Insurmountable: The battle to bring a salmon run home

“We just knew no fish would get by. Not without our help.” Behind the scenes of the epic campaign to save a Fraser River salmon run.

  • Published Jan 14, 2022
  • Updated Apr 06
  • 2,987 words
  • 12 minutes
Aerial shot of the big bar land slide in fraser river
Workers seen on top of the cliff at the Big Bar landslide on the Fraser River in July 2019. Fisheries and Oceans Canada officials said that 99 per cent of early Stuart sockeye and 89 per cent of early chinook salmon were lost that year. The fish couldn’t make it past the landslide. (Photo: Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck)
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In a tapestry of rivers and streams high above the Fraser River, lost beneath a layer of pebbles, and shaded by the shadow of trees, hides a horde of salmon eggs, brilliantly orange and each barely the size of a grain of rice.

It took every last sinew, tissue and fibre of the parent salmon to fertilize and hide these eggs. These adults survived the jaws of orcas and the ingenious traps of humankind — and battled for weeks against water more powerful than Niagara Falls to
reach this particular pebbled safehouse. They had not paused to eat since leaving the ocean weeks before, drawing energy from every last muscle save for their reproductive organs. After this arduous journey, the mother salmon used her last reserves to cover her eggs, flipping pebbles with her tail until it was literally stripped to the bone. When she did finally die, her rotting body decomposed into the water, becoming food for the children she would never meet.

But these eggs are also the fruits of intense human perseverance — the culmination of an enormous three-year battle against seemingly insurmountable odds.

The Fraser River rushes past towering cliffs at the site of the Big Bar landslide in July 2019 as crews work at the site. (Photo: Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck)
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Sometime in early November 2018, 85,000 cubic metres of rock — the equivalent of 750 double decker buses — sheared off a 125-metre-high cliff and tumbled into a remote section of the Fraser River. The rocks created a waterfall two storeys high and a ravenous stretch of rapids.

Spawning salmon were among the first to discover the landslide. Their finely tuned bodies, an evolutionary masterpiece capable of jumping as high as an Olympic high jumper, could not compete with the destruction nature had wrought. Unable to pass the falls, they were pinned below, their energy and flesh rapidly depleting, unfertilized eggs trapped in their bellies. Neither salmonid nor human could afford to lose this battle.

Many of the spawning salmon trapped below the landslide were part of a run called the early Stuart sockeye. This population is facing rapid decline due to overfishing, agriculture, climate change and “the blob,” a mass of relatively warm water off the Pacific coast. In 1992, 700,000 early Stuarts spawned; at the turn of the millennium, that number was below 200,000. In 2018, 57,014 made it home.

A Fisheries and Oceans Canada monitoring team radio tag salmon in September 2020. (Photo: Fisheries and Oceans Canada)
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An early Stuart sockeye fry released in June 2021. (Photo: Fisheries and Oceans Canada)
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It’s not only the early Stuarts that are facing extinction. All Fraser River salmon are in decline. Between 1980 and 2010, spawning runs could reach up to 30 million. But just four years after that period, barely over 18 million salmon returned. In 2018, the number had dwindled to below 12 million.

The salmon are a keystone species; some 134 other animals feed on them, from river otters to grizzly bears. In areas where salmon are abundant, the bear population can be up to 20 times greater. As their bodies fertilize the soil, salmon are an essential source of nitrogen for trees — an agent of conservation for our forest ecosystems.

Salmon are also vital to the physical and spiritual health of First Nations communities along the Fraser River, from the Lheidli T’enneh in Prince George to the Stó:l? Nation in the Lower Mainland. Words, phrases and ways of understanding the world are inextricably tied to the fishing, processing and eating of salmon. If the salmon are in peril, so is the language and culture that connects future generations to their Elders and ancestors.

The few salmon that do survive their run hold the health of ecosystems and entire communities in their embattled bodies. And in 2019 the salmon that sought to spawn upriver of the landslide were trapped, facing an impossible obstacle with no chance of survival.

