Four-wheeling through side channels of the Fraser River for fun could be shredding salmon eggs and fish habitat along with mud and gravel.
A celebratory video of trucks splashing through back channels near Chilliwack has raised concerns of river stewards, and conservationists, as well as a provincial four-wheel drive group.
“In general, these back channels comprise the number one areas, in the Fraser River gravel reach, for chum salmon spawning,” said Marvin Rosenau, a retired fisheries biologist who teaches in the Fish Wildlife and Recreation program (FWR) at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT). “These are the types of habitat that they especially like.”
Channel crossings and splashing by big trucks showcased in a video uploaded recently are likely detrimental to the fish and the prime habitat they represent. This is especially so in the heart of the Fraser, the productive gravel reach between Mission and Hope.
“Even if they’re not spawning right now, or fish eggs under the gravel, churning it up could destroy the incubation habitat,” Rosenau said.
There have been ongoing community discussions about how to keep the increasingly popular Gill bar accessible, while clamping down on environmental degradation.
Planning for the future of Gill bar, including installing a gate, has been ongoing quietly for a few years at a stakeholders’ table that included the Four Wheel Drive Association of BC, the Fraser Valley Illegal Dumping Alliance, as well as City of Chilliwack, provincial Conservation Officer Service (COS), the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development and Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) representatives.
Kim Reeves, president of the Four Wheel Drive Association of BC, said the gravel bar has been accessed this way for ages.
“Gravel has been harvested, people have fished around this bar, people have collected rocks and gems, people camp, launch boats and people have recreated. And pretty much all of these people accessed the bar in a four-wheel drive vehicle.”
All-terrain vehicles, and dirt bikes can also rip up eggs. Gill bar has become super popular with all kinds of outdoors people because it’s wide open with lots of tracks and trails with varied terrain.
But no one needs to be tearing up habitat with big splashes.
In fact, Reeves underlined it was “highly advisable to not make unnecessary water crossings,” and “whatever you do, do not follow the advertisements of companies who sell off-road vehicles to glean your environmental awareness and fight the urge to make big splashes with a water crossing.
“It is hard on both the environment and your vehicle.”
For raising awareness, the group has a ‘Tread Lightly’ program for responsible four-wheeling aimed at youth. It’s part of the 4WDABC group’s educational, environmental and safety efforts.
It’s not just salmon eggs or habitat at stake. Gill channel was identified as one of the key spawning habitats in the lower Fraser River for white sturgeon every spring, Rosenau added.
“One of the hallmarks of white sturgeon spawning habitat is the stability of the coarse spawning substrates. I am guessing chewing it up, like what we see in this video, is probably not conducive to good (sturgeon egg or alevin) survival.”
Chum have also spawned along the main channel perimeter where a white truck was seen driving. In a pink year, the trucks would have been chewing up redds, he noted.
Provincial conservation officers and DFO fishery officers have clarified for concerned stakeholders that a vehicle driving through the side channel at the end of Gill Road to access the gravel bar would not be cause on its own for any charges to be pursued. Many access it this way, whether it’s camping, ATV, four-by-fouring, fishing or other activities.
Under the Fisheries Act, there is no way to ticket for “harmful alteration, disruption, or destruction of fish habitat.” It has to be sworn charges under the Act, through a process of investigation and reporting before charges are laid.
However, both the COS and DFO representatives, would respond to calls for a vehicle repeatedly racing back and forth, within the wetted area of a river, or if someone was physically driving over spawning fish, even if the driver is just going from river bank to gravel bar, according to recent correspondence.
Sometimes a channel crossing is necessary when recreating near the Fraser.
“When vehicles access areas like Gill, a water crossing may be required,” Reeves said in his post, after the video was circulated. “Water crossings can be dangerous and some factors making it so include the depth of the water, the speed at which it is flowing, and whether you are alone.
“Safety aside, there are environmental considerations and one technique must be employed no matter the water you are crossing, and that is using the shortest, safest path while going as slow as possible, and as fast as necessary to connect the trail you are on through the water-covered portion.”
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