Deforestation of three islands in the heart of the Fraser River is the most pressing rivers issue in the country for the coming year, according to the Outdoor Recreation Council.
Herrling, Carey and Strawberry Islands — nestled mid-river between Hope and Mission — are all being cleared of trees to varying degrees, activity that could damage the most biologically productive part of the Fraser, said ORC rivers chair Mark Angelo.
This stretch of river is a spawning site for threatened white sturgeon, a rearing area for chinook salmon and provides habitat for more than two dozen other finfish species.
“It sustains our largest single spawning run of salmon, the millions upon millions of pink salmon that spawn right in the main stem every two years, right in and around those islands,” said Angelo, who has received the Order of British Columbia and the Order of Canada for his conservation work.
“It’s one of the most productive stretches of river on the planet,” he said.
Hear Mark Angelo: The Heart of the Fraser
Fisheries and Oceans Canada confirmed it has an open investigation into the work being done on Herrling Island.The largest of the three islands, Herrling is being clear-cut as it transitions from a cottonwood tree farm to field crops by Klaassen Farms, the new owner.
Both Herrling and Carey Island are protected farmland in the Agricultural Land Reserve.
Because tree-farming and field crops are both allowed uses on ALR land, no special permission or public process was required for the change, according to Martin Collins, director of policy and planning for the Agricultural Land Commission.
The Klaassens have applied to the ministry of forests, lands, natural resource operations and rural development to build a private bridge from Halvorson Road to the island. A similar bridge application has been made by Carey Island Farms, which intends to farm Carey Island.
Ministry officials are just concluding consultation with local First Nations about the bridge proposals.
Klaassen Farms intends to grow blueberries, corn and forage crops on the 315-hectare (777-acre) island and requires a bridge for year-round vehicle access, according to its application.
In response to that application, the B.C. Wildlife Federation in August called for stronger habitat protection or the outright purchase of the islands for conservation.
However, an earlier attempt by B.C. Nature (Nature Trust of B.C.) to buy the islands from the previous owner Kruger Paper Products failed after a leadership change at the trust scuttled the deal, said Angelo.
“What’s unfolded there has been tragic,” said Angelo. “The requirements for farmers to protect key habitat and riparian zones are very different from what we see in a forestry operation.”
River banks in the area are heavily dyked, making the island a rare example of fish habitat still subject to natural seasonal flooding, which provides protection to juvenile fish during the spring melt, Angelo said.
“We need to take action on this immediately,” he said. “This isn’t just the most urgent rivers issue in B.C., but the whole country.”
Chinook salmon from the Fraser River are a vital part of the diet of endangered southern resident killer whales.
“The federal government just this past week has announced enhanced protections for these killer whales,” he said. “But we cannot protect killer whales without also protecting areas like Herrling and Carey Island. They are all interlinked. You can’t have one without the other.”
The ORC — with 100,000 members — has called on the federal government to make this critical stretch of the Fraser River an “ecologically sensitive area” under the new Fisheries Act, proposed earlier this year.