Nechako First Nation is asking Rio Tinto to release more water into the river

Last month, the Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Management reported that 11 dead adult white sturgeon were 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 release more water into the Nechaco River after a sudden die-off of endangered white sturgeon.

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Last month, BC’s Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Management reported that 11 dead adult white sturgeon were found in the Nechaco River – an unusual occurrence. White sturgeon can grow up to six meters and live more than 100 years. They are an endangered species, with 300 to 600 remaining in the wild.

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Scientists said the fish did not die from disease, chemical exposure or fishing and showed no signs of injury. The government then turned to local First Nations.

A Nechako white sturgeon caught by staff at the Nechako White Sturgeon Conservation Center.
A Nechako white sturgeon caught by staff at the Nechako White Sturgeon Conservation Center. Photo Nechako White Sturgeon Conservation Center Facebook photo

On Thursday, the Nechako First Nations said the province, the federal government and Rio Tinto Alcan must immediately deal with the “ongoing mismanagement of Nechako.”

“The recent killing of 11 endangered Nechako white sturgeon is the latest blow to this endangered species and underscores the need for action, coupled with significant declines in salmon populations,” he said.

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

The more water stored behind the dam, the more electricity Rio Tinto can generate and use or sell downstream.

The river was once a spawning ground for salmon and Nechako white sturgeon and was an integral part of local people’s lives.

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

Last October, the Saik’uz, Stellat’en and Nadleh Whut’en First Nations, which make up 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. It benefits everyone within the watershed.”

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In January of this year – a decade-long legal action by First Nations to restore river flow was rejected by the B.C. Supreme Court.

The court ruled that although the damming of the river would cause significant and lasting harm to the river and its fisheries, the dam was built with the permission of the federal and state governments.

However, the court ruled that the state and federal governments have a duty to protect the plaintiffs’ right to fish by doing what they can to protect the remaining fisheries.

The Nechako First Nations are now arguing that recognition of their constitutional right to fish the river means a renegotiation of the current water management regime.

“The court also found that the continued regulation of the Nechako River results in a violation of the rights of the Nechako First Nations and can no longer be justified under the circumstances,” the groups said.

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