I'd like to thank you for this opportunity to appear before this committee. Our main purpose today is to outline the problem of eelgrass decline along the eastern coast of James Bay and its impact on our community. We will also provide you with some brief explanatory background.
We represent about one-third of the Cree population on the eastern coast of James Bay and Hudson Bay. Our area is the part of James Bay that has the most eelgrass.
From different perspectives--public health, nutrition, and our desire to protect our own culture and traditions--we consider the coastal ecosystem to be something that will play a key role in our survival as communities and as a people. This is our major motivation for appearing before you today.
Within the last 30 years, the freshwater flow of Chisasibi, meaning “the great river” in English, la grande rivière in French, has doubled in size as a result of diversions for hydroelectric development. It will increase again by nearly 20% when the Rupert River diversion is completed three years from now. Much of this fresh water is being added during the winter period when fresh water forms a length a few metres thick under the coastal ice shelf.
Now, when you consider all this, this is a major diversion, one of the most significant and important in North America, and we think it has received far less attention than it deserves.
As we see it, there are good reasons to be concerned about the long-term survival of our coastal waterfowl hunt and fisheries, because of the impact of a change of this magnitude in the flow of rivers, in the winter particularly. The managed flows in the winter from the hydroelectric project can multiply the discharge by a factor of roughly 10, which is bound to affect fish habitat and the coastal ecosystem generally.
The eastern James Bay coast is home to extensive marine grasslands. These eelgrass beds, as they are known, grow in a fully marine environment in water depths of one to two metres, which is accessible to waterfowl. The eelgrass is also sometimes referred to as seagrass. It is not a weed; it is an essential part of the marine environment. The eelgrass flowers, pollinates, and sets seedlings in sea water. Growth is related to salinity as well as to other factors that affect the penetration of light into the sea water.
These beds are a key element in a coastal ecosystem. They serve as feeding grounds and nurseries for coastal fish species-- whitefish, cisco, and trout--and shellfish. And they are grazed by brant, Canada geese, and ducks.
We believe that eelgrass beds are sufficiently distinctive in this region that they should be considered by Canada as part of its international commitment to the protection of biodiversity. These beds have undergone a major decline along the coast since the river diversions for the La Grande hydroelectric project and the operation of the powerhouses, which concentrate the river flow during the winter period.
The community has seen sharp declines in waterfowl numbers along the coast in recent years and a corresponding decline in hunting success. There are also concerns about fish stocks and the rest of the food chain along the coast because of the changed flows and the loss of the eelgrass beds and the fish habitat they provide.
We have been working with specialist Dr. Frederick Short from the University of New Hampshire to try to understand what is happening. With his help, we have been conducting our own environmental surveys.
Hydro-Québec has also been carrying out surveys but does not believe that the declines are related to the hydroelectric project. However, when the changes to the project were planned in the 1980s, the possible effects on the eelgrass beds were considered in a document submitted to the Quebec government, and a dieback was predicted at that time.
Hydro-Québec thinks that a wasting disease, the result of an organism known as labyrinthula zosterae--excuse my Latin--is affecting the eelgrass beds. We have looked into this, and with the help of Dr. Short, we have come to understand that the wasting disease is not the cause of the eelgrass decline. Instead, we believe that the changes in the seagrasses are well explained by the measurements of low salinities resulting from the river diversions and the managed flow regimes during the active eelgrass growing seasons. We also understand that there are other factors involved, such as turbidity resulting from erosion and landslides along the La Grande River after the development.
We have been handicapped, though, because we have not been provided with the information by Hydro-Québec on the year-by-year monthly flows, which we need to investigate this matter further and more closely. As we understand it, the only way to mitigate this effect of freshwater flow is to reassess and redirect the seasonal distribution of flows.
Because we believe the federal government has a direct interest in and responsibility for these matters, we are pleased to have this opportunity to explain our concerns. We will provide the standing committee with maps and photographs to explain the distribution of the eelgrass beds and why we are so concerned.
We therefore propose to the standing committee that there is a need for a fresh federal perspective on the impacts of development on James Bay and Hudson Bay. In making this statement, we are echoing a recommendation made by a federal panel that in 2006 studied the diversion of the Rupert River towards the La Grande River and Chisasibi.
We enclose at the end of this written presentation a recommendation that deals directly with the subject of federal involvement and the need for a concerted effort to deal with the gaps in scientific knowledge of the James Bay and Hudson Bay region during this time of environmental change, which includes climate change.
There are several related issues. The coastal and offshore environment of Chisasibi is now included in the Nunavik Inuit Land Claims Agreement, which has recently received royal assent with the passage of . It includes an overlap agreement between the Cree and the Inuit, which incorporates much of the area of declining eelgrass beds.
