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Plans to build bridge, clear land in 'Heart of the Fraser' raises serious fish concerns

Larry Pynn

Mark Angelo releases a tagged threatened white sturgeon off Herrling Island, described as the Heart of the Fraser River due to its productive habitat. (Photo courtesy of Danny Catt)

Mark Angelo releases a tagged threatened white sturgeon off Herrling Island, described as the Heart of the Fraser River due to its productive habitat. (Photo courtesy of Danny Catt)

Plans to build a bridge and semi-permanent road, along with land-clearing on two islands in the productive "Heart of the Fraser," are raising the alarm for critical spawning habitat of threatened white sturgeon and other fish stocks, including pink salmon and oolichan.

Major conservation groups and high-profile authorities on fish and rivers have written the B.C. and federal governments demanding a "full and comprehensive review" of development plans for Herrling and Carey islands in the lower Fraser River near Agassiz.

One letter warns that the proposed and ongoing developments will "have vast ecosystem implications and the potential to cause significant long-term damage" to the so-called Heart of the Fraser from Hope to Mission — "considered to be one of the most ecological and economically productive stretches of river in the world."

The letter is signed by: Mark Angelo, rivers chair of the Outdoor Recreation Council; Brian Riddell, a former federal fisheries official who is now president and CEO of the Pacific Salmon Foundation; and Marvin Rosenau, a former provincial fish biologist who is now an instructor in BCIT's fish, wildlife and recreation program.

A separate letter from Harvey Andrusak, president of the 50,000-member B.C. Wildlife Federation, asserts that the footprint of the planned development "will profoundly and negatively affect critical white-sturgeon spawning and incubation areas, as well as damage juvenile and adult salmonid spawning and rearing habitats."

Jake Klaassen, a principle with Klaassen Farms in Chilliwack, is heading the project, according to his brother, William, but didn't return messages to Postmedia News. Jake Klaassen is also president and general manager of Jakes Construction, which over the years has been involved in controversial work related to gravel removal from the lower Fraser.

Communications officer Vivian Thomas released a statement to Postmedia on behalf of the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development confirming the province has received proposals to build one bridge and one semi-permanent road across ecologically productive Herrling Channel.

She said the channel is home to the "largest known spawning site for white sturgeon" in the lower Fraser, and that "both proposed connections have the potential to impact that habitat."

The B.C. and federal governments are reviewing the applications in parallel, she added.

The planned project falls within the Land Act and Water Sustainability Act provincially and the Fisheries Act and Navigable Waters Protection Act federally.

Angelo, Riddell and Rosenau state in their letter that environmental groups had been negotiating with Kruger pulp and paper to buy the lands for conservation purposes, but that talks fell through and the new private owner is clearing the land for agriculture.

The land-use change "enables large-scale removal of vegetation," they say, adding it appears that the "landowners are now rapidly clearing the land, in some cases including the sensitive riparian areas adjacent to known sturgeon spawning areas, and starting to cultivate crops."

The "inevitable end point of this activity" will be diking, loss of streamside habitat, and changes to flows and channel sediments, they fear.

lpynn@postmedia.com