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Mark Hume

The Fraser River's silent spring Add to ...

Terry Slack stood on the banks of the Fraser River, hands jammed into jean pockets and his perpetual smile faded as he recalled the vanished eulachon run.

"This is where they used to spawn," he said, looking over a sloping beach covered by pieces of shattered concrete, tangled wire and oil-stained mud, the detritus of lumber mills past.

"When we fished this drift, I had to wear a sou'wester and rain pants because of all the bird crap raining down from the sky. There were thousands of birds circling above the river. Tens of thousands. Everywhere you looked there were birds diving into the water and the sound was incredible."

Mr. Slack, 69, a former boat builder and commercial fisherman who has been setting nets in the Fraser for 60 years, looked across the vacant water, upstream and down, then shook his head in disbelief.

"Look at it," he said. "Not a gull in sight. Nothing. That's why I call it the Fraser's silent spring."

Mr. Slack, a director of the Fraser River Coalition, a non-profit society dedicated to conservation issues, has been trying to raise awareness about the importance of the eulachon run for decades.

This year, tired of writing letters and making phone calls to politicians that seem to go nowhere, he is taking direct action - and one bucket at a time is hauling pea gravel to sites along the Fraser where eulachon might spawn.

He scrapes away layers of bark, moves chunks of concrete and spreads a small patch of clean gravel.

"Maybe it's pointless," he said. "Maybe no eulachon will ever spawn in these places. But you have got to try. And what if a few hundred eulachon do spawn? The next time there could be a few thousand. That's how a run gets reborn."

Mr. Slack is nothing if not optimistic.

"We've have got to get the eulachon back. It's as simple as that," he said.

He calls the small, herring-like fish that used to spawn in the river in the tens of millions a foundation species because of the vital role they play - or used to play - in the ecosystem.

"They come back in the spring," he said, "and after a long, lean winter, everything was waiting for them. The eagles would flock to the river. … There were four different kinds of gulls here, including Bonaparte's, which flew all the way down from the Okanagan. There were seals and sea lions all over the place and the sturgeon would come down river to feed, too. Now, we don't see any of that. The river is empty. Even the sturgeon have stopped coming. … I don't think the sturgeon remember any more where the eulachon spawned."

But Mr. Slack still does. So spring after spring, he walks the banks of the Fraser, watching for the small, dark forms of eulachon breaching the surface.

"After they spawned, the kelts would come down, rolling, rolling on the surface," he said. "Fish everywhere you looked."

Mr. Slack, who grew up in a float house on the river, used to trade kelts for family groceries.

"People valued the kelts more," he said, "because they had less oil in them. … And that worked out pretty good because, you know, we weren't catching them before they spawned. It was an 'environmentally sustainable fishery' as they say."

But something wasn't sustainable.

Eulachon runs have been in decline not only in the Fraser but coastwide, from California to northern British Columbia, for more than a decade. On May 17, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service listed all eulachon that spawn south of the Canadian border as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.

U.S. officials said B.C. stocks are part of the same population group. The Canadian government is reviewing the status of eulachon in Canada under the Species at Risk Act.

In B.C., no river has suffered a larger decline than the Fraser, where stocks fell from 1,800 tons in 1996 to 150 tons by 2004. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans says numbers have been so "precariously low" for the past six years, that no fishing has been allowed.

Causes of the coastwide decline aren't known, although changing ocean conditions, habitat destruction, pollution and a bycatch in the offshore shrimp fishery are all factors.

Mr. Slack said he's not sure what went wrong, but he has hope things can go right again. He's planning to approach Vancouver city council soon with a proposal for improving waterfront habitat, wherever streets dead end at the river bank.

"The city owns the road ends. I'm saying let's get in there and fix up all those road ends so it's healthy habitat for eulachon. If you put all those little pieces together, it might add up to something," he said.

Follow on Twitter: @markhumeglobe


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