On June 20, 2019, Greg Witzky boarded a helicopter in Lillooet, B.C., and flew 63 kilometres to Big Bar Canyon, the site of the landslide. He flew over the winding Fraser River, an army-green snake that cut through hills of sand and dirt that spread across the mountainsides like knotted tree roots. The site of the landslide slid into view: the waterfall transformed the smooth surface of the river into white-peaked, sharp-set rapids. 

“Flying over it brought tears to my eyes,” says Witzky, operations manager at the Fraser River Aboriginal Fisheries Secretariat and part-time Indigenous project director on the Big Bar landslide remediation response team. The landslide had caused “a drastic change in the way that the river flowed. There was no way that any fish were getting over that five-metre drop.”

When the helicopter landed, Witzky approached the banks of the river and surveyed the struggling salmon. Determined to get home, they had mounted an unrelenting siege against the impenetrable waterfall. In turn, the waterfall and rapids had torn apart their bodies. Many didn’t have jaws, their faces ripped to shreds. The pressure of the water and the stress of their efforts had burst their eyeballs out of their sockets. They were broken, exhausted.

Greg Witzky provides a blessing before a salmon fry release in 2021. (Photo: Fisheries and Oceans Canada)
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Witzky, who is from the Secwepemc Nation, pulled out his medicine pouch and lit a tobacco offering. He knew that getting the salmon upstream would be an extensive, arduous and expensive project. This was a fight against time, and much of it was already lost. He knew that many of the salmon wouldn’t make it. “Just talking about it brings back memories,” says Witzky, his voice cracking. “We just knew no fish would get by. There was not a chance, not without our help.”

The Big Bar emergency response launched immediately. It was a collaboration between local First Nations communities, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the B.C. government. The first stage of the operation was simple: get as many salmon over the falls as possible. To achieve this objective, they raised an army.

Rock scalers formed one battalion. They launched themselves from the cusp of the canyon and 125 metres into the chasm below. As they descended, they removed debris from the side of the landslide using pry bars and pickaxes. Water was dropped from the edge of the cliff to sluice through loose rock.

Forest firefighters were also enlisted. They grabbed salmon from the river and placed up to 21 sockeye in large, round metal bins. The bins were connected, via a steel cable, to a helicopter, which flew over the mountain and dropped its precious load into the river beyond the falls. Each day, three helicopters would do 20 runs in tandem, racing from the beaches to the river beyond the falls. Some 400 salmon a day were transported this way.

Rebecca Riley spent the summer of 2019 in the belly of the canyon, battered by the downdraft of the helicopters and scorched by 40 C temperatures. 

A self-professed “fish doctor” from the St’át’imc Nation, she measured the temperature and oxygen levels of the water and the stress levels of the salmon within the steel bins. She’d wake up and get going at 4 a.m. and not leave the site until 7 p.m. The dry heat would chap the workers’ lips until they were raw and bleeding, while the low-flying helicopters kicked up sand and dirt that lashed at the skin and invaded the eyes and ears. But Riley wouldn’t be anywhere else.

Rebecca Riley en route to the fish wheel in 2020. (Photo: Fisheries and Oceans Canada)
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“If you stood on the beach and closed your eyes, you could hear the guys hollering because they’re pulling in the net, and you could hear the boats going up and down the river. You could hear the helicopters going cuka cuka cuka,” she says. “And when the helicopters pounded, it was like your heart pounding — like, ‘we’re going to get this; we’re going to save these guys; we’re going to save these fish.’”

But, as Witzky had feared, they were too late. Especially for the early Stuart sockeye that had been at the landslide for weeks, their bodies broken and their energy reserves depleted. When the crews dropped the fish into the river beyond the falls, the salmon were too tired or confused to fight the current, and in this moment of weakness, the raging waters swept them downstream, over the falls and back through the rapids. Eventually they surrendered. Their rotting bodies floated downstream or sank to the floor of the Fraser, carrion for scavenging eagles or bottom-feeders, their precious, unfertilized eggs trapped in their bellies.

Out of a run of 26,100 early Stuarts, only 88 salmon made it to their spawning grounds.

“Very, very few made it through. And what did were too tired to make it home and died and dropped back over,” says Witzky. “They came from the ocean, with bigger fish trying to eat them all their lives and then they could not do what they’re born to do.”