We note that there are efforts being made by the first nation and Inuit communities around Hudson Bay and James Bay to use the International Polar Year as a framework and as a stimulus to develop local capacity for monitoring environmental change in this region.
It is important that both Fisheries and Oceans and Environment Canada understand and appreciate why these steps are being taken. We would like to see the federal government pay much closer attention to the effects of environmental change in the James Bay and Hudson Bay region, including the effects of hydroelectric development.
We found that the federal government largely ended its involvement in the study of fish and waterfowl, including the eelgrass beds, when the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was concluded in 1975. This certainly was not what we expected or intended when the agreement was signed. This has left a great gap in the knowledge of many aspects of James Bay and Hudson Bay.
Chisasibi certainly does not consider that it is responsible for this situation, but it is interested in participating in monitoring aimed at a better understanding of environmental change and, where possible, at remedial action. However, this can be undertaken only if Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Environment Canada both show a much greater commitment to investment in relevant research in the James Bay and Hudson Bay region.
We encourage the standing committee to recommend to both government departments that they act on the issues raised in this brief, and in particular on recommendation 34 in the Eastmain-1-A Rupert River review. We also propose that the standing committee remind both Fisheries and Oceans and Environment Canada about the importance of the implementation of the wildlife management regime in section 24 of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, including in particular the principle of the guaranteed level of harvest.
I would like to thank you very much.
First of all, I would like to go back a little before I respond to your question.
There is one thing that seems to be forgotten. On the river we're talking about, on the natural flow, during the mid-winter--like right now--the velocity of the flow was very minimal in the sense that it hardly flowed. Since the diversion of the rivers and the damming of the river there is a constant flow that passes the village all year round. That causes the disturbance of the waterbed and the mucky waterbed that flows into James Bay.
Before all this happened we used to see an abundance of waterfowl in the fall and even in the spring. Even though they weren't feeding on the eelgrass in the spring, they were feeding on other substances, off the growth of the shoreline. With that, right now, as I have experienced over the years, the mammals that grow under the seabed are declining also, not just the eelgrass; it's everything else. We used to have mussels in that area too, and they're no more, they're all gone. We only see the old shells on the shorelines that have been washed into the shore. Other species, other specks of material that used to grow in the saltwater bed, are declining also, and some of them have completely disappeared. You even see these air pockets, air ducts that are covered with mud. They used to be clear, and nowadays they're covered because of the disturbance of the water flow.
We used to have all sorts of other migratory birds. They're talking about the brant, they're talking about waveys, they're talking about Canada geese and various other species of birds. We used to have these in abundance. Our area had the most abundance along the coast. It went as far as between Eastmain and Wemindji, where the geese used to feed before they migrated south. They went as far as the cape up north. These are the feeding areas where the geese were in abundance in those days, in those years.
For me, without even doing any testing, I've noticed that what causes it is the constant flow of the river. As I said, nowadays it's a constant flow. Before, the velocity of the water would decline a little during the mid-winter. There was hardly any water flow. This didn't disturb the river waterbed, but now it's constantly disturbing it and creating a lot of muck from underneath, where it would go out into the sea and most likely kill every little living thing that was there before. Pretty well nothing really grows on the shores of James Bay, and more or less it's the same thing, I think, in Hudson Bay. In particular it's James Bay that we're concerned about, and partially Hudson Bay.
This is what we miss today, we don't see any waterfowl landing anywhere. This is true, what we have experienced so far.
I have a couple of questions, and if someone else has some, they can ask them.
I'm not questioning the fact there has been a change in the coastal area and the eelgrass is dying out. I'm not quite certain what can be done about it. You have a group that works with the board of Hydro-Québec; obviously they're not going to stop their hydro flow, and it's been there for some time. There is increased fresh water, there's increased turbidity, and there is muddy water, if you will, going into the bay. It makes perfect sense to me that the geese and the brant are going somewhere else if there's no eelgrass there for them to feed on.
I don't know, beyond working with Hydro-Québec, if any changes can be made that would decrease the flow in the wintertime, because I have no reason to question what you're saying. The water temperature will be changing, there is more fresh water, and the eelgrass beds are dying out. Is there a way to mitigate that? Probably not.
I'm not trying to sound negative, but that's a quick summary.
What are you looking for out of this meeting?
No. The wasting disease is a little micro-organism that's part of the natural environment. If you have too many of those, then the eelgrass dies. If you don't have too many, it's part of the natural system. It doesn't affect it.
