A Call Out to Mobilize for Coastal Life and Ocean Protection

Prepared for circulation to all Water Protectors:
Our Allies, in and around the Council of Canadians

Near Saglek Bay in Nunatsiavut, the homeland of the Labrador Inuit. ©Ossie Michelin

All waters—fresh and salt—are connected

For more than 30 years the Council of Canadians has been a leader on fresh water protection in Canada. In 1999, we published a comprehensive National Water Policy advocacy brief regarding how to protect watersheds and implementation of the human right to water.

Fresh water flows into the sea. Contaminants that flow into rivers and streams from industrial pollution, such as fracking and burst tailing pond dams, drain into estuaries, bays, seas, and oceans. These contaminants compound the abuse and neglect already poisoning the salt-watery majority of our planet. Survival of marine life, already stressed by acidification and warming waters, is further compromised.

The Council of Canadians is not loosening our efforts on freshwater issues. This is a “both/and,” because the planet’s waters are all connected. We are calling out across our organization, and to allies, to develop a coordinated, unified, strategic campaign on protecting coastal life and ocean waters. In a separate communication sent today, 24 chapters of the Council of Canadians ask the Prime Minister of Canada to meet with us to discuss the issues raised in this call to action.

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The magic of life in coastal waters, Gaburus, Cape Breton Island, NS. ©George Griffen

Our coasts are being neglected

Canada has a huge global stewardship responsibility. We have more oceanfront than any other nation. Gaining protective legislative and regulatory measures will not be easy. The plethora of issues is compounded by official lethargy and avoidance.

Every day, volunteers in the Council of Canadians‘ community chapters work with people from local networks and environmental NGO’s across Canada to advocate for marine life and salt water protection. We are united in alarm about the contamination that will certainly result from hundreds of oil and gas export tankers, each day, crossing the fragile and stressed waters of the Georgia Strait, Salish Sea, other western coastal waters, Bay of Fundy, Gulf of Maine, Beaufort Sea, and more of our shore waters. Much of the intended export material is bitumen, which truly cannot be cleaned from the water after a spill. Each of these areas provides habitats for designated species at risk and/or for marine life on which Indigenous Peoples and others depend for sustainable livelihoods.

In particular, Atlantic Canadians feel betrayed by government on marine protection: “Frankenfish” in PEI; aquaculture diseases spreading to wild populations (despite government assurances this would never happen); the evaporation of Newfoundland’s cod fishery; the loss of the salmon fishery in New Brunswick; the loss of some unique Striped Bass spawning habitat in Nova Scotia; off-shore drilling throughout the near Atlantic Ocean; etc.

Darren Porter’s Herring Weir, Minas Basin, NS. When other fish are caught,
such as this stupendous Striped Bass, they are released. ©Erica Danae Porter 

Countless millions of dead herring: a case in point

Beginning mid-November 2016, dramatic mortalities of herring were evident in the Bay of Fundy—a powerful, unique ecosystem boasting the highest tides in the world, and is home to rare species such as the Right Whale, provides spawning grounds for the Striped Bass, and has a flourishing ecotourism industry.

Why the big fuss about the humble herring? The herring are a primary food source for larger marine life in the Fundy, as well as people food, bait for shellfish traps, and a significant resource export. Without herring, the Fundy fisheries collapse.

Contrary to frequent public messaging, energy generation by tidal turbines can seriously harm marine life. Depending on design, direct strikes can kill and injure animals caught in the mechanism. Arguably more insidious is the noise, vibration and pressure change disruption of the marine environment. Many at-risk sea mammals, and forage fish like herring, have very sensitive auditory biology. Despite the urgent need to generate energy from non-fossil fuel sources, this calls into question tidal power’s “green” status.

In April 2016, the Science Advisory Committee for the Maritimes of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) reviewed a proposal to install an experimental tidal turbine in the upper Bay of Fundy. The DFO advisory committee clearly said the proponent’s baseline data was inadequate to establish an environmental monitoring plan. The province of Nova Scotia immediately approved the turbine’s deployment in the Minas Passage. Fishers’ associations are currently taking the province to court over this inconsistency.

Left: Busy Digby Harbour, NS. ©Pics by Mitch (FB)  
Right:  Sandy Beach, on the Northumberland Strait, NB. ©George Griffen

Turbine deployment happened in early November 2016. Within days of the onset of testing and commissioning, dead herring began beaching further down the Bay. DFO’s response was sluggish. While die-offs continued, the department spent weeks testing and retesting for “the usual suspects”: viruses, bacteria, algae bloom toxins, and predators. DFO acknowledged a unique “densification” or “aggregation” of herring in the die-off bays and coves (ie. overcrowding), but had no explanation for the phenomenon. (See this “A Sequel” link for more info on herringcide investigations and theories.) 

Many residents, including fisherfolk, are certain the herring were affected by the turbine. People who know these waters believe the herring fled from the Minas area to similar marine environments further down the Bay. Injured or overcrowded, that is where the herring were seen swimming abnormally, losing strength, and ultimately dying. Repeated calls to government and industry – to please stop the turbine to determine if it was the cause of the herring die-off, or to send cameras and divers to the bottom of the Fundy in the Minas area – were ignored.

Throughout the entire “herringcide” event, DFO refused to acknowledge that the synchronous turbine disruption of the Bay’s marine environment demanded serious evaluation. Many observers feel this is due to politics: Nova Scotia wants tidal turbines to succeed. The province has invested a lot of cash and political capital in creating the Fundy Ocean Research Centre for Energy (FORCE) to start-up major tidal energy generation. Powerful corporations see a huge market for “green” Canadian electricity along the US eastern seaboard, involving undersea cable links from the controversial Muskrat Falls in Labrador, biomass generation at Point Tupper NS, and upcoming Fundy tidal generation.

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Seal near Annapolis Royal, off the Bay of Fundy, NS. ©Pix by Mitch (FB)

Deepening the public’s scorn for DFO’s controversial “look over here, not over there” herringcide investigation, a 2013 Memorandum of Understanding surfaced in early January 2017. This gives the National Energy Board responsibility to assess risk to fish and fish habitat near proposed pipelines and power lines. The possible existence of a similar understanding regarding FORCE initiatives in Nova Scotia could explain DFO evading questions about the new turbine’s possible effect on herring.

Like all such development proposals in Canada, Cape Sharp/Emera’s turbine in Minas Passage went through a provincial environmental impact assessment (EIA). This means that the proponent contracted a company that wrote an EIA report. The government then reviewed the paperwork, and approved the application. In some such instances, governments put conditions on approval, but the proponent is responsible for undertaking, monitoring, and reporting on their own compliance. This process is ridiculous. Asking the fox to install security for the henhouse is unacceptable and makes a mockery of the intent and meaning of environmental assessment.

In the past two months, more than 70,000 international and Canadian individuals have signed a petition calling on federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil and New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant to address the issue of herring die-offs. On January 3, 2017, an open letter was sent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and all these other political leaders, bringing their attention to the petition and asking for a response on key points. To date, none of the aforementioned have responded.

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Bull Kelp on beach, Tofino, B.C. ©Alexandre Robichaud

The system is failing marine life, and us

This environmental crisis has brought to the forefront a host of broader concerns. DFO simply does not seem to be up to the job of protecting marine life. We understand that DFO’s scientific and species/habitat protection mandate is undermined by its multi-pronged mandate. Most significantly, DFO was hard hit by the extreme politicization of science, including restructuring and defunding, that happened during the Harper regime. At that time, scientists were muzzled, protection legislation was gutted, and key programs and personnel terminated.

As mentioned above, EIA processes across Canada do not protect the environment, and other protective legislation was stripped of its powers by the Harper regime. The Justin Trudeau government came into power promising to renew and revitalize Canada’s environmental regulatory system. Standing Committees and panels recently finished consultations on these ravaged laws. Each committee, dealing with each legislation, picked which major cities to visit (or not). All ignored frontline rural areas that are often most impacted by poor regulations. In the online consultation option, the questions funneled towards the interests of big government, not the affected communities. We will be watching to see what these consultations generate.

Left: Humpback whale & friends enjoy herring snack. Cape Bonavista, NL. ©George Griffen   Right: Loon in winter coat, enjoying aneel, Bay of Fundy shore. ©Pix by Mitch

Environmentalist confidence in the Trudeau government further deteriorated with the November announcement of the Ocean Protection Program. Billed as being about proactive protection of the oceans, it prioritizes putting more resources towards clean up costs after anticipated shipping and pipeline accidents on our coasts. This is useful but not “protective,” which means “preventative” or “precautionary.” The Program also touts creation of more marine protected areas. Meanwhile, the very fragile and important Gulf of St. Lawrence is still open for oil and gas exploration where, intentionally or not, the planning processes are going slower than industry is moving.

“Consultation” seems to be the main public relations strategy of the current government. During the regulatory-related consultation processes in Fall 2016, many directly-affected stakeholders lacked resources and capacity to be at all tables and forums. In this vacuum, the Prime Minister recently held a few “pop-up” community town halls to demonstrate his sincere interest in hearing from ordinary Canadians. He was not seen in directly-affected or -threatened rural communities.

