Higher salmon returns celebrated upstream of the 2019 Big Bar Rock Slide north of Lillooet, B.C.

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First Nations are celebrating cautiously ahead of a 2019 landslide that dealt a devastating blow to salmon populations reaching the Upper Fraser to spawn.

This year, preliminary data suggests that more fish are finally reaching their spawning grounds upstream, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).

Since this week, more than 280,000 salmon have migrated past a monitoring site about 40 kilometers upstream from the rockslide. More than 80% of them are sockeye salmon and the rest are chinook salmon, according to DFO.

“What we’re seeing are pretty good pass results right now at the landslide site,” Gwil Roberts, DFO’s Big Bar landslide response manager, told a conference call. press Friday.

“Over 39,000 salmon pass through the Big Bar area daily.”

The Big Bar landslide north of Lillooet, British Columbia, dumped 85,000 cubic meters of rock into the upper Fraser; it was reported to authorities in July 2019.

The rock fell from a 125 meter high cliff, creating a waterfall too high for the salmon to jump, trapping them below.

The Big Bar Rockslide north of Lillooet, British Columbia dumped 85,000 cubic meters of rock into the upper Fraser in 2019. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

This meant that thousands of salmon were unable to reach the upstream waterways in which they were born and where they must reach to spawn.

Experts at the time feared that the complete blockage of such a vital salmon migration, thousands of miles off the coast, was just another threat to the future of the already struggling salmon species of the province.

In response, First Nations, British Columbia and Ottawa spent years helping the fish overcome the blockage, trying various emergency measures, including hauling salmon in buckets and trying to build a channel to derivation.

Last year, DFO and local First Nations released over 200,000 salmon fry into the Upper Fraser watershed.

Those efforts may be paying off, but DFO warned Friday that sonar monitoring and salmon tagging data are preliminary at this point.

The first data has everyone happy, including more than 20 First Nations upstream of the rockslide.

“This is important not just for Indigenous people, but for everyone who depends on the Fraser,” said Greg Witzky, director of operations for the Fraser Salmon Management Council and a member of Cstelnec First Nation, also known as Adams Lake Indian Band, First Nation.

“We’re celebrating, people will be eating above the slide this year.”

Although salmon stocks have seen a significant rebuild this year, their populations are still below historic levels.

DFO said the continued decline in salmon stocks appears to be “an ocean side decline,” Roberts said. “What we see here on the river is the end of the spawning cycle when the salmon come back.

“Obviously it’s important that the spawning cycle be as smooth as possible.”

Fisheries and Oceans Canada officials and members of the BC Wildfire Service move salmon into a temporary enclosure on the Fraser River in July 2019. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

But with salmon stocks still struggling at sea, this week’s celebrations by indigenous communities dependent on salmon fishing are tempered by lingering fears for the future of the species.

“The next two years, in the first races? That’s another story,” Witzky said.

“We’re going to look into that, working hard all winter.”

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