So by a process of elimination, those three, basically we have said, are not the cause. In our view it's either the salinity--how much fresh water is there--or the turbidity, because everything needs sunlight to grow, and the water is not as clear, as the former chief has said, as it used to be. Most of that, we believe, comes from the landslides along the river, that go out into the river, particularly in the wintertime. I guess it's hardest at that point, because it never used to happen before. Now we see that. Upstream from our community there are literally trees and bushes standing in the ice from the landslides, so it's created a lot of turbidity in the water.
So what is that combination? That's what we're asking ourselves. We don't know yet and we'd like somebody's help to determine what that is. Maybe it's not Hydro-Québec's fault. Maybe it's...I don't know what. But once we find out what the reason is, then we'd like to be able to ask, well, can the eelgrass be restored?
First of all, I'd like to emphasize that Dr. Reed is here with me today. Dr. Reed is a scientist emeritus with Environment Canada, and he is an expert on goose populations in northern Quebec and elsewhere in North America and their relationship with eelgrass.
Dr. Reed has provided much of the information on the technical side of things that are involved in my introduction, and he's going to be able to respond to technical questions relating to waterfowl and their linkages with eelgrass.
I'll be summarizing Environment Canada's information on eelgrass in eastern James Bay and its importance as a food supply for waterfowl. Much of this is a repeat of what you heard from the Cree presenters earlier on.
Eelgrass is an aquatic plant that occurs in large beds in shallow, relatively warm, sheltered coastal waters of James Bay, particularly in the areas of fine sediments, low tidal range, and moderate to high salinity. These eelgrass beds, as you've already heard, are very important in the coastal ecosystems of the bay. They provide shelter for the many small fish and invertebrates, food for many animals, and from our point of view they're important as food sources for ducks, Canada geese, and in particular brant geese.
Steve Curtis, who is a biologist with Environment Canada's Canadian Wildlife Service, was one of the first to survey the very productive eelgrass beds along the coast of James Bay in the early 1970s. The importance was identified before hydroelectric development took place on the rivers that flow into the bay. Later on, Hydro-Québec took responsibility for conducting quantitative surveys of eelgrass abundance in James Bay, and they used six permanent stations that were mostly close to the mouth of the La Grande River. This monitoring was undertaken initially in 1988 and was repeated most years until 1995. So it was the period after the first dams were put in place on the La Grande. These surveys identified that these coastal eelgrass beds were among the most productive in North America.
The monitoring undertaken by Hydro-Québec was repeated in 1999 and 2000. During this period they detected a severe decline in the amount of eelgrass present. Since then, a largely qualitative survey, as opposed to the earlier quantitative ones, was undertaken in 2004, and this indicated that eelgrass was still at low levels.
The causes of decline in eelgrass, from our point of view, in James Bay are not clearly understood. In addition to being vulnerable to changes in water levels, water temperatures, and salinity, as well as to the effects of human disturbance on sediments, eelgrass is susceptible to this wasting disease that Chief Pachano referred to earlier, caused by the slime mould labyrinthula. It's well known that outbreaks of this disease have caused eelgrass to decline significantly in other areas. Particularly, up to 90% of eelgrass was lost to this disease on the Atlantic coasts of North America and Europe during the 1930s. However, to our knowledge, no link has been confirmed between this wasting disease and declines of eelgrass in the James Bay area.
Environment Canada has collaborated in publishing the characteristics of the eelgrass meadows and habitat use by waterfowl in 1990 and 1991, and Dr. Reed was one of the authors of these reports.
We're not aware of more recent quantitative information as a result of studies on eelgrass meadows, but there may have been some that we haven't been aware of, particularly in areas farther south than those being described by the Cree representatives in the earlier sessions.
I want to emphasize that our interest as Environment Canada focuses particularly on waterfowl use. James Bay is recognized as one of the most important stopover areas in North America for migrating geese and ducks. They pause here for several weeks in their spring migration from southerly wintering areas to their breeding grounds in the far north and again on their southbound fall migrations. While they're in James Bay, water fowl feed intensively in these rich coastal habitats to replenish energy reserves that allow them to continue their flights to the next stage of their annual cycle.
Eelgrass beds provide important food for several species of waterfowl, most particularly for Atlantic brant geese. Atlantic brant are small geese that are very closely associated with marine waters. They breed in low-lying coastal areas on the islands in Fox Basin, which is in Canada's central Arctic, and they overwinter in coastal New England, mostly from Massachusetts to North Carolina. They migrate through Canada, stopping at staging areas on the Quebec and Ontario coasts of James Bay, both in the spring and the fall, for up to a month at a time. Throughout their migration and their overwintering periods, Atlantic brant rely very heavily on eelgrass for food, although they do eat a range of other salt marsh grasses and sedges while they're on their Arctic breeding grounds.