When marine life or habitat decimation occurs, other legal and ethical precepts come into play. In the instance of the herringcide, this happened on unceded Mi’kmaq territory. All of Canada is traditional Indigenous territory. The federal government has trustee responsibility for stewardship and protection of the resources, and is required to ensure that future generations of “Aboriginal” or Indigenous Peoples can enjoy their inherent rights to these resources. When profound environmental degradation occurs, the federal government is abrogating its fiduciary duty. Numerous related court cases are already in motion, eating up funds and personnel time that could go towards genuine protection. (See, for example, this link.)

More crises like the herringcide will be commonplace as our climate increasingly crisps and crumbles. Whenever this happens, those with the most direct knowledge of marine environments must be recognized as experts about what is happening in our own backyards: Indigenous traditional knowledge holders, fisherfolk, citizen scientists, naturalists, local environmental advocacy organizations, and ecotourism operators. These experts must be deliberately sought out, and not evaded or fought, by departments and agencies such as Environment and Climate Change Canada, DFO, and provincial departments. We should not have to go to court to keep corporate actions in line with the public good.

The Council of Canadians represents more than 100,000 people across this nation in a network of more than 60 grassroots volunteer-based chapters who work with a wide cross-section of allies. The Council’s volunteers are backed by a national staff of experts. We deserve an opportunity to have the Prime Minister meet with us about meaningful protection of our marine areas.


Published on February 16, 2017 by the Council of Canadians – Kent County NB Chapter.
Contact us at coc.kent.county.nb@gmail.com.

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Swallowtail Lighthouse, Grand Manan, NB. ©Deborah Carr

Please Note: we will soon post our letter to the Prime Minister asking for a meeting.
It has already been co-signed by 25 Council of Canadians chapters across the country.  

A Sequel: What *Happened* to the Humble Herring?

Note: this is “a sequel” to What’s Happening… (dated 12-14-16)

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Prepared by:
Ann Pohl, Kent County NB Chapter, Council of Canadians
January 23, 2017

1.  It May Be Over

For now, the herringcide crisis in the Bay of Fundy may be over. The last observed occurrence of this winter’s major die-off was January 4, 2017. This is according to retired University of Saskatchewan scholar Dr. Ted Leighton, renowned for his work in wildlife disease research.

However, if DFO walks away from this now, we may well see more of the same at the time of the Spring Herring Run in the Upper Fundy (see Sections 6 & 7). In my worst fears, there may be another round of herringcide.

On January 4, 2017, birdwatchers known to Leighton saw an estimated 20,000 seagulls on one remote, distant stretch of beach in St. Mary’s Bay. There were also an exceptional number of crows, eagles and ravens. All were feeding on dead and dying fish on the shoreline, as well as fish at the surface of the water. The huge confluence of birds was not there on January 3rd or on January 5th. Leighton concludes, based on prior events, that this Jan 4th feeding frenzy signified another big beaching, more so considering herring do not usually swim on the water’s surface during the day. What this deductive process illustrates is it’s almost impossible to calculate the scope of the herringcide crisis. To my knowledge, the Jan 4th event went unacknowledged by DFO. (ft.1)

The very next day, after this re-enactment of Hitchcock’s “The Birds” on St. Mary’s Bay, regional staff at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) held a media conference. Two members of the Council of Canadians (COC) took part in the media briefing on January 5th via teleconference. We did so to get the information that DFO was sharing, unfiltered by public hysteria, rumour, or the media (who at times propagate both hysteria and rumours). Teleconference is not the best way to participate in a forum like this. It was very difficult to hear well, and we could not see who was speaking. Still, we took notes. Staff from DFO and at least two other federal departments/agencies, CFIA (ft.2) and ECCC (ft.3), explained that they had looked at all the things they thought might be causative, and had come up empty-handed.

And on the next day, Jan 6th, the experts from DFO, CFIA, and ECCC, etc., held a “citizen scientist” briefing and apparently repeated what they they had shared on Jan 5th (ft.4).

Subsequently, I discussed what was learned on Jan 5 and 6 with my colleague, as well as wildlife, coastal and ocean protection allies Ted Leighton, Darren Porter (fisherman), and Matt Abbott (Fundy Baykeeper and Marine Conservation Coordinator for the Conservation Council of New Brunswick).

It is not surprising that DFO wants to minimize and move on after this herringcide. In its post-Harper whipped and stripped state, the surviving DFO science staffers are doubtless suffering PTSD and gasping for air. (ft.5)  At the same time, the extraordinary aspects of this event lead to the term “herringcide.” The inescapable conclusion of those watching closely is that, in some way not yet determined, human activity led to this mass death. Not identifying the cause is a huge failure. DFO research could have led to breakthroughs that would support super-stressed marine life coping with our dying oceans and critically ill planet.

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Some forage fish species are already in trouble. Pacific sardines are at their lowest numbers in decades

 

Following are point-style lists of what is known, possible, unknown, and theorized, about the herringcide, followed by general discussion.

2.  What was Learned at DFO Briefings?

  • There has been an extraordinary “densification” or “aggregation” of herring in the three areas where the dead herring have beached. This is the only thing everyone agrees on, including experts at these sessions and all fisherfolks in the region. Previously, one citizen scientist described it as “thick, from top to bottom in the water, like they are stacked on each other.” NOTE: DFO offered no possible explanation for “why”.
  • Extensive tests have been done by several federal agencies. DFO asserts they have ruled out infection, viral diseases, physical injury, algeaic blooms, and environmental toxins, as the cause of the herring die-off. DFO has also ruled out “predation” as a cause. Checks were done re: spread of any known cause from aquaculture installations, and this has been ruled out. The DFO laboratory in Moncton analyzed dead herring samples and found no evidence of abnormalities. Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) scientists have done some investigations into possible land-based/industrial toxins. Seemingly late getting into the game, ECCC has found nothing but as of early January were still “finalizing results of testing for pesticides and are conducting other tests on water quality.” Routine tests checking for health of shellfish harvested for consumption were double-checked and confirmed as not a factor. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) stated that the fish and seafood from the Bay are safe to eat. DFO continues to caution not to eat the ones that are beached, but to buy from licensed vendors.
  • A webpage was to be launched that afternoon. DFO promised me it will have full information on all tests on fish, water, etc., including locations of samples, dates, what tests were done, and results, as well as a map where the reported “morts” (marine life mortalities) were found. Here is Matt Abbott on this: “I participated in a call on Jan 6, 2016 regarding the mortalities of herring and other creatures over the last several weeks. DFO staff committed to update this website to include more detail, especially relating to test results (including all that came back negative).” After two and one-half weeks, the webpage is up but these details are not on it.
  • DFO was very clear that they do not now know what killed the herring and may never be able to figure it out.
  • One camera was sent down to the Fundy floor in the vicinity of the die-offs. The benthic marine life was fine there.
  • My notes from this media conference show as follows. When I asked if DFO had considered asking Cape Sharp to turn off the turbine, the response I got was, “There is no evidence to support that the turbine could be a cause, so we are not investigating that possibility.” In almost every media report, DFO answered the same way to this question. However, in a January 3rd communication between DFO and the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen’s Association (BFIFA), there is a slight qualification, “…DFO does not unequivocally rule out the turbine. The statement made is ‘based on all of the work and the analysis and testing we don’t see any evidence that would point to an issue related to the turbines’.” 6 Consider that DFO’s own experts said eight months earlier that Cape Sharp/Emera had failed to provide either adequate baseline data or a valid monitoring plan for environmental protection. For an unknown reason, the proponent was given permission by the Government of Nova Scotia to proceed without the data or improved plan in place. Why would DFO fall back now on proclaiming the lack of evidence as their excuse for refusing to consider the possibility?
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Cartoon credit: Bruce MacKinnon, The Chronicle Herald

 

3.  What More do We Know, but Not from DFO?

  • Herring have unusually sensitive auditory systems, for a fish.
  • Herring usually do not swim on the surface in the day time, and those seen alive near shores and boats, were doing so and also exhibiting other odd behaviours. Why?
  • The Gulf of Maine has arguably the fastest warming ocean water on the planet, and species travel to cooler areas and affected in other ways by ocean temperature and related chemistry changes. Some herring fishermen in the Upper Fundy believe that herring may now be overwintering there.
  • Ecology Action Centre’s (EAC) “Making Forage Fish Count” is an excellent reference document on the larger issues of the vulnerable herring and mackerel populations. It mentions herring size has diminished over recent years, which may be due to climate change stress. This report also says that overall herring stock in this entire region from Cape Breton to Maine are stressed and likely diminished; and, when a population bottoms normally it gradually begins to rebuild over several years. (NOTE: The past couple months there has been a sudden, absolutely gigantic, upswell of population in the three areas where the morts appeared, called “densificiation” by DFO.) The EAC report concludes, “One of the most pressing issues facing the management of Atlantic Herring is the lack of regulation and monitoring of herring bait fisheries.” The data on the size of the stock has also not been assessed by scientists, and “without proper catch and abundance estimates, it is difficult to accurately determine stock status.” In other words, DFO does not do the needed stock inventory counts and catch-checking, and this is aggravated by the lack of limits on landing herring for bait purposes. The report argues for a “precautionary and ecosystem-based approach” to managing herring population.
  • In recent years, including this one, there have been mass herring die-offs in other regions of the Atlantic as well as in Chile. At least one of these cases may be very similar to the one in the Bay of Fundy: the situation in Iceland (the link provided is not the best reference but it is a starting place). Why did DFO not look into this or if they did, why did they not mention it to the public?

