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Time to shut down access to the Fraser River at Gill Road bar, say stewards

Governing bodies responsible for the area ‘don’t seem to want to enforce anything’
Ross Aikenhead stands at the Gill Road bar access on the Fraser River on May 11, 2022. (Jennifer Feinberg/ Chilliwack Progress)

It’s time for officials to shut down access to the Fraser River at Gill Road bar.

That’s the conclusion Chilliwack resident Ross Aikenhead has reluctantly come to after years of undertaking riverside cleanups, trying to protect the valuable salmon habitat on the popular gravel bar.

“It’s going to come down to either people have to smarten up, which I don’t think is going to happen, or this place is going to get shut down.”

It’s all about enforcement – or lack thereof, by various agencies.

“The governing bodies that are actually responsible for this area, don’t seem to want to enforce anything,” Aikenhead said.

For years Gill bar, the wide open gravel bar at the end of Gill Road, has seen regular use by campers, off-roaders, dirt-bikers, fishers, agate seekers and more.

RELATED: Convoy of trucks churned through prime habitat

A gate was installed on the dike by City of Chilliwack at the end of Gill Road in 2019, as part of a multi-stakeholder plan to control access to the gravel bar, to prevent garbage-dumping and squatters. That led to talk about creating a day-use area and campsite at Gill, but nothing has materialized.

Involved in those discussions were the Four Wheel Drive Association of BC, the Fraser Valley Illegal Dumping Alliance, as well as City of Chilliwack, Conservation Officer Service (COS), the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, and Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) representatives.

The gate at Gill stays open now after it was repeatedly broken.

“I think if people start getting kicked in the wallet, if they could be fined, then the word would spread that people have to smarten up,” Aikenhead said.

Just before the spring freshet when the snow-melt water started coming up, Aikenhead called the RAPP-line to urge conservation officers to come remove the piles of garbage left by the river.

But no one came.

Several trips to the dump later with the help of a few volunteers, there was almost 1,500 kilograms of plastic and metal prevented from being washed downstream.

That’s what made him realize he had to speak up and push for closing Gill bar, despite his discomfort with being in the public eye.

“Some day people will come down the road and see lock blocks up on the dike and that will be it,” Aikenhead said.

Gill has seen a lot of use and abuse in the years since many of the river access sites like Strawberry Bar, Bowman’s, and Herrling Island were all shut down.

It’s “death by a thousand cuts” these days at Gill, with everyone leaving a thousand little messes, he said.

A casual visit to Gill recently bore that out with a used diaper by a tree, and food wrappers around. And fire pits everywhere were full of pallet nails and furniture hardware ready to be washed away out of sight.

“Actually the little messes are harder to keep track of, and clean up, because you have to cover so much ground,” he noted.

Marvin Rosenau, a fisheries and fish habitat instructor at BCIT, said the Gill Road bar and islands of the Fraser contain irreplaceable fish habitat for salmon rearing and spawning.

“Gill Road comprises an intricate set of islands that hold extraordinary ecosystem values,” Rosenau wrote in a presentation he made to groups across the Lower Mainland.

He characterized the habitat from Laidlaw to Mission, of which Gill is in the middle, as an “exceptional matrix” of primary, secondary and tertiary channels, wetlands and riparian areas.

RELATED: Habitat destruction confirmed at Herrling

“Put it this way, about 99.99 per cent of salmon babies go through the area, and those islands comprise critical fish habitat,” Rosenau said. “We know that sturgeon spawn in the area.”

Chum prefer to spawn in the back channels, while pinks prefer the outer edges of the islands in the gravel reach.

The real problem is that federal fishery officers from DFO and provincial conservation officers from Conservation Officer Service have “no understanding” of what constitutes fish habitat, or damage to fish habitat on the Fraser, the retired biologist asserted.

“Enforcement staff have absolutely no interest in resolving this issue, or prosecuting offenders who destroy fish habitat,” Rosenau wrote in his presentation. “In the event that there was an interest in addressing the issue of the impacts to the habitat by field staff, neither agency is willing to provide the resources or direction to so.”

RELATED: Trucks churned through prime habitat of Fraser River

Habitat protection is under the federal Fisheries Act, Section 35(1) which states: “no person shall carry on any work, undertaking or activity that results in the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat.”

But there are also relevant sections under the Species at Risk Act, the Criminal Code, B.C. Wildlife Act or B.C. Forest and Range Practices Act.

Some officials have noted that those zooming around the gravel bar “need to blow off steam” at the river.

“They like to roar around. It’s fun,” Rosenau said.

But there’s a cost. Everywhere else like it on the Fraser has been gated off, like Herrling, Strawberry, Bowman’s and other gravel bars.

“I know of nowhere else like this in Canada where this would be allowed,” the fisheries expert said of the environmental damage.

They’ve monitored Gill and counted tens of thousands of vehicle days. When the water levels are low enough trucks can be seen crossing back and forth over the sensitive channels to reach the gravel bar.

“The amount of traffic we’re seeing is beating this habitat to shreds. And you cannot have a sustainable ecosystem when you chew up the landscape like that.”

What can be done? The agencies seem hesitant to take the final step of closing Gill bar lest they anger regular users.

“We have to keep hammering away at it. The legislation to protect it is there,” Rosenau concluded.

The RAPP line (Report All Poachers and Polluters) is at 1-877-952-7277, to report any known or suspected violations of fisheries, wildlife or environmental protection laws, or to report violations of the federal Fisheries Act on the ORR line, (Observe Record and Report) call 1-800-465-4336.

RELATED: Gill Road access gets gated

RELATED: River cleanup based at Gill Road bar

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Jennifer Feinberg

About the Author: Jennifer Feinberg

I have been a Chilliwack Progress reporter for 20+ years, covering the arts, city hall, as well as Indigenous, and climate change stories.
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