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DFO ‘exploring options’ with province to restrict vehicle access at popular Chilliwack gravel bar

Stewardship groups demand vehicle access be shut down to prevent more damage to fish habitat
Screenshot from video posted in early 2021 showing repeated crossings of side channels by convoy of Dodge trucks on the Fraser River near Chilliwack. (Facebook)

River stewardship groups are urging DFO to shut down vehicle access to a popular gravel bar on the Fraser River near Chilliwack.

The Aug. 3 letter signed by Dean Werk, president of Fraser Valley Salmon Society, and member of the Gravel Stewardship Group, is demanding action by fishery officers, to address the “extensive damage to fish habitat” being caused by off-road vehicles and trucks at Gill bar.

In response, DFO officials said they are working on the problem with provincial officials.

“DFO is actively exploring options to restrict access to Gill bar with the Province of B.C.,” said Mike Fraser, fishery officer and detachment commander for Fraser East, Conservation and Protection, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).

“Further, DFO is actively investigating several occurrences of vehicles operating in the Gill Bay area and given the recent education that has been provided, the posted signage clearly illustrating what activities are likely to negatively impact fish habitat and previous media releases raising awareness to the public, we intend to charge individuals where those activities are deemed to be a violation of section 35(1) F.A. Harmful Alteration Disruption or Destruction of Fish Habitat.”

They ask that people continue to report violations.

“We ask the public to continue to report observations to the DFO Observe Record Report line (ORR) and remind the public to keep vehicles out of fish habitat,” Fraser said.

Vehicle traffic is still under fire, as an ongoing issue at Gill Bar, which has been a popular destination for anglers, off-roaders, as well as campers, at the end of Gill Road on the north side of Chilliwack.

The habitat is at the “breaking point,” Werk said.

“We are demanding that action to be taken immediately by the Department (DFO) to close this area completely to vehicle traffic under the Fisheries Act and, failing that, lay charges on every vehicle that fords the channel and to access the sensitive habitat on the bar,” the letter from Werk states. “We are not against non-motorized vehicles like bicycles, walking etc. being used here. But it is time to stop the impact by wheeled vehicles.”

Part of the problem is the big increase in traffic at Gill bar, especially during COVID, Werk said.

“And with no sign of it abating, with vehicles already crossing the channel, the Gravel Stewardship Committee and Salmon Society are no longer willing to support vehicle traffic on this bar once the river goes down,” the letter reads.

The whole traffic issue at Gill blew up on social media when a free-wheeling Dodge truck video was shared on Facebook, and then taken down, showing a convoy trucks proudly churning and splashing through side channels of the Fraser River at Gill bar.

In response, local Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) officials pledged to raise awareness with new educational signage about critical salmon habitat.

Several of the signs were promptly ripped down, burned and strewn around.

DFO has since by its own admission recognized that “the vehicular traffic on the bar causes damage to fish habitat” yet the response is inadequate, Werk said.

After an enforcement and regulatory review by local fishery officers, the damage to the side channels by the river came to light, and a warning letter was sent to the organizer of the truck convoy event.

No charges were laid in response to the video shot at Gill, despite acknowledgement of “harmful alteration disruption, and/or destruction to fish habitat” over 1,000 square metres.

The education campaign and signage installed by DFO officers as the solution and formal response to the video were trashed by gravel bar users, meaning the efforts over the last five months to resolve this have not yielded results, Werk added.

Further it is unacceptable for DFO to state “it doesn’t have the resources to protect this extraordinary piece of Canadian fish habitat,” he said.

”Nowhere else in western North America, including the rest of British Columbia, would the damage that is occurring to fish habitat to Gill Bar be acceptable to the public and/or the enforcement agencies.”

The truck convoy impacts were “only a tiny fraction of the large-scale damage that has occurred, and will occur, from August to April of each year on Gill Bar,” Werk underlined.

“The Department has not taken this issue at Gill Bar seriously enough, by our accounts, and we are profoundly disturbed and unhappy by this lack of action.”

RELATED: Video shows trucks plowing through fish habitat

RELATED: Salmon stewards call for clampdown on vehicle access

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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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