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  • FORCE (Fundy Ocean Research Center for Energy) is the umbrella corporate-government organization nurturing tidal energy development in Nova Scotia; the Cape Sharp/Emera project is one of their approved experimental operations. In mid-April 2016, a company called Big Moon Power was given approval by FORCE to run an off-grid test in the Minas Passage, related to a new type of tidal power equipment that does not use in-water turbines. According to Darren Porter, who has talked with his fellow weir fishermen beyond the Passage, this experiment completely disrupted the 2016 herring fishery (see 1:29:45 at this link, which is also footnoted below #9). What Porter explains is that the 2016 Spring Herring Run was only just getting underway when Big Moon brought its tugboats into the Minas area, and seemingly the noise scared the herring back down the Bay. There are six or seven herring weir fishers at the Passage and in the Basin. One may be in talks to reach a financial settlement on this matter. Apparently the subsequent 2016 Gaspereau fishery in this area may also have been diminished.

4.  Other Pertinent Points:

  • Fishermen and “citizen scientists” say the dead herring were mostly juveniles, perhaps coming to spawning age next year. This points towards population decline in coming years.
  • On November 28th, there was a media report of “seals with gashes on them” as well as dead herring. To my knowledge, DFO has made no acknowledgement of the wounded seals seen near “mort” sites by Joan Comeau, and certainly offered no explanation of how this might or might not be related to the herringcide.
  • It is not yet clear if DFO did necropsy of the herring to examine specifically for swim bladder-related damage, which can prove auditory trauma and shows in four ways, specifically: ruptured bladders, emphysema in the heart ventricle, and emboli in either the rete mirabile and/or head kidney.
  • DFO was asked if they can provide population data on how many herring they would expect to find in the Bay’s basins or coves at this time of year. They did not have that information.
  • Many “citizen scientists” say DFO has put all its efforts to this issue, once they realized how serious it was. On the other hand, on December 26th CBC’s As It Happens interviewed community member Joan Comeau said she first reported herring die-off to DFO on November 17th  and never got a call back. Looking at DFO tweets, the first showing they were “on the case” was December 14th. (NOTE: This is when our first blog, “What is Happening to the Humble Herring?” was posted online.) Do these instances indicate a generalized sluggish response by DFO, or are they basically communications failures?
  • On Jan 5th, I heard a member of the expert panel muse that “as many as 1000 people altogether” from the relevant government departments had been working on this for weeks. On one hand, it is no wonder they could not figure anything out with that number of administrative, clerical, frontline, specialist, and other staff running around in all directions. Conversely, how could they do such a poor job of communications and information-sharing, and why did they not come up with some sort of viable theory on causes, or at least a plan for what they need to look into further?
  • On Jan 5th a member of the media asked how many herring died in this event. Further undermining public confidence, DFO staff showed they still had not grasped the depth of this crisis by answering “tens of thousands.” Perhaps DFO was trying to downplay the crisis. As likely, they lack capacity to send real researchers into the field. Most probably the personnel who picked up the dead fish samples are the ones usually out in the field to catch poachers and monitor catch regulations. These workers would have had no idea how to calculate the scope of the die-off based on what could be seen at lowtide on the beach. ALL reports from citizen scientists working closely with the department point to greater than a million dead herring, perhaps several million. As Dr. Leighton said way back on Dec 1st, “What we see on the beach is just a partial window on what’s going on somewhere out on the water.” This is exactly why we urged DFO to get out on the water and send down cameras/divers at multiple points.
  • For more than six weeks, DFO focused on “usual suspects” – what past experience had taught them would kill herring. They frequently referred to the only similar recorded event, which occured in the 1970’s… But it was not similar: fors starters, that incident did not include “densification.” In early December, DFO quickly ruled out the cause of that die-off with their first round of tests. While DFO kept looking at the “usual suspects” based on events that appeared very different, they wasted a lot of time and valuable research opportunities. Why?

5.  Can DFO see the Whale in the Bathtub?

There is an old saying about “not seeing the elephant in the room.” Adapting it to this watery world, DFO, ECCC, their provincial counterparts, and their political masters are not seeing the “whale in the bathtub”. As the EAC has pointed out, DFO lacks an ecosystem approach.

Due to human activity, all marine life in our ocean waters is endangered. Their watery home is rapidly becoming less hospitable. Species are behaving in abnormal and unpredictable patterns, often associated with their demise. Yes, this season, it is only the humble herring caught in the ecoapocalypse cross hairs in our beautiful, abundant Bay of Fundy… But, so many species rely on a healthy herring population and there are many recent reports of herring die-offs around the world. This herringcide is truly a case in point. It’s now or never to change how we do things with our sister and brother, aunt and grandfather, all our relations, in the natural world. There is no Planet B.

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For almost two months DFO has assured the media “there is nothing out of the ordinary,” “nothing amiss,” and “not a great cause for concern.” DFO also consistently messaged they “don’t think fish are being harmed by environmental factors” and the cause is not due to “human activity” or “human-related.”

The “don’t worry” and the not “human related” messaging is manifestly anthropocentric. DFO’s actions were as well: they tested and retested for fish conditions that could impact people who eat Fundy herring, or that could sicken people who eat creatures (such as salmon or lobsters) who eat the herring. Again, as EAC says, DFO does not have an ecosystem approach. DFO’s messaging is only concerned with reassuring human consumers that it is safe to continue eating Fundy fish and seafood.

Not “environmental”? How can DFO make that statement if they do not know why it happened? The theories not disproved start with human-caused environmental stress, due to climate change and ocean warming.

  • Planetary marine health is increasingly compromised by the warming of the oceans, which serve as a major and primary planetary carbon sink.
  • Chemical composition changes in our planet’s oceans such as acidification are a recognized stressor on all marine life. (ft.6)
  • Everyone in touch with the natural world is noticing species, including marine animals, moving from the usual habitats into new ranges – likely due to temperature or other weather changes as our climate becomes less and less “normal.”
  • In particular, the Gulf of Maine, of which the Bay is a part, is warming dramatically. This alters marine life population distributions.

From the beginning, the mass herringcide was extraordinary, including abnormal swimming behaviours, and signaled something entirely new. A quick, bona fide scientific response would have enabled timely collection of priceless genuine environmental data, such as water quality, temperature, chemistry, and distribution of the herring population throughout the Bay.

After the initial quick tests came back negative and the second round were duly commissioned, DFO should have intently focused on the unusual facts of this crisis. They should have immediately examined – by diver and/or camera – the subsurface Fundy down to the benthic region, at key coastal areas where die-offs were seen. As important, camera/s or diver/s should have been sent down in other areas from Yarmouth to the Minas Passage (see Section 6) that, based on currents and other factors, may be implicated. As well DFO should have been:

  • energetically collecting data on water chemistry/temperatures and distribution of herring populations from the top of the Bay to the near Gulf;
  • enlisting fishermen’s and citizen scientists’ collaboration and observations to keep costs down and build knowledge;
  • looking at parallel crises in other parts of the world (especially Iceland, as mentioned above);
  • bringing together all available brains to think outside the box; and,
  • fulsomely sharing their explorations into these realms with the concerned public because maybe out there in the civilian world there was someone who had a theory that might be useful.

The collection of knowledge and data in a timely, valid manner would have changed the outcome, at least in terms of knowledge gained. Instead, the public servants entrusted with duty of care for marine life in the Bay of Fundy are saying they may never know what caused this.

As Evan Young, a New Brunswicker from the Fundy who runs a canoe outfitting/tripping service, said on social media, “How could the analysis be over until we have some idea what happened? What’s missing is the sense that the government actually reports to us, the people, the taxpayers, on this.”

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6.  Best Remaining Guesses: Causes of the Herringcide?

To repeat: the term herringcide is used because with all the usual causes excluded at the outset and the extraordinary factors mentioned above, it is evident the herring were killed by something/s people did, or something/s people did not do. As with any man-made disaster, there is a domino effect here, one small issue leading into the next larger one. Bang! Herringcide. Here are some theories:

  • Although we know from DFO that food-chain predation is not the cause, the herring were running away from something. They crushed themselves into these three somewhat sheltered areas, and succumbed to lack of oxygen from being in such density in these havens.
  • One credible citizen scientist hypothesizes the herring normally in this area had a huge population boom this year and starved to death due to their overpopulation.
  • Land-based/industrial contaminants may have been causal or partially causal. The argument supporting this is that the die-offs occurred in the mouths of three major watersheds.
  • Some of the other species found dead during the same time period may have been killed by causes unrelated to the herringcide. Weather, specifically quick and dramatic temperature changes, might have been the factor in the one-day dramatic shellfish die-off. I have heard no alternative explanation for the whale death/s. The wounded seals are not ever mentioned by DFO. Until we figure out what killed the herring we will not know whether it is linked to these synchronous deaths or harm.

