Three B.C. First Nations are calling on the provincial and federal governments to force a major aluminum producer into releasing more water into the Nechako River after a dozen endangered sturgeon were mysteriously found dead.
The white sturgeon of the Upper Fraser and Nechako River have been listed as endangered under the Species At Risk Act since 2012.
In early September, scientists from the B.C. government said they had received reports that 11 dead white sturgeon were found dead on Nechako River — all within the span of little more than a week.
The fish — which can weigh hundreds of kilograms, grow to up to six metres long and live for more than 100 years — showed no signs of external injuries. Laboratory results indicate they didn't die from disease, chemical exposure or due to the activities of anglers or gill net fishers, according to Steve McAdam, the sturgeon recovery lead for the province.
Conditions on the river have become desperate, said Priscilla Mueller, elected chief of the Saik’uz First Nation, one of three bands that make up the Nechako First Nations.
“Because they're so big, I really don't know how [the sturgeons] could live in the river,” she said. “It's just literally drying up.”
In a press release, the Nechako First Nations said the sudden deaths “strongly suggests acute stressor(s) in the Nechako River have had severe impact(s) on the remaining population of Nechako white sturgeon.”
“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,” added the group.
Rising food insecurity
Mueller says she hasn't seen anyone catch a sturgeon in her community for decades. Meanwhile, salmon stocks are declining at the same time the First Nation is trying to slow moose hunting in the region — something Mueller partly attributes to nearby logging.
As the prices of food go up around the world, the First Nation hasn’t been able to turn to wild game or fish like they used to, and many in the community of nearly 400 are struggling to fill up their freezers.
“It is getting worse,” she said. “We used to go hunting for moose every fall and have a freezer full of fish and canned fish.”
Now, the nation’s leadership is handing out food hampers.
“It's very difficult for families to survive, to be able to work their jobs and to be able to pay their bills and their mortgages and then worry about where are they going to get their food from,” said the chief.
“We have a forest in our back backyard here and a river that used to feed us — and it's declining.”
Court case stopped short of restoring river
This is not the first time the Nechako First Nations have looked to higher authorities to help reclaim control of the river.
In January 2022, a B.C. Supreme Court found the construction of the Kenney Dam in the 1950s, which today helps supply power to the Rio Tinto Alcan aluminum smelters, has had a "dramatic" effect on the Nechako watershed, and threatens the “imminent extirpation” of the Nechako white sturgeon.
The justice also found regulating the Nechako River has led to warmer water temperatures during migration, which in turn, has triggered pre-spawning mortality in sockeye salmon.
Such temperatures contribute “to the overall decline of the sockeye population,” added the justice.
And while the ruling reaffirmed the disproportionate and “hugely negative impacts” the river’s management had on Indigenous communities — communities that have a constitutional right to fish the Nechako — the justice turned down the Nechako First Nations’ request to restore the flow of the river to previous levels.
Double the flow, says chief
With between 300 and 600 of the fish left, Nechako First Nations are calling on all parties to come up with a new water management regime that would protect both the sturgeon and sockeye salmon that inhabit the river.
Negotiations on how to manage the river have stalled in recent months, said Mueller. Now, she says it’s time for the provincial and federal governments to use their regulatory authority to force Rio Tinto’s hand and double the water flow to 60 per cent of historic levels.
“We're asking Rio Tinto to sit at a table where we could all agree on an agreement that will benefit all of us and not just the big corporate companies,” said Mueller.
“The province and Canada — they both need to hold Rio Tinto accountable for the damage that has been done to the river.”
That would require Rio Tinto Alcan to build a water release facility at the Kenney Dam.
“Not only is this needed to better manage the Nechako watershed, it is also needed to enable Rio Tinto to cease flooding First Nations gravesites and destroying important archaeological sites…” said the nations in a press release Monday.
In an emailed statement to Glacier Media, Rio Tinto says it's aware of the sturgeon deaths and is working with its partners, including the Nechako White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative (NWSRI) and the province.
"We are deeply saddened by this," said Andrew Czornohalan, director of power and projects at Rio Tinto BC Works, of the deaths. "We have offered technical capacity via the Water Engagement Initiative to identify the possible causes of this unprecedented event."
Czornohalan added Rio Tinto has been actively committed to the recovery of the Nechako white sturgeon, supporting and funding the NWSRI.
"Rio Tinto believes that governance of the flows on the Nechako River should be an inclusive process. Over the last two years Rio Tinto has been working with First Nations and local communities to improve the water flow into the Nechako River while still monitoring for flood risks in Vanderhoof. 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.," the statement continued.
Working to prevent more sturgeon deaths
There have been no recent sturgeon deaths on the Nechako River, according to B.C.'s Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship. The "plateauing" of reported deaths is being described as a "positive update," says a statement from the ministry.
"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," wrote a ministry spokesperson, noting the mortality total is now at 12 adults.
When asked for an update on what might have killed the sturgeon, the ministry spokesperson said physical injury did not appear to be the cause.
"No other cause was immediately apparent, but analyses and lab tests will continue," Glacier Media was told. "Other analyses will screen for disease and tissue anomalies in key organs."
The statement added that temperature and oxygen stress studies are underway through a partnership with UBC.
The province says it will continue to monitor for new reports of dead sturgeon and focus its efforts on preventing more deaths. The ministry spokesperson said the B.C. government is leading an engagement process with First Nations to develop a provincial Fraser River White Sturgeon Management Plan.
They also said habitat restoration is a priority. Efforts there include working with the Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC to release hatchery-raised sturgeon in the Nechako watershed.
Editor's note: This story was updated Oct. 4 to include comment from Rio Tinto and the B.C. government.