really, really resilient fish'

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From the moment biologists collect broodstock — the migrating salmon that provide hatcheries with eggs and milt — they start a high-stakes mission to keep the fish swimming in clean, cool and well-aerated water. Salmon rely on water with plenty of oxygen to survive and water even slightly warmer than their usual range can harm them.

In the best conditions, moving live fish between spawning streams and the hatchery is delicate. In a huge place like the Takla nation's traditional territory, completing these transfers successfully is a "huge deal" that requires careful co-ordination and caution, explained Takla First Nation biologist Cory Williamson. Once in the hatchery, the fish need to be kept alive and their water fresh 24-7, even during a power outage or other disruption. The staff running the hamlet's water treatment system have helped make that possible, he said.

Despite these challenges, Williamson said the hatchery program is going "smashingly." They are growing about 67,000 fish this year, on top of conducting baseline environmental monitoring in the nation's territory. The project has also given the nation an opportunity to put its value system — which puts stewarding the land above extracting resources — into practice on a scale for years banned by colonial rules.

"It's important we look after everything that is part of our land — and we are part of our land," explained West.

In doing so, this work has also contributed to shifting the power imbalance between the federal and provincial governments and First Nations.

Cory Williamson is a biologist working with the Takla First Nation on its conservation efforts for species like salmon and caribou. Photo by Marc Fawcett-Atkinson/National Observer

"For Takla, this hatchery is also very political," said Williamson, who is not Indigenous. "It's an action to say: 'We are here, this is our land and this is what we want to see happen. We want these fish back. And, by the way, governments, you are not stepping up in the way that you should to fix this problem, so we're gonna do it (and) go it alone if we have to.'"

The efforts by Takla and other nations, groups like the UFFCA and the close collaboration between governments and First Nations to fix the Big Bar crisis have led to some shifts, Sterritt said. DFO supports many of the projects and has agreed to collaborate more equally with First Nations on restoration efforts. The government's new Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative, a years-long program to restore specific runs including the Early Stuart, has also committed to working closely with Indigenous people.

There is "every possibility" the salmon will return in their historical abundance, Williamson said, but forces outside the nation's control mean it won't be easy. From the Fraser River's estuary to its headwaters, fish habitat is under attack as logging and industrial development clog up and pollute vital streams. Overfishing, particularly by American harvesters who intercept the fish in the ocean on their homeward migration, remains common. And climate change is poised to make rivers too hot for salmon while fuelling more freak disasters like the Big Bar slide.

Despite these challenges, back at the bridge on this sunny June morning, hope is in the air. People watch as a young boy releases the final few salmon fry into the creek, savouring the last minutes together before heading back to their communities. For West, it is affirmation his decision to be "100 percent committed" to restoring the fish will pay off.

"I've been sure since Day 1" the fish would return, he said. "We have lots of help. I know we'll succeed because we have a lot of committed people and really, really resilient fish that have survived without help for this long."