As the herringcide progressed, DFO repeatedly said they were not ruling anything out, but they consistently refused to consider any possibility the herringcide could be causally connected to the turbine. We say that the failure to investigate this possible cause along with others illustrates the depth of institutional carnage in DFO, and the width of systemic biases. Failing to act quickly, effectively and inclusively could have contributed to the profound consequences.

Herring have very sensitive hearing biology, on which their capacity to thrive depends in various ways. Big Moon’s test at the Minas Passage in Spring 2016 (see Section 3), shows how accidental man-made changes in the Passage’s environment can have deleterious impacts. After the turbine was lowered on November 7th for testing and commissioning, the change in that environment may have scared herring away from the farthest reach of the Upper Fundy, sending them down the Bay, looking for accommodations that are in some ways similar to Minas Basin. This outcome would have begun anytime between November 7th and when the Cape Sharp turbine was connected to the grid and started generating electricity on November 22nd.

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Photo credit: C.W.MacKay

Colin Sproul, Spokesperson for BFIFA, wrote to Christian Richard, Director of Cape Sharp Tidal Ventures/Emera on January 2, 2017 (ft.7) :

“…The past months have seen an alarming situation develop in the Bay of Fundy. The massive fish mortality overtaking its herring population has caused great concern amongst our membership. All scientific investigation thus far has failed to identify what is causing this to happen.

“One fact that cannot and is not being ignored by BFIFA members is the emergence of these fish kills immediately after activation of the CSTV turbine in the Minas Passage. Our members have a legitimate concern that the onsiderable acoustic disturbance from the turbine and the electromagnetic field present due to the failure to bury its transmission line as accorded in the environmental assessment approval may be having a deterrent/exclusionary effect on herring stocks in the upper Bay of Fundy.

“…[Y]our predecessor, Paul Laberge made an assurance to the BFIFA… if population level effects to a species were evident in the Bay of Fundy that you would cease operations. We contend that this may be happening now but acknowledge that there is not scientific certainty of this. However, it seems the only appropriate action at this time is to temporarily stop the turbine and see if the killing may cease….

“Therefore, the BFIFA respectfully asks CSTV to follow through on its commitment to take this responsible action to protect the Bay of Fundy’s critical herring population and help determine if the turbine is contributing to fish kills or not.”

I consulted a respected and successful international high-voltage electrical engineer on this issue. He had no knowledge or experience of a crisis like this being caused by electromagnetic waves. The industry is all about electric current and has been groomed to pay special attention to issues such as this. However, based on his knowledge of rationale behind environmental impact regulation for his industry in other jurisdictions, he felt that the herringcide could indeed be related to the turbine’s noise, vibrations and/or pressure changes. Without prompting, he suggested they may have “run away to find a safer place.” It certainly would have been very useful to have a count of usual population levels in the Cape Minas area, before the turbine was lowered so that could be compared to a diver/camera investigation of population in that same area after the die-offs began.

Asking DFO for a current population count on how many herring should have been in Minas Passage, or any other specific part of the Bay ,is useless. DFO could not supply this information at the Jan 5th media conference. Looking into the baseline population data in Cape Sharp’s EIA is also pointless. As mentioned above, DFO’s own science advisors critqued Cape Sharp/Emera/FORCE for not providing the baseline data necessary to ensure proper environmental monitoring. Even if their data were adequate (which it is not), the proponent also did not provide an adequate monitoring plan. DFO knew that the baseline data was not done and that this is a major concern of their own science advisors. It is confounding that DFO repeatedly refused to do their own assessment of the impact of the turbine’s impact at the height of the crisis.

The turbine was synchronously installed just before the herring die-off began. Right from the start of the beachings, fisherfolk, residents, ecotourism entrepreneurs, citizen scientists, and naturalists asked that the turbine be turned off as a precautionary measure, while examining to find the actual cause. The injured seals and the dead whale/s are additional reasons it would have been the right decision to see what was happening at the location of the new tidal turbine near Minas Passage, and if needed turn off the turbine to study further. For some reason, DFO would not even consider requesting this.

The responsible Government of Nova Scotia, which allowed installation of the turbine without adequate baseline data and a proper environmental assessment monitoring plan, appeared mute on the entire subject of the herringcide, the dead invertebrates, the chopped-up seals and the dead whale/s.

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Photo credit: Joan Comeau

The petition we started online on December 17th is full of comments echoing what grassroots people were saying in social and mainstream media: shut down the turbine, look at the bottom of the Bay, and see if you can figure this out. From early on, the position of our chapter and others in Council of Canadians across the Maritimes has been the Cape Sharp/Emera turbine should be considered as “a stone that must not be left unturned.” We advocated to turn it off and look around. If this did not solve the quandary, it would at least put the hearts and minds of so many Maritimers at rest that the problem was NOT the turbine. We want to support renewable energy, but not at the cost of millions of marine creatures, perhaps on a recurring basis.

7. Lack of Capacity or Intentional Blinders?

The challenge DFO faced in November and December was to determine how we human beings are responsible for this, and how it could be prevented in the future. In our opinion, government’s institutional and systemic biases (particularly DFO) deeply influenced the causal factors investigated throughout the crisis. These biases have resulted in a dead end to their investigation. There may also have been forces (intentional pun) at play that caused some things to be obscured.

The comparative analysis in this article supports a conclusion that at least some of this apparent bungling is intentional. It shows how “company men” in management positions in our Maritime government bureaucracies engage in cover-ups of issues because it is important to corporations. When corporate agendas conflict with public concern, governments often seem to forget their obligations to transparency and accountability, “obligations” because that is what makes our democracy work. This holds in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, or Newfoundland, in federal and provincial systems.

We also need to consider that some frontline public servants are still hogtied by political will enshrined in non-legislative policies. We recently discovered a 2013 MOU between the National Energy Board (NEB) and DFO that gives the NEB authority for “assessing potential impacts to fisheries from proposed NEB regulated pipeline and power line applications.” This inter-bureaucratic agreement was developed under the Harper government and, added to that regime’s gutting of legislation, further undermines the capacity of DFO to protect marine life. It is true that this MOU applies only to projects under NEB auspices. However, could a similar MOU or policy-level “understanding” exist that resulted in Nova Scotia ignoring the environmental plan shortfalls outlined in the 2016 DFO Science Report on Cape Sharp’s turbine?

Documents filed in court by BFIFA show that DFO staff well understood, and appeared to concur with, the view that the turbine project proponent had failed to provide a proper environmental monitoring plan for this “experimental” project. Specifically in P21 of BFIFA’s October 20, 2016, Submission for a Stay to delay start-up of the turbine, it states that DFO staff wrote the Minister of the Environment for Nova Scotia and did not mention the missing baseline data. (ft.8) Why was this left out of DFO’s comments?

For the sake of all life in and around the Bay of Fundy, including the living water itself, we need to implement the Precautionary Principle. As Darren Porter says, “If you don’t have the money to monitor… and if you don’t have the baseline” data, don’t do it, “ecology comes first.” (ft.9) Incidentally, in this talk Porter says he got an email from the DFO on January 16th, in which DFO acknowledges that Cape Sharp’s single monitoring camera is not functional.

Just as this document you are reading was being prepared for publishing, there were two new media stories related to the herringcide. One is a report from Dalhousie scholars about tidal energy in general. The other is a CP Press story on the presentation that DFO did at the Nova Scotia Legislature. Both may be intended to do damage control; yet the many controversial issues raised in this document were not addressed in either of these settings.

Every point raised above still needs to be investigated. We need alternative renewable energy, but not at the cost of already deeply stressed marine life. As the BFIFA letter to Cape Sharp/Emera executive Richards points out:

“This situation has quickly shown that the absence of adequate environmental monitoring for the FORCE project can lead to a lack of social license and acceptance for tidal energy generation with Bay of Fundy stakeholders. Please begin the process of fulfilling your commitment to the BFIFA, this will surely start the much needed rebuilding of trust and acceptance amongst the greater Bay of Fundy community.”

NOW is the time for DFO to stop saying, “There is no evidence to support that the turbine could be a cause, so we are not investigating that possibility.” There is no evidence to support that it is NOT a cause of the herringcide, and DFO has already acknowledged that. For the sake of all marine and coastal life, no stone can be left unturned.

If this remaining possibility (the turbine) explains the herringcide, and if the transnational Emera’s tidal power experiment issues are not addressed, it is very likely herring will be pushed out of the uppermost Fundy, stressing the remaining populations in this region. That is an unacceptable possibility.

 


The intent of this document is to support community partners to rouse federal and provincial action. Emerging ecocrises are learning opportunities; we MUST study and understand what is actually happening on our planet. In specific, in this instance, we must sleuth our way to the core of the learnings that so many herring sacrificed their lives to give us. We must do this for the sake of all future generations of ALL LIFE on this planet.

This document is a follow-up to the earlier posts:

Following circulation of this “Sequel” backgrounder, another Open Letter on Protection of Coastal Life and Oceans across Canada will pursue political responsibility issues. Stay tuned, there will be a chance to get involved in meaningful national action.

