Nechako First Nation Asks Rio Tinto To Discharge More Water Into River

Last month, the Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship reported that 11 dead adult white sturgeons had been found in the Nechako River.

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A group of BC First Nations is calling on Australian mining giant Rio Tinto Alcan to dump more water into the Nechako River after a sudden die-off of the endangered white sturgeon.

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Last month, the Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship reported that 11 dead adult white sturgeons had been found in the Nechako River – an unusual occurrence. White sturgeon can grow up to six meters in length and live more than 100 years. They are an endangered species with between 300 and 600 living in the wild.

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Scientists said the fish had not died from disease, chemical exposure or from fishing, and showed no signs of injury. The government then reached out to the local First Nations.

The largest Nechako white sturgeon ever recorded was recently captured by the staff of the Nechako White Sturgeon Conservation Center.  The female sturgeon weighed 152.7 kg (335.9 pounds) and will be released into the conservation facility in 2021.
The largest Nechako white sturgeon ever recorded was recently captured by the staff of the Nechako White Sturgeon Conservation Center. The female sturgeon weighed 152.7 kg (335.9 pounds) and will be released into the conservation facility in 2021. Photo by Nechako White Sturgeon Conservation Center Facebook Photo

On Thursday, the Nechako First Nations said the province, the federal government and Rio Tinto Alcan should immediately address the “persistent mismanagement of the Nechako.”

“The recent deaths of 11 endangered Nechako white sturgeons are just the latest blow to this endangered species, and along with significantly declining sockeye salmon populations, emphasize the urgency for action,” the group said.

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The Nechako River was dammed at its source on the eastern edge of the Kitimat Ranges in the early 1950s to supply power to the Alcan aluminum smelter in Kitimat, now owned by Rio Tinto. As a result, indigenous communities were consumed by the 230 km long reservoir system west of the dam, while the river’s original flow to Prince George – where it enters the Fraser River – was reduced by two-thirds.

The more water stored behind the dam, the more energy Rio Tinto can generate and use or sell, at the expense of the river downstream.

The river was once an important breeding ground for salmon and Nechako white sturgeon and an integral part of native life.

Peter Luggi Sr.  participated in one of the last Stellat'en harvests of Nechako White Sturgeon, circa 1968.
Peter Luggi Sr. participated in one of the last Stellat’en harvests of Nechako White Sturgeon, circa 1968. PNG

Last October, the Saik’uz, Stellat’en and Nadleh Whut’en First Nations (the Nechako First Nations) signed a memorandum of understanding with the Bulkley Nechako Regional District to create a new water flow regime for the river “where all people within the catchment area.”

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Then, in January of this year, a decade-long legal action by the affected First Nations to restore river flow was dismissed by the BC Supreme Court.

The court ruled that while the destruction of the river had caused significant and ongoing damage to the river and fisheries, the dam was built with federal and provincial government approval.

However, the court ruled that the state and federal governments were obligated to protect the plaintiffs’ right to fish by doing what they could to protect the remaining fisheries.

The Nechako First Nations now argue that recognizing that they have the constitutional right to fish in the river means renegotiating the current water management regime.

“The court also ruled that the continued regulation of the Nechako River results in an infringement of the rights of the Nechako First Nations, which can no longer be justified under the circumstances,” the bands said.

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