Canada crime probe sought in salmon deaths


VANCOUVER, British Columbia — A criminal investigation is being urged into a gravel-mining operation on the Fraser River that, according to a study by the British Columbia Institute of Technology, killed about 2 million young pink salmon this spring.

The salmon had just hatched and were hiding in the gravel near their spawning beds when a contractor working with the Cheam native band built a causeway across a side channel, cutting off water flow, leaving several hectares of river bottom high and dry at Big Bar Island, near Chilliwack.

"The evidence is pretty ironclad. ... It was basically mass mortality," said Dr. Marvin Rosenau, a senior fisheries biologist with the provincial government who is also an instructor at BCIT.

The mining operation had been approved by the federal government and supported by the province. Both levels of government have pushed for increased gravel mining in the Fraser in recent years.

Students in the BCIT fish and wildlife program laid out grids below the causeway and dug through the salmon redds (spawning nests) to study the impact of the mining project. In a dry area below the causeway, BCIT researchers estimated that between 1.5 and 2.25 million young pink salmon, or alevins, had died shortly after hatching and before developing to a stage where they could swim freely.

Rosenau said the technical study raises the question as to why Department of Fisheries and Oceans officials failed to act in time to save the fish.

"There should have been a stop-work order issued on this project and there wasn't," he said.

"There was federal approval to put a causeway across (to Big Bar Island) with a bridge incorporated that was intended to maintain water flows, but the bridge requirement was ignored … instead they built a berm across the channel.

"I guess the question is whether DFO managers met their fiduciary responsibilities," Rosenau said.

"The primary responsible environmental agency for the protection of fish and fish habitat is Fisheries and Oceans Canada. However, regarding this particular project, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans appears to have been negligent in enforcing the Canada Fisheries Act," states an executive summary of the report.

"Fisheries and Oceans Canada also did not ensure adequate assessment or mitigation of impacts as required under both Canadian law and the agreements for gravel removal between Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Land and Water BC Inc. Further, there was a lack of diligent care and attention following the causeway construction with the result that both Section 32 (destruction of fish by any means other than fishing), and Section 35 (harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat) of the Canada Fisheries Act were violated."

The report states that DFO "may have knowingly refrained" from enforcing the Canada Fisheries Act and it concludes, "Given the severity of the impacts that ensued and the significant legal implications, a criminal investigation may be warranted."

Frank Kwak, president of the Fraser Valley Salmon Society, said his group is a co-signatory on the report with BCIT, the Sierra Legal Defence Fund and the Suzuki Foundation.

"Once that document has been released, the major stakeholders … plan to meet and the thought is we'd go to the RCMP and ask for a criminal investigation," Kwak said.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.