This document was prepared by: Ann Pohl, on behalf of the Kent County NB Chapter, Council of Canadians, and is supported by:

  • Moira Peters, Member, Board of Directors, The Council of Canadians, from Maitland NS, on the Bay of Fundy;
  • Marion Moore, on behalf of the South Shore NS Chapter, Council of Canadians;
  • Leo Broderick, on behalf of the PEI Chapter, Council of Canadians;
  • Marilyn Reid, on behalf of the St. John’s NL Chapter, Council of Canadians;
  • Leticia Adair, on behalf of the Saint John NB Chapter, Council of Canadians; Jean Louis Deveau, on behalf of the Fredericton NB Chapter, Council of Canadians;
  • Brent Patterson, Political Director, National Office, Council of Canadians.


A Note on Popular Education Social Action Research:

Usually external crises that affect ordinary peoples’ way of life or livelihood are analyzed, and pronounced upon, by powerful people at a distance from the disaster. “A Sequel…” was prepared following the Freirean pedagogical principles for collection and summarizing participatory social action research. As such, it honours knowledge, opinions and concerns of grassroots people who live close to the situation, or in the midst of it, not just topic specialists.
If you want to contact the author, email Ann Pohl at coc.kent.county.nb@gmail.com.

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Yes, I know those are mackerel, and that is the Northumberland Strait.

Footnotes

DFO is also known as Fisheries & Oceans Canada. Throughout this document, except when referring to the Minister, I use the term DFO because that is what their website address is and also what everyone calls them.

2   CFIA: Canada Food Inspection Agency  

3   ECCC: Environment & Climate Change Canada  

4   It is not clear why DFO did not invite independent fisherfolk and their organizations to their Jan 6th briefing session. Some fishermen were very helpful to DFO during the herringcide event. They hold an enormous wealth of knowledge on Fundy marine life and related marine health issues. They are definitely stakeholders. Is it because some fishermen are meeting the province in court over the issues related to the tidal turbine installation?  

5   For those who may have forgotten or been distracted at the time, here are just a few news reports re: the Harper attack on DFO. Read and imagine the culture of the surviving institution and its survivor personnel:

– https://thetyee.ca/News/2013/12/23/Canadian-Science-Libraries/
– http://halifax.mediacoop.ca/fr/story/harper-agenda-fisheries-and-oceans-%E2%80%93-sweeping-nation-wrecking-transformation/10441
– http://www.alternativesjournal.ca/policy-and-politics/crimes-against-ecology     – http://fonv.ca/media/pdfs/Press_Release_-_Habitat_to_be_Removed_From_Fisheres_Act_March_12_2011__2_.pdf 
– http://thechronicleherald.ca/novascotia/42231-400-dfo-jobs-chopping-block-50-atlantic-region  – 
http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/killer-whale-expert-out-of-work-as-ottawa-cuts-ocean-pollution-monitoring-positions  

6   This citation deals with an entirely different species, but also in the Gulf of Maine, of which the Bay of Fundy is a part. It does demonstrate how acidification could possibly be one of the causal factors for relocation and the herring densification witnessed by fishers, scientists, etc. in these locations.

7  Due to DFO’s and Cape Sharp/Emera’s failures to respond with answers to the questions in several relevant communications, Colin Sproul, BFIFA Sokesperson, shared them with me.

8   See: Hfx Court # 453771. September 26, 2016. Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. Between: The Bay of Fundy Inshore Fisherman’s Association, Halifax N.S. (APPLICANT) and Nova Scotia Minister of Environment, the Attorney General of Nova Scotia representing Her Majesty in Right of the Province of Nova Scotia, Fundy Ocean Research Center for Energy Limited, and Cape Sharp Tidal Venture Ltd.

9   In this talk found on RedSky-BlackSea see minute 1:25 : http://www.redsky-blacksea.com/podcast/au.mp3

An Open Letter to Political Leaders re: Marine Life Protection in the Bay of Fundy

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~ photos: Jennifer Thibodeau, Bruce Hewey,  various news sources, social media posts ~

January 3, 2017

Addressed to:

  • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
  • Dominic LeBlanc, Canada’s Minister of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO)
  • Stephen McNeil, Premier of the Province of Nova Scotia
  • Brian Gallant, Premier of the Province of New Brunswick

Dear Sirs:

“Canada’s Ocean playground has become Canada’s ocean graveyard,” commented Robert from New Brunswick on 0ur petition demanding leadership from your governments regarding the huge crisis that has been occurring in the Bay of Fundy for the past six weeks. At the time of writing this Open Letter to you, more than 53,000 signatories make this request:

We petition Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Minister Dominic LeBlanc, Nova Scotia Premier McNeil and New Brunswick Premier Gallant to call a joint public conference with concerned citizens and the media, to provide updates regarding the herring die-offs, and to indicate steps that will be taken immediately to improve transparency, collaboration, reporting, and resourcing between citizens and frontline DFO staff.

Living creatures in and around the Fundy will be coping with this disaster for a long time. In fact, it will get worse, not better, while not necessarily in exactly the same way. The Bay of Fundy, as part of the Gulf of Maine, faces major challenges due to the fossil fuel and methane pollution rapidly changing the chemistry of the world’s oceans.

Our publicly-funded scientists must be unrelenting in search of identification of contributing causes. Instead, after virtually hiding for more than five weeks, regional DFO staff emerged on Friday December 30th. (That link is to national CTV coverage. This link is to local coverage: by listening to one story and letting it run onto the next and next, you can get a good chronology of the past week.) DFO comments appear dismissive: there is nothing to be concerned about, the event appears to be over, it is not “environmental,” etc., while they are unashamed to say it’s “perplexing.”

DFO has made some huge mistakes in the past, as post-mortem analyses of the collapse of the Cod fishery shows. (Please note the comment in there about DFO’s “failure to recognize environmental changes and their impact on the groundfish fishery”). Does DFO now know how to listen for alarm bells? Sadly, it does not seem so. On both coasts, and in every province between (see comments on our petition), people report DFO’s outright dismissiveness of community concerns. It appears that sometimes DFO goes even further and deliberately misinforms. Deliberate action or lack of capacity, you leaders MUST step in to prevent DFO from fumbling the ball any longer.

The November/December 2016 Fundy fish crisis is terrible beyond words, but we are not just concerned about that event. We certainly do not want to see you leaders get yourself off the hook by throwing individual staffers under the bus. You cannot blame the staff. It is the political leadership that sets the tone and determines expectations about priorities, so our sights are set for a larger and more significant goal.

We watched the previous federal government, under Stephen Harper, conduct a war on science and environmental protection regulation. This article, La recherche fédérale sur la pollution décimée par le gouvernement Harper (Federal Pollution Research Decimated by the Harper Government), published in Quebec’s Le Soliel in June 2012, provides some insight on this matter. The remaining staff in the “decimated federal government’s DFO had to learn to shut up to keep their jobs. For scientists and nature advocates, this means shutting down their brains and closing their hearts.

Prime Minister Trudeau, although the only federal politician addressed in our petition is your close colleague Dominic LeBlanc, DFO Minister, we added you to this Open Letter. You are really the one person with full duty of care for protection of the Bay of Fundy. In your recent Ocean Protection Plan announcement you commit to “ensure the health of our oceans for generations to come” because our coastal habitats are “rich” in “biodiversity and precious ecosystems” that “offer unparalleled economic, recreational, and tourism opportunities.” Step up and put muscle behind that promise. The past six weeks show that staff in departments such as DFO do not understand you are serious about this.

Prime Minister, your government has recently held all manner of public consultations about laws that need to be revised, reinstated, and/or upgraded to increase protection of our precious water and land and air in Canada. Now we understand you have funded the World Wildlife Federation to do some “buffer” consultations on related matters, such as “ocean zoning” for competing marine uses. It is obvious that “ocean zoning” is not a panacea. While it may work for industries of various types, the fact is water and marine life move around constantly.

Valid and inclusive terms of reference and resourcing are needed to create a wide-view research analysis such as this one from British Columbia. The fact that the Harper regime decimated this BC process makes it clear this is close to what we really need. It could lead to the logical and positive outcome of the entire Bay of Fundy region being officially recognized as a United Nations Biosphere Reserve, instead of the existing smaller region of the Fundy. We need the big picture validly consolidated, with sustainability as the first objective from here on. While gearing up for that, we also need answers to some of the questions citizens have been asking for weeks now. In a crisis of this proportion, no stone should be unturned:

  1. How soon can DFO provide a map of all sites where water was tested and cameras were sent to the Fundy, in the Bay, in estuaries, and in freshwaters leading to the estuaries, with appended results from those tests, as well as numbers of mortalities seen at each site on each day?
  2. DFO keeps saying they should have more test results in two weeks, etc. What are the outstanding tests, why are they taking so long, and when will be they be available?
  3. Have the dead herring been examined for symptoms of swim bladder damage, specifically: ruptured bladders, emphysema in the heart ventricle, emboli in the rete mirabile, emboli in the head kidney?
  4. Is there a clear correlation between temperature drops and major mortality reports for any or all species?
  5. Have provincial authorities in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick taken a careful and exhaustive look at possible land-based toxins that could have seeped into the water?
  6. What studies have been done to determine that the Cape Sharp turbine noise, vibrations, and pressure changes do not factor into these mortalities in any way? Because the two events began on the same day, what consideration has been given to stopping the turbine to see if that makes a difference?
  7. What research colleagues were contacted or studies were done to determine that whales were not part of this event? We ask this because of the dead whale on the same shoreline, which was not detected in DFO’s “flyovers.”
  8. Fundy Fishermen say “everything is out of whack.” True and will continue to be truer with dramatic climate and weather changes due to anthropogenic/industrial causes. Despite global climate and ocean chemistry issues, we can protect against exacerbating factors that make Marine Life more vulnerable. One related study would be to analyze why there is such an unusually large number of herring in the affected areas. Has DFO looked at this and if so, what have they learned?