A successful blast at East Toe clears a passage for the salmon at the landslide site. (Photo: Peter Kiewit Sons ULC/Flickr)
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The Whooshh Passage Portal becomes operational in June 2020. (Photo: Peter Kiewit Sons ULC/Flickr)
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Hope for the early Stuart sockeye rested on the fish in the 2020 run that weren’t mature enough in 2019 to leave the ocean — as their older brothers and sisters perished at the canyon, they were still in the sea, preparing to spawn. Like generations before them, they fed on krill, crustaceans and smaller fish, migrating hundreds of miles across the Northwest Coast, growing bigger, stronger and faster. Back on land, crews at Big Bar were also preparing, determined to get these salmon home. Over the winter and early spring of 2020, the provincial government spent $4 million on a road to Big Bar. A dirt road with a mountain of sand on one side and a sharp drop on the other side, it meant the crews and heavy machinery could move in and out of the site.

Crews had also started work on a permanent solution in the winter of 2020: the nature-like “fishway,” a series of strategically placed boulders the size of large refrigerators. These boulders created pools where fish could gather energy and rest before dashing to the next. The pools increased the salmon’s chances of making it past the rapids and over the falls, and they also slowed the speed of surging water.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada also brought in a Whooshh Passage Portal — a salmon cannon. Using compressed air, it pumps fish through a long tube two-and-a-half times longer than a hockey rink. The salmon travel eight metres per second, spending about 20 seconds in the tube. The salmon crews hoped the fishway would work, but the Whooshh was a backup plan.

But even the best-laid schemes of fish and men often go awry.

Everything had to be dismantled and relocated at the last minute. A lot of snow, combined with extremely wet conditions in the spring and summer, led to a once-in-a-century flood. The riverbanks burst and threatened to swallow the camp office and the platform housing the control panels for the Whooshh. The Whooshh itself was not effective in these conditions. Designed to transport fish over human-made dams in the Columbia Basin, it could not handle a free-flowing river that rose one to two metres within a matter of hours.

Tagging chinook salmon with individual identifier tags for the Big Bar emergency conservation enhancement program. (Photo: Fisheries and Oceans Canada/Flickr)
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Radio tagging sockeye as part of a federal monitoring program. (Photo: Gina Anderson/Flickr)
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The flood also trapped the salmon further downstream. Many did not make it past Hells Gate, a narrow gorge that forces the entire volume of the Fraser River through a small gap the length of three school buses. The gorge is a result of a 1914 landslide created by railroad construction. These days it has a permanent fish ladder, a series of concrete pools built to help fish climb a waterfall. On any normal year, this ladder is a tricky obstacle, but the flood made it insurmountable for many and exhausted those that did pass.

“Every time we tried to do something out of Big Bar, every little job, whether it was transporting, whether it was setting up an office … it had to be done twice because of the floods,” says Riley. “You can’t expect it’s ever going to go the way [you planned]. No matter how much you plan, you’re gonna run into something somewhere.” Regardless, Riley sees summer 2020 as a turning point. They’d started work on a permanent long-term solution, and this was a foundation they could build on.

In June and July 2021, just short of 70,000 early Stuart sockeye salmon battled up the Fraser River, racing to their spawning grounds. Pat O’Brien was waiting for them. A fisheries technician from Gitxsan First Nation, O’Brien arrived at the canyon in May 2021. He operated the fish wheel — an aluminum, waterbound ferris wheel that scoops up salmon from the river and holds them in live wells. These salmon would be placed in holding cells in the back of trucks, which would then transport the salmon past the falls.

Map: Chris Brackley/Can Geo; Salmonid distribution data provided by Brad Mason
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The fish wheel, a tool from the Kitsumkalum First Nation, was replacing the Whooshh, which was dismantled at the end of 2020. But while the fish wheel was effective because of its simplicity, using it was still not the preferred option. Handling and transporting the fish could lead to another bad year for spawning because it would stress them and damage their bodies. If all went to plan and the solutions worked, the salmon would pass through the falls on their own.

