VANCOUVER — Three British Columbia First Nations want the provincial and federal governments to live up to a nine-month-old court decision that said there is "overwhelming" evidence a dam on the Nechako River is killing endangered sturgeon.
They are highlighting the ruling after scientists asked the public in September for help in solving the mysterious deaths of 11 adult sturgeon found in the Nechako River in central B.C.
The Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship said the fish showed no visible external injuries and their deaths were not caused by disease, chemical exposure, angling or gillnet fisheries.
However, the Nechako First Nations claim mismanagement of the river and the dam reservoir are behind the deaths, saying quick action is needed to protect their rights and the sturgeon, which the court said were in “a decline so severe that the species is currently at risk of imminent extirpation.”
In the 1950s, the B.C. government authorized the Aluminum Company of Canada, now Rio Tinto Alcan, to build the Kenney Dam and a 233-kilometre-long reservoir on the river for hydropower generation to smelt its product.
Two of the Nechako First Nations, the Saik’uz and Stellat’en, sued the governments and Rio Tinto Alcan for the decades of losses to their fisheries, the lands, waters and rights.
The B.C. Supreme Court ruled in January that while Rio Tinto Alcan has complied with every contract it signed and abided by all terms on its water licence, the "failure" came from the governments who settled on insufficient requirements to protect the fish of the Nechako.
The judge ruled the Saik’uz and Stellat’en nations have an Aboriginal right to fish for food, social and ceremonial purposes in the Nechako River watershed and that both the provincial and federal governments have an obligation to protect that right.
Justice Nigel Kent said it was a fact that the Kenney Dam's installation and operation were behind the "recruitment failure" of the Nechako white sturgeon, referring to the survival of fish larvae into the juvenile stage.
Sturgeon, with their long snout and shark-like tail, can grow up to six metres long and live for over a century. The Nechako white sturgeon are a distinct population.
Priscilla Mueller, elected chief of Saik’uz First Nation, said the community living along the river has watched water flow decline over the last several years.
“Right now, the Nechako River received less than 30 per cent of the water that it would naturally receive. So, when you look at the river today, the water level is very low. It would be very difficult for the sturgeons to survive in very low water," she said.
“It’s not only affecting the sturgeons, but it’s also affecting our salmon and other fish habitats."
Mueller recalled fishing with her grandparents as a child and said the salmon and sturgeon thrived on the river.
“And now like in Saik’uz, I haven't heard of anybody getting a sturgeon for years since I was a child .… The (Kenney) Dam really affected the river in a big way,” said Mueller.
The Saik’uz, Stellat’en and Nadleh Whut'en First Nations said in a news release that the recent deaths are the “latest blow” to the endangered species, which numbers between 300 and 600.
“Given the population’s conservation status, these mortalities have very serious implications for the Nechako white sturgeon’s ability to recover, and will drive the population closer to extinction,” they said.
The nations have since filed an appeal of the January ruling, seeking a court order for the restoration of flows on the Nechako that would re-establish "the natural functions of the river.”
Mueller said it’s not just in the First Nations’ interests to restore the river — the health of the river would benefit the whole community on the waterway.
The nations said they now look forward to discussions with all parties to create a new water management regime.
Mueller said one of the first steps is to invite Rio Tinto to their community to see who they are and how they live.
"So, for our community, building relationships is very important. And when you think about a relationship, it's not just one-sided. If we were gonna co-manage the river, that means all parties need to be involved,” said Mueller.
The Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship said no more dead sturgeon have recently been observed on the Nechako River, which it saw as a “positive update.”
“We are cautiously optimistic that this mortality event is over. The province is focusing on understanding the cause and what can be done to prevent potential future events," the ministry said in an email statement.
No cause of death was immediately apparent, but analyses and lab tests would continue, with water temperature and oxygen stress studies also underway through a partnership with the University of British Columbia, said the ministry.
"The province understands there is interest from First Nations and stakeholders in a water release facility at the Kenney Dam in the Nechako watershed," the ministry said, adding that it was discussing sturgeon stewardship "to ensure it meets the interests of Nechako First Nations."
Fisheries and Oceans Canada said in a written statement it had been engaged with Indigenous groups, Rio Tinto, B.C. and others in Nechako River white sturgeon recovery initiatives since 2000. A key objective was to ensure Rio Tinto operations “do not impact Nechako white sturgeon and facilitate their recovery.”
Andrew Czornohalan, director of power and projects at Rio Tinto BC Works, said in an email statement that the company is “deeply saddened” by the sturgeons’ deaths and it is working with partners, including the Nechako white sturgeon recovery initiative and the province.
“We are aware of the sturgeon mortality that occurred this summer in the Nechako River and in other rivers in B.C., including the Fraser River. We have offered technical capacity via the water engagement initiative to identify the possible causes of this unprecedented event."
He said the company has contributed over $13 million to the recovery initiative since 2000.
Over the past two years, Rio Tinto has been working with the First Nations and local communities to improve the water flow into the Nechako River while still monitoring for flood risks in Vanderhoof, a city in northern B.C., said Czornohalan.
“We will continue to collaborate with First Nations, governments and other stakeholders to review all aspects of the Nechako Reservoir management process in hopes of improving the health of the river and ensuring Rio Tinto can remain a driver of economic opportunities in B.C.,” said Czornohalan.
He said on top of powering its smelting plant, the dam provides hydropower for around 350,000 residents in B.C.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 13, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Nono Shen, The Canadian Press