These are just a few of the questions that citizen scientists, concerned scholars, marine life advocates, and others, want answered. We want them answered in a public, transparent, and collaborative information-sharing process. Think of the opportunity you have to contribute to world marine ecology science by making sure DFO staff (and whoever else is needed) understand that getting these answers is essential, and providing them with full independent mandate and resources to do the work. From these answers will come some of the terms of reference for the large urgent study.

Messieurs Gallant, LeBlanc, McNeil and Trudeau, do you recall what happened recently in the United States and in England when their populaces became convinced that their governments were not listening?

You all have to set the example for the DFO staff who have been psychologically “decimated” by the previous federal government regime. You need to show them it is not just “ok” but expected that they will function at top-speed, transparently, respectfully to concerned citizens, etc., in a crisis such as this. Canada’s public service scientists need to be convinced that the reign of terror is over. They need to know that the public and environmental good is what you expect them to diligently research and advocate, and that there will be no personal consequences or repercussions.

This is now also an international controversy. Make no mistake, Canadians and especially Maritimers, are devastated by this and angry at the slow government response but your problem is even larger than that. Most of the petitions’ signatories are from all over the world. All water is connected, so every planetary person has a valid reason for concern. As well, there have been similar unexplained die-offs recently in Iceland, England, Chile, and elsewhere. Do Canada’s federal and provincial Liberal governments want a reputation of not caring to mobilize resources to investigate this huge crisis? Suppose awareness slows tourism and seafood contracts? Instead of deepening the disaster, we could have a reputation as world leaders in the fight to protect the humble herring, an unsung true hero in marine and human food chains.

As leaders, you need to be seen to be acting, and you must also act effectively. We need good governance, transparency, accountability, responsiveness, appropriate prioritizing, and evidence that you are listening to concerned people. We invite you to visit our petition site and read the text of our call to action as well as the comments of signatories, who believe we are at an exceedingly fragile moment in human history. You must lead in a way that seeks to restore ecological balance as the highest priority. Are you up to the job?

Respectfully yours,
Ann Pohl, Council of Canadians – Kent County NB Chapter
Jean Louis Deveau, Council of Canadians – Fredericton NB Chapter
Ken Kavanagh, Atlantic Representative/COC Board of Directors (St. John’s NL Chapter)
Marion Moore, Council of Canadians – South Shore NS Chapter
Pamela Ross, Council of Canadians – Moncton NB Chapter

Brent Patterson, Political Director, National Office, The Council of Canadians

cc.
Catherine Blewett, Deputy Minister, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO)
Morley B. Knight, Maritimes Regional Director General, DFO

 

 

 

What’s Happening to the Humble Herring?

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For the past three weeks, a great tragedy has been unfolding along the eastern shores of the Bay of Fundy. Dead herring are washing up on beaches from east of Yarmouth to north of Digby. For those from “away,” this is in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, which since time immemorial is unceded Mi’kmaq territory.

Darren Porter, a local weir fisherman, is an informed advocate for the health of the Fundy, Minas Basin and Cobequid Bay. Porter is a founding member of the Fundy United Federation, 1 a think-tank of scientists, people with profound experiential knowledge, and allied organizations concerned about regional marine life conservation, protection of habitat and sustainable and traditional fisheries, and food sovereignty.

For almost three weeks, Porter has been Fundy United’s “point-man” for people concerned about the future of the humble herring in western Nova Scotia. His phone has been ringing non-stop. He is bombarded with emails and texts from ordinary people alarmed at seeing the beached dead herrings. Porter estimates that more than 100,000 herring have already been found dead along the shore.

The Government of Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is the agency responsible for protection of the Fundy shore and fisheries. DFO began investigating on November 22nd, after several reports of dead and dying herring. Darren Porter has been in daily contact with them, reporting on this awful situation.

The beautiful Bay of Fundy has a magnificently abundant marine life. Many people make a portion or all of their livelihoods from sustainable fisheries on the Fundy. It is also a tremendous eco-tourism attraction for both provinces abutting the Bay, as well as the north coast of Maine. Many come to the Fundy to see the “highest tides in the world,” and enjoy the beaches, trails, ferry ride, views, quiet resorts and bed-and-breakfasts, farmers’ markets, and gourmet wineries. There are also many recreational fishers on the Bay.

Whatever happens to marine life and health on one side of the Fundy impacts the economies and communities in the provinces on both sides. And, both the Government of New Brunswick (GNB) and the Government of Nova Scotia (GNS) have fisheries and environment departments.

Although one might assume that DFO or GNS would inform GNB, so far there is no evidence that GNB is concerned about this crisis.

Perhaps even worse, GNS does not seem deeply invested in the future of Humble Herring, Bay of Fundy fisheries in general or food sovereignty. On August 23, 2016, GNS Environment Minister Margaret Miller was nonchalant on fishery issues, telling Fundy United 2 that “Resources evolve – there was once 3000 farms in Nova Scotia and now there are only 300.” The question arises: is GNS forgetting that local fishers, farmers and tradespeople are what keep communities together in our rural Maritime areas?

Quite simply, more than three weeks after of massive die-offs, the abutting provinces are not really engaged in solutions. DFO appears no closer to identifying the cause of this mysterious crisis.

This backgrounder compiles information from community members, especially from the Fundy United organization. It is being shared to help the Humble Herring, on whom so much depends.

About the Humble Herring

Atlantic Herring usually travel in huge, fast-moving schools around fishing banks and near the coast. These migratory fish feed on plankton and small sea creatures found near or on the surface of ocean waters. Larger surface fish follow and feed on the herring, so during the day, they swim below the surface. The herring move close to the surface when night comes and the danger of predators lessens.

herring-1“Herring feed everything,” says Darren Porter. “Without herring, we have a catastrophe on our hands.” Predators of herring include seabirds, marine mammals, and larger surface fish such sharks, tuna, salmon, striped bass, cod, and halibut. People also eat this oily fish: raw, fermented, pickled, smoked, salted, etc. Herring roe is valued by some. Herring are commercially important in another way: they are used for shellfish traps and pots.

“Based on work I have been doing in the Bay,” says Porter, “here is the breakdown on the stock:

  1. “The Bay is the nursery area for four stocks (populations), three of these spawn here, and one spawns along the Maine coast, which all contribute juveniles to the Bay.
  2. “A small stock, estimated at 500 metric tons spawns inside Minas Basin in Spring (April-May). These are the large herring caught in weirs and gill nets inside the Basin in spring.
  3. “A larger stock estimated at 50,000 metric tons spawns in Minas Channel (off Scots Bay) in August-September. These are the large fish the herring seiners go after in that region.
  4. “The largest stock of 100,000+ metric tons spawns on Lurcher Shoal off Yarmouth in the fall (October-November). These also are the herring that seiners and gill-netters take in that region. They want them for their eggs to ship to Japan.
  5. “Finally a stock spawns on the Maine coast south of Grand Manan, and make their way to the Bay of Fundy. I do not know much about this population but could find out if needed.
  6. “The adults of each stock are more or less in their spawning area once a year to reproduce. Then when it is not spawning period these stocks mix together and move all over the Bay and north along the Nova Scotia shore to Chedabucto Bay, where most overwinter.
  7. “The young from each stock hatch out and the larvae largely remain near their spawning site until they become small juveniles or ‘brit’. As the juveniles grow, they migrate around the Bay of Fundy concentrating for longer periods of time in the regions of upwelling (Minas Channel and Passage, the Passamaquoddy Bay Channels, and off Brier Island).
  8. “At this point, the stocks are mixed together but individual schools are largely stock and size discrete. For example, in Minas Passage there is a large concentration of ‘brit’ (1 year old juveniles) during fall, winter and spring (probably many stocks). In late winter and spring the adults that spawn inside Minas Basin migrate through both in and out. From May to July, a huge migration of what we call ‘June Herring’ migrate through the Passage, moving inward and outward, and very occasionally penetrating as far as Cobequid Bay. ‘June’ herring are 2-3 year old juveniles and probably a mixture of all the spawning stocks in the Bay of Fundy. It is these fish that concentrate around Passamaquoddy Bay in late summer-fall and are taken in the weirs there for the sardine factory at Blacks Harbour.

“In short though, I want to emphasize that our herring has been in the best shape lately that it has been for years. I know that the World Wildlife Fund found that two herring stocks in the Gulf of St. Lawrence are in trouble, saying that predators are not being addressed adequately by DFO. However, those herring communities are quite distant from the current die-off.”

