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Construction of a bridge across the Fraser River started last Monday to extract gravel from a huge alluvial island in the river near Agassiz, not far upstream from a gravel bridge that wiped out two million embryonic pink salmon in March of 2006.

The current plan to remove 400,000 cubic metres of gravel from Spring Bar is contentious because proponents say it is necessary as a flood and erosion control measure, yet the removals are sited amid the most productive salmon-rearing habitat left on the entire Fraser.

Conservationists point to the incident at Big Bar in 2006, which they say is in danger of repeating because the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is allowing increasingly large gravel removals at the expense of the salmon resource.

When the proposed Spring Bar gravel removal was first considered in an environmental assessment application in 2005, the amount of gravel to be removed was 100,000 cubic metres; that figure increased to 400,000 cubic metres in January of 2007 with no public notice, becoming the single largest gravel removal in the history of the Fraser.

John Werring, a salmon biologist with the David Suzuki Foundation, points to the revision of a 2007 authorization document required under the federal Fisheries Act that he says could cause the same kind of salmon habitat destruction witnessed in 2006.

"The initial authorization was just to harvest gravel from Spring Bar, but in 2008 the revised permit includes a bridge. What's worse, the updated permit states that they can destroy fish while mining, while building and removing the bridge, and even while driving trucks across the river," Mr. Werring said.

"In 15 years, I have never seen a specific authorization to destroy fish in the Fraser River without any compensation whatsoever."

The 2008 authorization document takes the unusual step of specifically forbidding the installation of coarse woody debris on the bar after mining is completed - a common method of creating new salmon-friendly habitat in the wake of destructive activities.

Mel Kotyk, DFO's area director for the Lower Fraser, says there will be compensation for the loss of salmon habitat, and that the design of the bridge will ensure that the Big Bar incident does not reoccur.

Mr. Kotyk explained that the province is picking up the tab for the bridge - at this point $564,000 - which will come out of the $10-million earmarked for flood mitigation works by Premier Gordon Campbell last fall.

Brian Jones, the economic development manager for the Seabird Island Indian band, says the mining at Spring Bar will be good for his community. "We've created a partnership arrangement with the contracting company to extract gravel to lower the flood profile, which we hope is going to help us feel a little more confident when the spring freshets are coming," he said. "We're not going to run into that sort of situation at Big Bar."