white sturgeon Fraser River

The battle to protect the heart of the Fraser River

Considered one of the most productive channels in the world, the lower Fraser and its unique islands provide important nurseries for juvenile fish, including endangered Chinook and prehistoric white sturgeon. But these islands are being bought, logged, diked and developed at a pace scientists and conservationists fear will upend the entire ecosystem

At 1,375 kilometres, the Fraser River is the longest in British Columbia. Much of the province’s population is situated along the river’s meandering basin. 

Its waters are home to countless species, including the prehistoric white sturgeon. 

The 80-kilometre stretch between Mission and Hope, known as ‘the heart of the Fraser,’ is one of the most productive river channels in the world.

Yet the small islands in the heart of the Fraser, known as island nurseries for juvenile fish, are being logged and developed for agriculture in a manner scientists fear could be the undoing of this unique and fragile ecosystem. 

This collection of photos is curated from the newly released book, The Heart of the Fraser, by Ken Ashley, director of the BCIT Rivers Institute

The book, which includes a collection of essays, outlines the importance of this stretch of river for locals residents and Indigenous communities who are already witnessing the impact of climate change in its waters.

Pink salmon Fraser River

Pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) are also known as ‘humpies’ due to the big hump they develop during the spawning season. Photo: Fernando Lessa

Fraser River

The ever-changing Fraser River landscape. Flood zones surrounding the river’s islands provide important fish nurseries. Photo: Fernando Lessa

Fin Donnely swimming Fraser River

Fin Donnelly, a member of Parliament representing Port Moody-Coquitla, is a long-time Fraser River advocate and swimmer. Photo: Fernando Lessa

pink salmon Fraser River

A female pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) digs in the Fraser’s gravel to bury her eggs. Photo: Fernando Lessa

Fraser River side channel

Only a few side channels along the 80-kilometre stretch known as ‘the heart of the Fraser’ still have their original vegetation. Photo: Fernando Lessa

Eddie Gardner, Fraser River

Eddie Gardner, a member of Skwah First Nation and long-time wild salmon advocate, is a contributor to The Heart of the Fraser. Photo: Fernando Lessa

pink salmon herrling island fraser river

A school of pink salmon using the coveted gravel of Herrling Island to spawn. Photo: Fernando Lessa

Fraser River

Large, clear pools of water pools can become disconnected from the river’s main stem during winter months and serve as important spots for juvenile fish. This particular patch of water is hemmed in between a logged island and the TransCanada highway. Photo: Fernando Lessa

Fraser Valley

Autumn colours in the Fraser Valley. Photo: Fernando Lessa

Bald eagle Fraser River

Bald eagles are attracted to the rich ecosystem of the Fraser River. Photo: Fernando Lessa

Fraser River

Security diver, Rick Hurley. Photos published in The Heart of the Fraser will be the first photo documentation of the white sturgeon underwater in the Fraser River. Photo: Fernando Lessa

Pink salmon Fraser River

A female pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) protects her eggs in a small tributary on Herrling Island. Photo: Fernando Lessa

Pink salmon eggs Fraser River

Dark sand offsets the soft pink of salmon eggs, visible in the centre of this image. At closer range, the eyes of the embryo are visible through the translucent sac. Photo: Fernando Lessa

Black bear paw print Fraser River

A black bear paw print in the Fraser. Black bears are an essential species for a healthy ecosystem here. Photo: Fernando Lessa

Salmon Heart of the Fraser

A colourful spawning salmon in the waters of the lower Fraser. Photo: Fernando Lessa

Decomposing salmon

Dead salmon decompose on the rocky bank of the Fraser. Decomposing fish fertilize the surrounding soils and waters for future generations. Photo: Fernando Lessa

Chinook Fraser River

Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) are the biggest species of Pacific salmon. The Fraser River watershed is known for being the largest producer of Chinook in Canada, but due to overfishing, habitat loss and climate change, their numbers are diminishing. Of the thirteen wild Fraser River Chinook salmon populations assessed by DFO, only one is not at risk. Photo: Fernando Lessa

juvenile salmon Fraser River

Most species of salmonids use the side channels for juvenile rearing. Some species spend up to two years here before heading out to the ocean. Photo: Fernando Lessa

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
We’ve got big plans for 2024
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

The Narwhal’s reporters uncover energy stories that send shockwaves throughout Canada. But they can’t do it alone — we still need to add 50 new members this month to meet our budget. Will you support crucial climate reporting that makes an impact?
Relentless.
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The Narwhal’s reporters uncover energy stories that send shockwaves throughout Canada. But they can’t do it alone — we still need to add 50 new members this month to meet our budget. Will you support crucial climate reporting that makes an impact?