The Herring Troubles

Darren Porter estimates that well over 100,000 dead herring have beached on the eastern shore of the Bay of Fundy in the past three week. From what he has seen, it is pretty much all adults that are coming on the beaches dead or dying.

Many concerned people have commented that the number of dead herring in Nova Scotia is much higher than what has been reported, because many dead animals would have disappeared beneath the waves or been eaten by crows and gulls.

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In an November 30 2016 Digby Courier article, University of Saskatchewan wildlife biologist Dr. Ted Leighton poses the question, “What percentage of the fish is washing up? Is this one percent, five percent? No one knows. But it’s a lot of fish. What part of St. Mary’s Bay is affected? And now the Annapolis Basin? It could be millions. It could be much more.” 3

“This amount of mortality doesn’t look like a parasite to me, but that will be easy to determine,” continues Leighton. “It could be some kind of toxic algal bloom, the Gulf of Maine is crazy warm right now. But again DFO will be able to test for all the known marine toxins. If it isn’t one of those easy to test for causes, we may never know.” One of the issues raised by Leighton and others is that it appears only the one species is affected. “But we don’t know if herring is the only species dying because we don’t know what is behind this or where it is happening,” he said. “Are other animals washing up in other places? We don’t know.”

Two shallow divers within the affected area have told Darren Porter they could “touch the herring in the water.” This is extremely abnormal for such a fast moving fish with evident awareness of the hazards of predation. As well, fishermen in the Minas Passage area report seeing fish swimming strangely. Other reports have noted seeing seagulls pick up herring in open water. Clearly, the herring are not behaving normally.herring-2

Community members who are reporting the beached dead herring are confounded by why so many are just lying there, not being eaten by scavengers. As some have pointed out, often an animal can tell if something is not fit to eat. Most agree it probably just looks like they are not being eaten because there are so many of them. Perhaps the gulls cannot keep up?

What We Know

Although we do not know what is causing this die-off, informed observers have listed a wide range of possible causes. These include:

  1. parasites
  2. noise from explosions such as seismic testing
  3. fishery by-catch or a dumped catch at sea
  4. predation, pushing them to shore
  5. contamination through toxins in the water, such as algae bloom, pollution runoff from herbicides and/or pesticides, an industrial sewage or chemical dump; leakage from Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station, etc.
  6. bacterial disease
  7. viral disease
  8. pressure on the species due to ocean acidity or higher temperature, due to climate changes
  9. lack of food
  10. environmental stress from in-stream tidal industry, including noise, vibrations, and pressure changes from turbines

Possible Cause 1 – Parasites

Parasites were strongly suspected by some because of the 1956 parasite infection that devastated the western Bay herring and some of the fish that eat the herring. In this case, the first round of tests done by DFO did not confirm parasites. DFO has now sent off samples to external labs with greater capacity. However, it looks unlikely that this is the cause.

Possible Cause 2 – Noise from Seismic Testing, etc.

Aside from the in-stream tidal turbines, it is not known if seismic activity or other very loud, very vibrational, industry has been occurring in the Bay of Fundy. There was some mention of work planned or underway to prepare the site on the other side of the Bay for the proposed TransCanada EnergyEast pipeline terminus, however it is not known if that could be relevant in any way, or if it is ongoing. The International Fund for Animal Welfare‘s research marine animals sensitivity to sound and vibration is summed up with “Anthropogenic noise interferes and overwhelms.” 4

Possible Cause 3 – Fishery By-Catch or Dump

Not likely a cause after three weeks of continuous beachings. Art MacKay from Fundy Tides 5on the New Brunswick side of the Fundy comments that he has seen research on “illegal catches, which are sold at sea, and if released, they can live for some time before they die.”

Possible Cause 4 – Predators

“I would go for ruling that out now, given the scope of the problem,” Biology professor Shawn Craik from Sainte-Anne University in western Nova Scotia said.6 Common sense also says it is not likely that predation is the cause. The herring are not reacting normally. As Porter said, divers have been able to reach out and touch herring, and fishermen have watched seagulls pulling live fish out of the ocean. This indicates a much more complex problem than predators.

Possible Cause 5 – Contamination through Toxins in the Water

Porter asked DFO if tests had been done on the water. He was told “that is the protocol,” but was not told if they had been done or not – nor, if so, what the results were. Hopefully this information can be forthcoming very soon. Dr. Craik also observed, “If there was a toxin getting into these fish and being passed on the scavengers, you would expect that someone, somewhere would find some dead gulls,” he said, adding that no such reports have come in (see footnote 6). MacKay also commented that Lepreau contamination is not a likely cause because Fundy Tides “did the current circulation for this, and it goes to Grand Manan on the ebb and the inner Bay on the flood.” However, all possible causes need thorough investigation.

Possible Cause 6 – Bacterial Disease

DFO has sent off sample fish for further study, but to date no one has suggested a bacterial infection that might actually have the seen effects. The point has been made by some concerned citizens that we may indeed be looking at something completely new. There is, however, a huge fish farming industry in Nova Scotia, accidents have been known to happen, and fish farms too frequently have problems with bacterial infections, which can spread to wild populations.

Possible Cause 7 – Viral Disease

This is another cause that some people strongly suspect. Viral Haemorrhagic Septicaemia Virus (VHSV) is also often a by-product of fish farms. On August 25, 2016, The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) confirmed that VHSV has been detected in wild Atlantic herring in Newfoundland and Labrador. 7 It remains to be determined by the further tests commissioned by DFO whether VHSV is the culprit, however most people who have reported seeing dead herring say they look healthy. Animals sick with VHSV usually do not look healthy.

Possible Cause 8 – Effects related to Climate Change on the Ocean

Prof. Ted Leighton was quoted above talking about the “crazy warm” temperatures we have been experiencing and it is well known that the ocean is rapidly becoming more acidic, for example. If this is the cause, it falls into the category of something entirely new and not seen before in human history. At this stage, Porter says, he has been assured by DFO that “nothing has been ruled out.” No stone can be left unturned with this crucial marine food-chain fish population.

Possible Cause 9  Lack of Food 

MacKay comments this is unlikely, having observed “Populations of copepods and krill in the Bay have been impacted in recent years, causing serious shifts in some marine species. Right Whales are actually the best indicator along with Phalarops. When they don’t arrive there is trouble. Actually this seemed like a good year.”

 Possible Cause 10 – Environmental Stress from In-Stream Tidal Power Industry

This is a difficult cause to assess for likelihood. On one hand, the dead herring we can see on the shores are quite distant from the location of the new Cape Sharp turbine installed at Minas Passage in early November. Some say this is irrelevant: we need divers to look at the Cobequid and Fundy bay floors to see how many dead fish have fallen down there.

Most significantly, the die-off started right after a new turbine was lowered into the Bay at Minas Passage area. So this possibility must be seriously investigated. To date, it seems to not be duly considered. “Fish die for many reasons when interacting with tidal turbines,” says Darren Porter. Although mortality from direct strike is a major issue, “actually the blades don’t have to hit the fish to kill them.”

Two years before the new turbine at Minas Passage was installed, the Vice-President of Fundy United Dr. Mike Dadswell challenged claims from the government and industrial proponents (GNS, FORCE, and Cape Sharp) that the installation would be environmentally friendly. In an October 2014 interview, Dadswell said, “there is no such thing as a ‘fish-friendly’ hydroelectric turbine,” and he “asks why Nova Scotia would risk collapsing a $100 million fishery.” 8

Dadswell is very familiar with the older tidal energy installation at Annapolis Royal. Regarding direct strike mortality, he recalls you can see a “wall” of seagulls come in when the turbines are in generating mode. 9 “Regardless of what they say” these two installations are very similar. Both are “axial-flow hydraulic-lift turbines,” although the one at Minas Passage spins a little slower. One difference is that Annapolis Royal has a tube entrance, where the Minas Passage turbine is open, but the opening is 16 metres across, backed by something with the impact of 1000 tonnes, moving at about 30 kph at the tip of the blades. From the herring’s perspective, he likens this to a person being hit by an 18-wheeler at 30 kph.

Herrings are particularly sensitive to noise, vibrations, and pressure changes.

  • Sound waves can have a multitude of negative effects on the herring’s sensitive physostomous swim bladders. They can create lesions or rupture swim bladders, which is what fish use to control the depth at which they are traveling in the water. For a general discussion of the impact of sound waves on fish with swim bladders, see this footnoted article from the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 10
  • Herring are also very susceptible to the pressure itself. Turbines generate power using a “pressure drop across the blade,” as Dr. Dadswell explains. “When fish are moving in the water, they have a certain amount of gas in their swim bladders, and when they come to turbines, pressure changes cause their gas bladders to expand rapidly” (see footnote 9). A report from Washington State University observes:

“If the pressure change happens too quickly the fish would be unable to control their buoyancy and, like an inexperienced scuba diver, would either sink to the bottom or float to the surface. During this time the fish would become disoriented and risk being caught by predators. In a worst-case scenario, severe pressure changes could cause internal hemorrhaging and death.” 11

  • The industry has designed the turbine to set off a warning noise, which they say will keep the animals out of the turbine. However, this noise could have another very serious outcome, if the herring get stressed and disoriented by the decibel level, etc.