“Waiting for the fish to arrive, I was feeling optimistic. But I was also preparing for the worst, which would be having to catch and move every single fish,” says O’Brien, “I wouldn’t say I was nervous, but it was definitely a thought in my mind that if the water levels were too high, then the fish would be onto the trucks.”

However, as with every other step of the Big Bar rescue, Mother Nature had other ideas.

On June 25, 2021, just as the salmon were reaching the canyon, the Pacific northwest was hit by a record-shattering heat wave. In Lytton, a town just outside Big Bar, the heat dome led to highs of 49.6 C, the highest recorded temperature in Canadian history. It parched the land and led to devastating forest fires. The town of Lytton was burned to the ground in a series of large fires that were quickly spreading across the entire region. The Big Bar crew, about 120 kilometres away, had no choice but to evacuate. 

O’Brien received the first word on his radio about an approaching forest fire from the site supervisor and looked up to see a sliver of smoke in the distance. Thirty minutes later, as he was ferrying staff across the river, smoke had filled the horizon.

“I was annoyed,” says O’Brien. “I wasn’t annoyed with the fires, or the response, but it was just another thing we had to deal with, another factor — another piece of adversity at Big Bar.” Much of the Big Bar crew was sent home, leaving O’Brien and a small skeleton crew behind to monitor the fish and maintain operations. This crew was too small to transport the salmon. If the salmon could not pass, no one could help them. “There would have been nothing to do except hope and wait,” says O’Brien. “It had the potential to be really bad.”

Nazko First Nation Chief Leah Stump. (Photo: Fisheries and Oceans Canada)
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However, for the first time in a gruelling three-year battle, the tide turned in favour of the salmon. The water levels, at first high due to the snow melt, dropped. The salmon passed the landslide and, in June and July, found their way home. “It was just complete relief,” says O’Brien. “It felt like a job well done.” By the end of July, around 79,000 salmon had passed the Big Bar landslide. Not a single salmon needed to be transported — including early Stuart sockeyes.

For the time being, work at the Big Bar landslide is on hold. Witzky is back in Adams Lake, the site of one of the world’s largest salmon migrations. Last year was an excellent year for Shuswap salmon, with runs numbering way beyond expectations. The fish Witzky caught will be canned, dried and smoked — given to family members and preserved for future years, when the runs might not be as plentiful.

Rebecca Riley is at home in Lillooet, just one hour south of Big Bar Canyon. She will not fish this year because stocks are too low. Instead, she looks forward to a time when she can become a fisherwoman once again.

Pat O’Brien finally made it home to Hazelton, B.C., in late October, just as temperatures fell below zero and snow started to fall. He missed the salmon migration because he was in Lillooet, collecting and tagging salmon for population enhancement efforts. Missing this year’s run means he missed teaching his eldest daughter to fillet. But to O’Brien it was worth it. He’s working for a future where salmon thrive again.

Releasing early Stuart sockeye fry to increase the chance of survival to smolt. (Photo: Fisheries and Oceans Canada)
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In the meantime, the Big Bar response is drawing up a report that will help them decide on a plan of action. “If we get lucky and water levels are fairly reasonable, we might not have to do any work,” says Witzky. “But it’s all scientific-guessery. And when it comes to these salmon, we can’t be going out on a whim.”

The Big Bar landslide is part of a bigger story, about our attitude to nature and crisis, and the consequences of such an attitude: a lack of foresight has led to overfishing, harmful agriculture, climate crisis and a host of other factors that are cascading into seemingly insurmountable obstacles that threaten both salmonid and humankind. And in both the landslide and the overarching fight to save salmon, only our hands can carve a way through the mountain.

In both Big Bar and the general fight to save Pacific salmon, we can either deal in best- and worst-case scenarios, or we can rally to the call of an emergency with salmon-like determination.

Ideally, the future of Fraser River salmon will be foretold by those tiny orange eggs, hidden in a tapestry of rivers and streams high above the Fraser River. The result of immense human effort, these salmon will one day hatch, leave their pebbled safehouse and travel to the ocean. When they return home, they will, hopefully, pass through the landslide that took the lives of countless ancestors, embattled but empowered to surmount the insurmountable.


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January/February 2022

This story is from the January/February 2022 Issue

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