Power shovels have begun excavating 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.
Seabird Island Band and Jakes Construction’s received the green light to mine in the area, despite fierce opposition from fish biologists.
BC Sportfishing Group owner Tony Nootebos said he was deeply disturbed by the federal and provincial governments’ recent approval of the controversial mining project in one of only two known spawning areas for the Lower Fraser River white sturgeon.
“We know, 100 per cent, that it’s a sensitive area. There’s proof that sturgeon are spawning in there,” Nootebos said.
Nootebos emphasized he wasn’t against gravel mining in general.
But he questioned why the province allowed industry to dig up a sensitive fish habitat, even as it was advising sport fishers to stay away from the area during certain months.
“It’s sort of disturbing,” said Brian McKinley, a guide and owner of Silversides Fishing Adventures. McKinley said he voluntarily steered clear of fishing at that site for years to honour government recommendations to not disturb sturgeon spawning habitat.
Sturgeon are a federally listed species at risk, though the lower Fraser sturgeon stock, which may be damaged by this project, have been left off this list. Sturgeon are considered a living fossil because they have survived virtually unchanged for more than 150 million years. They can live for over 150 years, and grow to more than six metres long.
The Lower Fraser River white sturgeon is the only wild, hatchery-free white sturgeon in the world, according to the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society.
Nootebos said people from all over the world come to see the Fraser River sturgeon. He said over 40 per cent of his clients come from Europe to experience catch-and-release fishing of sturgeon.
“We’re finding that sturgeon are increasingly popular because, well, they’re huge,” McKinley said. “People come from the UK, Germany, Japan and Australia to see them.”
B.C. Forests, Lands and Natural Resources spokesperson Vivian Thomas confirmed that the provincial sturgeon expert worked with anglers and guides and asked them last year “if they were willing not to fish in the side channel north of Seabird Bar during the spawning period.”
She said, however, that “the actual extraction area is at the south side of Seabird Bar” and that “this area is “not a confirmed area for spawning by sturgeon.”
It’s a claim that biologists dispute, saying the spawning grounds are very close if not overlapping with the area where gravel is being mined.