The Minas Passage acts as nursery for the herring. Herring populations all the way up and down the Atlantic coast are at risk when the nursery area no longer has suitable habitat, and “one way or another” this turbine is “eventually going to crash the stock” (see footnote 9).

The crux of the matter, explains Darren Porter, is that DFO is not set up to monitor the impact of the new turbine that was installed less than two weeks before the die-offs began.

  • A major problem with evaluating the impact of the new tidal energy turbine in Minas Passage is that the proponent’s baseline data for the 2016 federal science review was very incomplete. 12
  • As well, the proponent’s monitoring plan to assess adverse environmental impacts was so poor that DFO issued a directive to submit a new and better monitoring plan by January 1st, 2017.

Why did the project go ahead without that baseline data and monitoring plan? GNS makes the decisions on project approval. Basically, DFO is in an arms-length consulting role to GNS on proposals like this. All questions from Porter about environmental monitoring – such as how well cameras are working, if the corporation has people walking the beaches as it is supposed to do, if the water has been tested for toxins, when divers will be sent to investigate the floor of the Bay, etc. – are met with evasive answers and/or a corporate statement that they are not obligated under the regulations to provide public information until three months after the turbine is in operation.

Many of those concerned about the herring say they know the reason that government officials are not pushing the panic button to stop the turbines and evaluate further: the province has invested a huge amount of financial and political currency in this demonstration project. GNS remains enthusiastic about the possibilities of tidal power, even though the new turbine is producing what some call the most expensive energy in the world. 13 A CBC report said, “The electricity being generated is some of the most expensive ever produced in Nova Scotia, costing $530 per megawatt hour versus the current average of $60 per megawatt hour.” 14

herring-4As Porter says, “It does not look likely that turbines are the cause, because of the distance between the new turbine in Minas Passage and where the herrings are beached, but to not assess a factor that could be causing this kill is irresponsible, regardless of what factor that is. DFO has told me this could be related to food supply, predator avoidance, viruses, water conditions, etc. – all of which are not monitored or studied on a regular basis. For the turbines, we know the possible pathways of effects and can assess the likelihood based on the evidence collected.” Yet it appears that the turbines are not being properly evaluated.

Other Contemporary Herring Die-Offs

There have been other recent dramatic herring die-offs in the more eastern Atlantic.

In England, just the past week or so, “thousands of dead fish have washed up on a beach in Cornwall and nobody quite knows why…” apparently “mostly herring with a few mackerel.” 15 It may or may not be relevant, but two companies, OpenHydro (owned by naval defence and energy corporation DCNS based in France) and Emera (a publicly traded energy and services company based in Nova Scotia, specializing in renewable/alternative energy) have partnered to form the Cape Sharp corporation that installed the turbine at Minas Passage. OpenHydro has apparently installed two similar turbines in Ireland. Everything must be considered in this crisis situation for the humble herring, on whom so many others depend. It’s odd that concerned citizens on both sides of the Atlantic are saying they have never seen kills like these before. Further, they are happening in two separate places across the ocean where new tidal energy turbines from the same manufacturer have been deployed. It at least deserves some investigation.

In December 2012 and February 2013, in Iceland, there were two massive die-offs of herring. One expert estimated that 50% of the herring were wiped out. Various reports have attributed this to causes as diverse as local building, overcrowding of the population in one spawning fjord, related oxygen starvation, etc. However, for most informed observers, there really has been no satisfactory conclusion on cause, making it impossible to learn from this instance. Perhaps this could be the result of changes in the ocean arising from global climate alterations? In any event, it would behoove government to immediately consider the parallels of the Iceland die-off in regards to the current Bay of Fundy die-off. 16

Can We Help the Humble Herring?

DFO began conducting tests more than two weeks ago. Their preliminary results found no evidence of a virus or parasites. As the crisis has deepened, DFO decided to send some of the dead herring for external bacteriology, virology and histopathology analysis. There are different timelines for getting results from the various types of tests, some of them quite lengthy.

In general, it often seems to grassroots people that it can take years to get answers from government departments about the simplest things. As the situation stretches towards a month of beachings with no answers, fishermen, Mi’kmaq traditional knowledge experts, environmentalists, and other concerned people are becoming more and more critical and skeptical about whether DFO still has any capacity for responsible management and protection of life in the ocean.

Some people are concerned that DFO is too subject to the politics and hidden agendas passed down to them from Ottawa. This was very evident under former Prime Minister Harper’s regime. Not only were environmental regulations tossed out, but libraries and archives were destroyed and personnel stripped from relevant branches concerned with protection of marine life. Most people working in DFO now are survivors of Harper’s 10 year reign of terror on environmentalists; many who could not accept the regime’s decrees left, or were let go.

The current government’s new Oceans Protection Plan (OPP) does not offer much reassurance. Touted as a stewardship initiative, a careful read of federal government announcements shows something different. A lot of emphasis is put on additional resources being put towards mopping up environmental crises that may occur as a result of oil and gas industrial development in the water, or transportation over the water that has gone wrong. 17 This is not a bad thing, but protection starts with prevention.

Overall, fishermen and outdoors enthusiasts do not remember ever seeing so many dead fish on eastern Bay of Fundy shores. Some say that Government of Nova Scotia has prioritized industrial development over the wellbeing of the water and those whose lives depend on being in or near healthy water. Community members often point to the case of the salmon farms as the cause of the end of our wild salmon: DFO swore the farms were safe, but now we see viral and bacterial contamination of the indigenous species from these farms.

As mentioned above, rural life is hugely important to Nova Scotia. However, the government does not seem to understand that by allowing the “resource” to “evolve” – possibly towards extinction – it will destroy the capacity of rural areas to sustain themselves. This bodes disaster for food sovereignty and many other facets of holistic sustainable economic development.

One deeply alienated citizen said “government response is basically the Monty Python one: those fish are not dead they are just sleeping!” Politicians in power must read these frustrations as a warning sign. Consider the upheavals recently in England and in the United States, when ordinary community folk were convinced that big government was not listening and addressing community concerns?

By contrast, Dr. Bradley Walters, a professor of geography and environment at Mount Alison University, did a critical reading of the draft of this document. Walters’ view is too much attention is paid to the “highly unlikely possibility” the tidal turbines could be causative. It is his hope that the assistance of DFO’s Rob Stevenson, an expert on Atlantic finfish including herring and the Fundy weir fishery, is sought on this matter.

Leighton rejects “notions of government scientific incompetence or conspiracy,” but seems to be concerned that the issue is not being taken seriously enough. He says he would like to urge “someone get out on the water and try and find out how big a problem this is, how widespread is it, what are we dealing with?”

While we wait for government to do the job they are supposed to do, Porter emphasizes, “The biggest thing needed is continuous reporting of sightings. People are getting slack, thinking enough have been reported or possibly the kills they see are already reported. The message must be, ‘Report every single kill you see.Here is what citizen scientist beach-walkers are asked to document with photographs and in writing:

  • The exact location of the beach you walked, how much of the beach you covered, and the date and time of day;
  • The approximate number of fish you saw on the beach, per yard or metre;
  • The approximate number of fish you saw in the shallow water at the shore, per yard or metre;
  • Whether the dead or dying appeared to all be herring and if not what other species were present;
  • Percent of fish still alive when observed;
  • Any other dead birds or mammals found, and if so which ones and how many;
  • Were scavengers present to eat the dead fish?

When you have done your beach walk, and have photos and text to share, MacKay (from the western Fundy) and Porter (from the eastern Fundy) are teaming up and eager to share all their information with involved government agencies and non-governmental bodies:

There is a third way to report as well, if you are comfortable with computers:

One more thing: contact your provincial and federal politicians and ask them: “What are YOU doing about helping the Humble Herring, and thereby all of us?”

We need to get this crisis resolved and hopefully find some way to really help the herring. This humble fish is truly a crucial part of both the marine and terrestrial food chain. In the western Fundy, MacKay comments, “In general, the herring industry over here has undergone big shifts for many reasons, which all deserve more research. All the pressures are here in one form or another. We are not seeing similar mortalities right now, but we have observed huge impacts on prey species such as Calanus, krill, etc., from, I believe, aquaculture.”

On the plus side, people on the ground with the most to lose or gain from successful resolution are alarmed and motivated. This emergency effort could break “silos” and foster better collaboration

The document is intended to bring awareness and encourage everyone to work together for all our sake’s. It was prepared as a social action research report: ie., community information assembled and packaged to encourage social action.

Most often crises that affect ordinary peoples’ way of life or livelihood are reviewed and decided by people with more power and who are at a distance from the disaster. Following the priniciples of Freirean popular education, the opinions and concerns of grassroots people who live close to the situation, or in the midst of it, are given a lot of weight. Popular education social action research honours the input of those on the ground, as well as those who are specialists.

I have the support of the Kent County NB Chapter of the Council of Canadians to post this discussion document on the Chapter’s blogspace. If you want to contact me, the author of this document, email Ann Pohl at coc.kent.county.nb@gmail.com. Due to lack of time, I will have to leave it at that. I hope this helps. Please leave no stone unturned for the Humble Herring. 

16 The herring apocalypse: Fish worth millions in exports die in Icelandic lake after building work ‘starves them of oxygen