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

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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