Fraser River (Pacific and Western Mountains)
Source: Mount Robson Provincial Park, British Columbia
Mouth: Strait of Georgia at Vancouver
Direction of flow: southwest
Length: 1,370 kilometres
Origin of name: after explorer Simon Fraser
The Fraser River is the largest river in British Columbia. Its basin covers more than 25 percent of the province and is home to 2.7 million people, more than 60 percent of British Columbia’s population. It was designated a Canadian Heritage River in 1998.
The Fraser rises in the shadow of Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. It meanders through the rolling hills and flatlands of the province’s interior plateau, rushes through the Fraser Canyon, then enters a broad flood plain on its final journey to the Pacific Ocean.
The Fraser is synonymous with salmon: it produces more salmon than any other river system in the world. Millions of salmon spawn in its huge network of lakes and tributaries. Of the five species found in the Fraser River (pink, chum, sockeye, coho and chinook), sockeye is commercially the most important.
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The Pacific salmon fishery is, however, on the brink of collapse. The number of salmon returning from the Pacific Ocean to spawn in the Fraser River has declined dramatically. One of the main causes of this crisis is overfishing by the commercial fishery which catches salmon off the coast as they prepare to migrate up the Fraser to lay eggs. Habitat loss, pollution and illegal harvests are also taking their toll on the fish. Over the past decade, millions of dollars have been spent on habitat enhancement and salmon restoration programs.
For thousands of years, First Nations established communities along the banks of the Fraser River. Salmon became a lifeline, as a food staple and an important trade item. Fur traders opened up the watershed to European influence in the early 19th century. Simon Fraser was the first European to travel the river’s entire length in 1808.
The discovery of gold in the lower Fraser River valley in 1858 attracted 30,000 miners to the region. The gold rush was short-lived, but the river’s rich agricultural, forestry and mining resources continued to draw people. Development along the river grew to the point where economic activities in the Fraser River basin now contribute 80 percent of British Columbia’s gross domestic product and 10 percent of Canada’s gross national product.
How to handle population growth and ensuing development in the Fraser River basin is the most pressing concern and challenge for the region and the waterway. The basin is home to 2.7 million people, most of whom are concentrated in the Vancouver area. It also contains half of British Columbia’s agricultural lands and forests that cover three times the size of New Brunswick. Eight major mines operate in the region.
The population is projected to grow to nearly four million within two decades. Managing this expansion while maintaining the ecological integrity of the Fraser is a complex balancing act, given the river’s size and the diversity of ecosystems along its course. The Fraser Basin Council, established in 1997, oversees the implementation of a charter signed by individuals, organizations, federal, provincial, local and First Nations governments to achieve sustainability of the basin.