Research undertaken by Environment Canada's Canadian Wildlife Service in collaboration with Hydro-Québec and members of the Cree community, mostly in the early 1990s, documented that almost all feeding by brant in the James Bay area occurred in eelgrass beds, and that almost all the food they consumed was leaves of eelgrass. Canada geese and black ducks—which you've heard mentioned already—also fed on eelgrass beds to some extent, but they weren't confined to those areas. And several sea duck species also fed on numerous small organisms harboured by the eelgrass ecosystem. Again, these observations have been published in reports that are available and have been co-authored by Dr. Reed.
There haven't been sufficient recent surveys to assess whether the number of waterfowl moving through James Bay has declined overall. Nevertheless, there is good information that large numbers of waterfowl species still do occur in the bay while migrating; and recent studies by Environment Canada and its U.S. partners indicate that the entire population of Atlantic brant moves through James Bay—although it seems that a higher proportion of migrating brant may now actually be staging, or spending their time in migration, on the western side of James Bay, in Ontario, as opposed to the eastern coast of James Bay, which would have been the area of concern discussed by the Cree representatives in the earlier session.
In closing, I want to refer to Environment Canada's role in understanding the situation. Through the Migratory Birds Convention Act, Environment Canada has the responsibility for the conservation of migratory birds, including waterfowl. In most of its research and monitoring activities, Environment Canada takes a partnership role with other organizations; we rarely do things on our own. We understand the importance of working in partnership. That involves the collection, interpretation, and the response to the ecological information. Environment Canada has followed this approach with respect to understanding the relationships between waterfowl and eelgrass and larger changes within the James Bay coastal ecosystem.
Although we have responsibility for the conservation of migratory birds, including waterfowl, the protection of most wildlife habitats falls under provincial jurisdiction. Our friends from DFO, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, will be describing their role as a follow-up to my presentation. What this emphasizes to our department is the need for cooperative approaches to research, monitoring, and management of all components of the coastal systems of the bay.
In closing, I'd like to acknowledge the partnerships that my department, Environment Canada, has relied on with the Cree community, Hydro-Québec, the Government of Quebec, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and several private consulting organizations, who together have been instrumental in understanding the ecosystem of James Bay, and eelgrass and waterfowl in particular.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
The eelgrass problem is a complex one and involves a number of groups, including Environment Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the community, industry and the province. The Province of Quebec has a responsibility in this issue. Currently, there is very little scientific information on the eelgrass in the region, in terms of the fisheries and the impact on fish and fish habitat.
DFO does not have a research program on the eelgrass in James Bay. We are assessing various options to better understand the problem, including a study on the body of knowledge on eelgrass and Hydro-Quebec's monitoring program.
With me today is Lizon Provencher. She represents the science sector and can answer the more scientific questions. I represent the Fish Habitat Management Program at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. We administer the provisions of the Fisheries Act that cover the impact of human activity on fish and their habitat.
We also administer and apply the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act prior to decisions being made regarding the Fisheries Act. We also participated in the Federal Review Panel for the Eastmain-1-A and Rupert Diversion Project. I think you all have copies of the response that we provided to the recommendations of the panel on Eastmain-1-A and the Rupert Diversion Project. That was done by our department.
Regional representatives could not attend this meeting, but if you have questions I cannot answer, I will make sure to obtain the information.
Everyone understands French. In Mont-Joli, you have to understand French. People in northeastern New Brunswick also understand it. Mr. Reed, you also speak French. For those who had doubts, it is reassuring to see that two departments can work together so easily and diligently, and that pleases me. It must also please the Cree.
I appreciate your expertise and training. Some people have lived in that area all their lives. They often mix with the Indian activists on both the east and west coasts. They get along quite well. Apparently, there is no eelgrass on the west coast of James Bay. It seems there is only sand and mud. According to them, eelgrass could be found mainly on the east coast of James Bay.
You all know that whitefish, which they can eat every day, can be found near those eelgrass beds. As is the case with white fish, the number of geese of different species is declining. Climate change also has to be taken into account. I went to meet them for the first time on June 23, 2004 and I had to wear a winter coat. They made fun of me. I returned in May 2006, with only a light summer jacket, which was quite comfortable. If I am not mistaken, the ice had already become detached from the shore, on May 20, 2006.
You have the scientific means to conduct studies, and that is what they are looking for. They want to have more information so they can bring forward solutions and restore the natural environment to the state it was in prior to the James Bay development.
Given the number of recommendations that were made regarding the impact assessments of the James Bay development, did Hydro-Quebec reject any of those recommendations before developing the project? If not, could you suggest measures to reduce, for example, the water flow that enters the bay and can disturb the river bed, destroy the eelgrass and, at the same time, renders the water murky, thus preventing the eelgrass from developing?
Did you make any recommendations? Could the two departments present Hydro-Quebec with recommendations in that regard?