The Blockade That Almost Killed a River

Posted by Daniel on Aug 27, 2010

According to news reports, the Fraser River salmon run is the most plentiful it has been "in almost a hundred years".

That would be since the summer of 1913, actually, when rail construction in the Fraser Canyon precipitated one of the worst environmental disasters in the province's history. The previous winter, crews for the Canadian Northern Railway had blasted tonnes of rock and dirt into the river as they drove the rail line through the canyon. The debris slowed the torrent to a trickle. Nothing could get through, including the sockeye on their way to their interior spawning grounds.

With nowhere to go, the fish died by the millions, their bodies piling up on the sandbars and gravel banks. An inspector wrote: "The living were not spawning and the dead were unspawned."

Of course it took a while to appreciate the depth of the crisis. The canning industry that was established at the mouth of the river around Steveston experienced the summer of 1913 as the best year in their history. They processed 30 million salmon for markets around the world. (This year prognosticators are talking about 25 million but it may go higher.)

Crews finally arrived to open channels for the fish and First Nations volunteers used dipnets to carry salmon past the obstructions, but only a fraction of the run made it back to the spawning grounds. This caused widespread famine for the interior First Nations. And four years later, when another peak season was due, the canneries only packed 75 percent of what they had in 1913. It took decades for the runs to recover.