Fish kills provoke David and Goliath connundrums

It was news-historian Phil Vogler who pointed out recently an 1873 notice for wardens on the Gaspereau River posted by Adolphus Bishop, overseer of river fisheries in Kings County.
Bishop believed the fish ladder on the Gaspereau should be watched night and day during the time the fish were ascending. This was long before any power dams were installed, but he had cause for concern then just as locals do now.
Last May there were sad clumps of dead fish along that same river. It’s hard to tell numbers, but tens of thousands has been mentioned as an estimate.
Those adult gaspereaux likely died at the Nova Scotia Power Corporation (NSPC) generating station, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. NSPC had earlier announced it would pay $50,000 into a federal environmental damages fund for causing the fish kill.
Allegedly the mortality was attributed to the utility opening the gate at its White Rock station to increase the flow of water for the annual Apple Blossom Duck Race. The fundraiser has been put on for 22 years by the Wolfville Rotary Club, but have there been similar fish kills every year? History says no.
The utility has agreed to make repairs that would draw fish away from the turbine and to improve its monitoring of migrating fish through the hydro system.
Neither the CBC nor Chronicle Herald coverage of the announcement included any comment from the 14 or so fishers on the affected river. (Ian Fairclough at the Herald did speak with Hants County-based Darren Porter of the Fundy United Federation of Fishermen.)
I remember fishers reporting dead fish the week prior to the duck race last May, so it was no surprise that Porter posted a couple of angry videos after the NSPC announcement. Rubber duckies are an easy target, but are they to blame?
Fisher Chris Gertridge, who grew up on the river, observed dead fish for four or five days prior to the duck race.
“Maybe even up to a week,” he said. “It’s all logged. So there was a bigger window.”
What I have observed is that the gaspereux fishers have a long history of not being listened to by the authorities. David goes up against Goliath, but the little guy with a dip net gets swamped.
In 1981, Chesley Kennie, then 79, was quoted saying an estimated 9,000 fish travel upstream daily en route to their annual spawning grounds. He noted that in his youth, once caught, they were packed in salt, and shipped in apple barrels that sold for $1.25 a barrel in Haiti.
By the 1980s gaspereaux were packed in 50-pound buckets and usually sold for $20 - $25. Kennie recalled fishing by day and farming by night.
He remembered as a youth when demand for fish was low and at the same time, farmers couldn’t afford fertilizer, they planted fish with each potato to boost the crop. According to Kennie, the system worked efficiently “except when the darn cows dug them up.”
There were good seasons in the early 1980s. In fact, I recall a May fish festival where celebratory fish chowder was served up at the Gaspereau Community Hall.
At that time the late Dean Gertridge told me four containers were exported in a single day and that day’s shipment represented one third of the annual output.
“That’s about $180,000, not bad for a little river,” he said. But prior to the 80s a single season’s catch was once pegged at a value of just $250,000.
Later that decade Hugh Sweeney of the department of fisheries indicated that the annual count of adult fish had been suspended in 1984. Apparently a university student undertakes a count now, but is that data complete? Is it shared?
In 1993 there was a federal directive issued for the Gaspereau fishers to deliver samples to Blandford near Chester for inspection. They were not told why. Then provincial fisheries minister Jim Barkhouse speculated that such added delivery costs could make the fishery unsustainable. There’s economic development for you.
At the time the Gaspereau catch was pegged at four or five thousand buckets annually, while the catch in the Margaree, Cape Breton area was closer to 25,000 a year.
Alan Gertridge said the fishers were having an average year in ’93 with the salted catch going to their sole market in Haiti. Speaking of the industry, he said, “We’re just a small voice. Others have worse problems, but it has gotten harder.”
Over 20 years ago fisher Micky Coldwell had a dream after the province purchased the block of land at Cape Split.
“I saw it covered in windmills and the fishermen got their river back,” he told me.
There have been power dams on the Gaspereau River since the 1930’s, but Micky, who was then in his 50s, could compare catches and he longed for the past.
“Thirty years ago even 12 gaspereaux would make a gallon of Solomon Gundy,” he said. “Now you would need 32 gaspereaux to make the same gallon.”
Micky started at about age five salting fish for his father and grandfather. Families like the Coldwells, Davisons, Millets and Gertridges have been fishing for generations. The Gaspereau farmers use a square dip net invented long ago by the Mi’kmaw.
Seventy years ago, according to Micky, the nets were busy from mid March to mid June. Licenses were instituted about 1974, but regulations already existed.
In fact, old style fish wardens used to walk the river on foot two or three times a week during the season. Micky recalled they were interested in the observations of the fishermen.
The wardens had the final say in controlling the volume of water running downriver from the power dam and he remembers it ran at a more constant level.
The first fish kill Micky could recollect was in 1971. A warden asked the fishermen to clean up the dead fish. In 1978, when the new bridge went in at Avonport, there were some detrimental effects on the fish. Overall though the 1970s were known for good catches.
In 1982, the season was cut back by the province. The following year the fishermen were asked to reduce their traditional rock wall sluices that directed fish to their nets.
In 1991, Micky said there was a large fuel oil spill in the river and in that decade there were four fish kills – one decimated adult fish and the other three impacted the juveniles.
As a result he spoke about a deep well of frustration. Despite a 1999 agreement between the environment department and NSPC that called for guardianship of the fish as a covenant for use of the water resource, communication remained a problem.
There were also incidents like the high water levels set by NSPC that had the effect of raising and smashing fishing gear. In 2001 after two years of fish kills in a row, the fishermen agreed not to fish on Wednesdays to help conserve fish population. But fish numbers have continued downward.
“We got more respect in the old days. We know they call us ‘apple pickers’,” Micky said in 2002.
That June fishermen spotted a fish kill and as spokesman for the Gaspereau River Fishermen’s Association, Micky was up to the power plant three times in one day out of concern. A new diversion structure was blamed, yet NSPC staff was confident the new fish passage had a greater capacity.
Micky spoke of his admiration for retired fish warden Gus Meister and power corporation staff member Nat Parker. Those two built up reservoirs of experience and they listened, he said.
Then there was a 14-year break between fish kills that were newsworthy. Obviously the duck race didn’t cause any big problems in that stretch of time.
Chris Gertridge knows there were other smaller fish kills of 200 -300 fish after 2002. He remembers events later in the season when young fish died coming downstream in comparable numbers.
“It sucks. We keep having this happen,” this fisher says. “I want to keep fish in the river to complete their life cycle. We’ve worked hard to get stocks back up. We gave up day’s fishing. This takes a lot of energy.”
Meanwhile the Wolfville Rotary Club is rebranding and moving its fundraiser to New Minas for this year.
The fishers sat down with NSPC and the government last week in an effort, Chris says, to move forward.
My observation is that the conversation around issues related to the shared use of the Gaspereau appears to flow largely between government and industry – leaving the fishers who live and work by the river and who value its heritage out in the cold.
Chris Gertridge looks over his wall of fish history.
The corporate public relations machine chooses its words carefully because the stakes are high. Improvements in the machinery that may be killing fish are balanced against the perceived needs of energy ratepayers. Or do they mean shareholders?
It’s all a very fishy business. That is the history anyway.


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