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Review

Sturgeon Reach: Shifting Currents at the Heart of the Fraser

By Terry Glavin and Ben Parfitt

November 4, 2013

Review By Ken Brealey

The Fraser River between Mission and Hope has been the cultural hearth of the Stó:lō for as long as anyone can remember. Some of British Columbia’s largest Indigenous settlements and most important cultural sites are found along it. It is prime salmon habitat and hosts Canada’s largest population of white sturgeon. Its banks are lined with giant black cottonwoods, and frequented by predator species aerial and terrestrial, small and large game, and rare amphibians. Parts of it have been developed, and salmon no longer migrate in the same numbers, but for the most part much of it is as Simon Fraser found it when he came through in 1808.

This stretch is also, however, a transitional zone where the Fraser’s mad dash down the canyon above Hope is suddenly slowed. As the valley widens, the bed-load is deposited in the form of braided gravel bars. These just happen to be the very bars that have made the ecosystem what it is; but as the authors show, they are now under siege by the rapid and aggressive expansion of metropolitan Vancouver — and the consequences could be considerable.

This is obviously not the first time these bars have been an object of a resource rush by a settler society. The more famous one took place in 1858 and was based on placer gold. It changed the face of the lower Fraser forever, but it did not last long and its effect on the bars, and by extension the larger ecosystem they helped make, were relatively minor, at least by contemporary standards.

The less famous rush arguably began sometime in the late 1990s, but is based on the very gravel in which that gold was found. This rush takes place on a much larger scale and shows little sign of abating any time soon. In fact, in barely a generation, the provincial construction industry has extracted the equivalent of a loaded dump truck of gravel for every person in the province. The problem is that while we can get it almost anywhere, it is typically not where we need it — and high transport costs from traditional sources have made the braids of Sturgeon Reach an increasingly attractive alternative.

Glavin and Parfitt do not dispute the importance of aggregate generally. From roads to dikes to concrete for condos and shopping centers, we literally cannot live without it. They do, however, take issue with the claim that by taking it from Sturgeon Reach, we do not appreciably affect fish habitat — the decline of salmon or sturgeon alleged to be the result of a wider complex of factors — and with the claim that we actually reduce the risk of flood further downstream. Instead, the authors argue that the river has been so confined by dikes since the major flood of 1948 that gravel mining upstream is actually increasing sediment deposition and flooding further down, and certainly is destroying what is left of the salmon spawning grounds of Sturgeon Reach.

At the time of publication (2012), a moratorium had just been placed on gravel extraction in Sturgeon Reach. This followed, however, a five-year period when an unprecedented 1.5 million tons — about 125,000 truckloads — had been taken from this stretch of river, and all of this in spite of the scientific consensus on the intimate relationship between the river, the gravel bars, and the sturgeon and salmon that depend on them specifically, and on the complete absence of any formal land use plan in place for industrial activity in Sturgeon Reach generally.

At barely forty-five pages of letterpress, this nicely illustrated, almost folksy book can be digested in less than an evening. But the importance of the narrative that nicely oscillates between past and present, between the physical and cultural, and between worldviews, should not be understated. The Fraser is so close to so us that we almost take it for granted. As Stó:lō elder Clem Seymour reminds us at the start, however, we do need to a much better job of listening to what its shifting currents are actually telling us.

Sturgeon Reach: Shifting Currents at the Heart of the Fraser
By Terry Glavin and Ben Parfitt 
Vancouver: New Star (Transmontanus Series), 2012. $19.00 paper