Wolastoqiyik grandmothers and mothers are keeping watch over Miramichi Lake and have so far stopped the planned poisoning of the lake’s smallmouth bass.
The application of the pesticide, rotenone, approved by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans earlier this year, to Miramichi Lake, Lake Brook and approximately 15 kilometres of the Southwest Miramichi River was scheduled to begin on August 17 and last for two days. A second one-day treatment was scheduled to occur in September for Lake Brook and Southwest Miramichi River. The pesticide application will not only kill the smallmouth bass but most of the other fish in the waters.
Atlantic Salmon Federation spokesperson Neville Crabbe has said that the poisoning has been delayed “due to a number of issues” by at least one day. The salmon group is one of several groups supporting the plan to apply rotenone to areas of the Miramichi watershed to kill the smallmouth bass.
Smallmouth bass is not a native fish of New Brunswick and is believed to have been illegally introduced to Miramichi Lake around 2008. However, the fish has been known to be in New Brunswick waters for more than 130 years, according to the government of New Brunswick.
The Atlantic Salmon Federation and the proponent North Shore Micmac District Council argue that the fish kill is needed to restore native fish populations, namely the endangered Atlantic salmon, and trout. According to the federation, smallmouth bass is threatening salmon and trout by taking over their habitat.
Nathan Wilbur is the regional director of the Atlantic Salmon Federation. Wilbur says, “We have always been clear that the purpose of this invasive species eradication is to preserve the native ecosystem of the Miramichi, which supports species like Atlantic salmon and brook trout, and many other species. This is not simply about saving salmon, it is the future of the ecosystem at stake and if smallmouth bass are allowed to colonize the 13,500 square kilometre watershed, the entire Miramichi will be forever changed.”
The grandmothers and mothers from Tobique, St. Mary’s and Woodstock First Nations argue that their communities have not been adequately consulted. Before taking the project to their communities, the Chiefs of the Wolastoqey First Nations had asked for a series of conditions to be met. According to Charles Bryant who is representing the Wolastoqiyik grandmothers and mothers, these conditions have not been met.
Ramona Nicholas, one of the grandmothers, says there are many reasons to put a brake on the plan.
“First, there is a lack of consultation with our communities. We want to know if there are other ways of protecting the salmon that are less harmful. Do we know the long-term effects of such poisoning? What about the other fish? What about the waterfowl? What about the entire lake ecosystem?”
According to Wilbur, consultation with Indigenous communities was done but admits not everyone was reached.
Cottage owners around Miramichi Lake and the New Brunswick Aboriginal Peoples Council, representing off-reserve and non-status Indigenous people in the province, oppose the project because of the risks associated with applying the fish pesticide.
Wilbur noted that there is public support for the project. When the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment was filed, “1,300 letters of public support were submitted, and only a handful of opposed, all from Miramichi Lake cottage owners,” said Wilbur.
A trip around the scenic Miramichi Lake reveals that the smallmouth bass is not the only potential threat to salmon. Clearcuts and plantations that would have been sprayed with glyphosate dot the landscape.
Forestry practices are known contributors of degradation of fish habitat. Clearcutting and logging roads add sediment to rivers and streams and open up cooler forested areas, making water bodies warmer and less hospitable to the cold water-loving salmon.
The Conservation Council of New Brunswick and more recently Stop Spraying New Brunswick have called for banning the herbicide glyphosate in the forest but the largest salmon conservation group in the province has not. The Atlantic Salmon Federation is a long time partner of New Brunswick’s largest forestry company J.D. Irving Ltd. According to Wilbur, the Atlantic Salmon Federation does not receive any direct funding from J.D. Irving and has been critical of forestry practices. The company does provide funding to salmon conservation projects as well as controls access to some salmon-bearing rivers in the province.
In 2017, the NB Media Co-op reported that a senior employee at J.D. Irving Ltd. warned the Miramichi Headwaters Salmon Federation they would face reprisals if they went public with their opposition to glyphosate spraying of the forest. They did so anyway, making them the first salmon conservation group to publicly oppose glyphosate spraying.
Alternatives to “poison and plant” projects
New Brunswick is not the only place where there is opposition to eradicating invasive fish with poisons.
Mike Garrity is with the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, an organization that has drawn attention to the plans to kill fish with rotenone in waters in Wyoming and Montana. Wyoming’s Department of Game and Fish had approved a project to apply rotenone to Game Creek on August 20 to poison non-native brook trout and reintroduce the native Snake River cutthroat trout.
Garrity writing for Counterpunch said, “Rotenone not only kills brook trout, but anything with gills, including the aquatic insects and any amphibians unfortunate enough to be present when the stream is poisoned.” He is also worried about human health impact of rotenone reaching groundwater that feeds well systems.
According to Wilbur, “Rotenone is not a groundwater contaminant, it doesn’t penetrate more than a few cm into soil before it is bound. Hundreds of wells have been monitored around rotenone projects and none have shown presence of rotenone or other formulation ingredients. Human health has been extensively studied by health agencies around the world, including the US EPA and Health Canada, and that is why rotenone products are allowed for use in our country. They are safe and effective when used according to the product label.”
Garrity argues that there are the alternatives to what he calls “poison and plant” projects but they are more expensive: applying chemicals to kill fish is “cheaper than removing non-native fish through labor-intensive electroshocking, fishing, and netting. But poisoning entire water bodies – especially flowing streams — severely alters biodiversity and causes a broad loss of taxa and species from the aquatic ecosystem.”
The state of Wyoming is listening to Garrity and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
On July 12, Wyoming’s fisheries biologist informed the alliance that the state was putting their plans to apply rotenone to eradicate brook trout on hold and was considering mechanical removal (electrofishing) of the trout and stocking the water with trojan males that only produce male offspring to collapse the population. The community has also rallied around the plan and have assisted in meeting catches of 16 brook trout per person per day.
Back on Miramichi Lake, Nicholas also wants the province to consider Indigenous perspectives and traditional ecological knowledge and feels that “scientific knowledge is being shoved down our throats.”
“We need to talk about the environment as a whole. It’s not about just the fish.”
Nicholas encourages people to join the grandmothers at Miramichi Lake. Access to the site has been blocked by conservation officers with the Department of Natural Resources, making it difficult to reach the grandmothers.
On August 19, in an effort to remove the grandmothers and mothers from the site, the Atlantic Salmon Federation sought a court motion to get an injunction against the women. The motion was dismissed by the court. With the clock ticking on when rotenone can be applied to Miramichi Lake, the Atlantic Salmon Federation has decided to hit pause on the project in order to share information about the project with the grandmothers and hear their concerns.
Corrections/additions: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Atlantic Salmon Federation as the proponent of the smallmouth bass eradication project when it is the North Shore Micmac District Council. The nature of the relationship between the Atlantic Salmon Federation and J.D. Irving has been clarified. The story has also been updated to include responses from the Atlantic Salmon Federation.
Tracy Glynn is a writer and editor with the NB Media Co-op.