July 2, 2001

Moncton Times and Transcript

River review mired in delay
by Dave Francis

Provincial officials say requests to meet with federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal to proceed with a full environmental impact assessment on the Petitcodiac River are falling on deaf ears and delaying the project. “I’ve been waiting to sit down with minister Dhaliwal, but I just can’t seem to get a meeting at this time,” provincial Environment minister Kim Jardine told the Times & Transcript. “They (the federal government) should be at the table, but where are they?”

Eugene Niles, the man appointed by Ottawa to review all documentation on the river and the causeway, released his report in March recommending a full environmental impact assessment. But since then little progress has been made because the issue has been bogged down over who will take responsibility for the study and who will pay for it.

Last week, a spokesman for DFO said a committee has been struck to address the issue and has met, but a report has yet to be filed to Dhaliwal. Andre-Marc Lanteigne said the committee’s mandate is to ” develop a project that will trigger an EIA.”

What that means is that government must propose a move, such as removal of a portion of the causeway, which would then require an environmental assessment to determine what effect that removal would have on the river and the ecosystem.

Once the committee files its report, Lanteigne said Dhaliwal and Jardine will be able to meet to discuss how to proceed. But asked if that means they’ll meet to determine who will pay for the environmental assessment, which could cost $3 million or more, Lanteigne was unable to predict a timeline.

“We don’t even know if funding will be discussed at that first meeting,” he said, but added the federal government has “already committed funding for this; we said that we would be supporting and funding at least part of an EIA.”

Lanteigne admits, however, that no figures have been attached to Ottawa’s commitment of support.

Jardine, however, believes the matter should no longer be dealt with by committees and should be pushed forward.

“I think now it’s at the ministerial level,” she said, “but I haven’t convinced him.”

Jardine has met with Moncton MP Claudette Bradshaw, and was told the matter is in Dhaliwal’s hands. Jardine subsequently wrote a letter to Dhaliwal on May 2 requesting a meeting, but received a response suggesting they let the committee do its work. She said she doesn’t understand why Ottawa isn’t moving to implement the recommendation from a study (by Niles) which it commissioned. As a result the province’s hands are tied, she said.

“Somebody asked me would you be on a plane tomorrow’ (if a meeting could be set) and my response was absolutely’,” Jardine said.

The delays in beginning an environmental assessment continue despite growing support for government to return some form of free-flow to the river system. The most recent poll on the issue, released in February, showed that 59 per cent of those surveyed agreed with restoration of the river.

The survey by Corporate Research Associates was conducted over four days in early February and asked a randomly selected sample of 402 residents in Metro Moncton a variety of questions relating to their community, one of which was whether the causeway gates should be permanently opened to allow the river to flow freely.

Overall, 59 per cent of those asked said they’d prefer to see the gates opened, whereas 21 per cent favoured them shut. The remainder of those questioned either didn’t know or care.

The lack of action is beginning to grate on some people’s nerves, including members of the Petitcodiac Riverkeeper organization which has long been lobbying to have the river returned to a free-flowing waterway.

Earlier this year the Riverkeepers suggested they were preparing to launch a
lawsuit against government based on their contention that the permit to operate the fish ladder in the causeway stipulates the fish ladder must allow fish to pass. They contend that it doesn’t.

When Niles issued his report recommending a full environmental impact assessment, the group tabled its efforts to launch that lawsuit, but spokesman Daniel LeBlanc now says those efforts may be re-started.

“The fishway is illegal because it’s supposed to be fulfilling the obligation to pass fish and it doesn’t,” LeBlanc said. “That’s why DFO has introduced the gate opening project, because they recognize the fishway doesn’t work.”

LeBlanc said the inability of the two levels of government to address the issue may force the Riverkeeper organization to launch its lawsuit.

The gate management program LeBlanc spoke of involves opening one or more of the causeway gates each day, but only for about an hour, in hopes of assisting fish to swim upriver past the causeway. But those efforts are achieving only about a 20 per cent efficiency, meaning very few of the fish are moving upriver.

Evidence that the gate management program is at least achieving minimal success came earlier this week when a dead sturgeon, a 72- inch (two-metre) fish was found near the causeway in the headpond. Because the saltwater fish would have been too large to make it through the fish ladder, it is obvious it managed to swim past the causeway when the gates were opened. It was the first time a sturgeon has been seen above the causeway in many years, although they are occasionally seen in the river downstream towards the opening to the Bay of Fundy.

LeBlanc said there is further evidence that removing at least a portion of the causeway would help various species of fish return to the river. For example, numerous gaspereau have been seen trying to navigate the waters to move beyond the causeway when the gates are open. The trouble is the current at that point and time is too strong for most fish and as a result many of the gaspereau have been trapped, leaving them at the mercy of seagulls and other birds who have wreaked havoc on the gaspereau population.

“Some are getting caught below the gates, and those that make it up are injured,” LeBlanc said.

“They’re eaten by cormorants on one side and seagulls on the other,” he said.

LeBlanc also noted the death of the sturgeon is evidence the ecosystem has been badly warped by the existence of the causeway. Scientists believe the huge fish died after entering the headpond waters because the water temperatures there are at least 10 degrees Celsius higher than the temperature of the water in the flowing river below the causeway.

Dr. Andrea Locke, a research scientist with DFO in Moncton, told the Times & Transcript that there are numerous species of fish which used to populate the river system and which still exist in strong enough numbers that they could be brought back if the river is allowed to flow freely again.

“There are 13 species that would have travelled in and out of the river each year (before the causeway was built), and 10 of those would have been commercially or recreationally fished,” Locke said, adding that in recent years experimental gate openings have allowed some of those to return to the upper reaches of the river in small numbers.

“It’s encouraging that we’re getting them up there,” she said, ” There’s potential for a lot of these species to restore spawning runs but the longer we wait the less chance of success we’ll have.

“The likelihood of any of these species surviving with the gates closed is nil.”

Like salmon, most of the species which used to thrive in the river were migratory species which hatched in the river, but moved to the sea while still juveniles to live out their lives there, coming back upstream to spawn. Those species included such fish as two gaspereau species — alewifes and blueback herring — along with shad, smelt, trout, tom cod, eels, striped bass, sturgeon and lampreys. There were also thriving populations of freshwater fish that used to exist in abundance in the upper waters of the Petitcodiac, such as freshwater brook trout, white perch, white suckers, and chubs.

Locke said many of the species’ populations are now greatly diminished, most notably the salmon and shad.

“The shad are pretty much toast,” she said. “They keep trying to come through (the fish ladder), but there aren’t many.

“There used to be a run of thousands of shad each year,” she said.

“The salmon are in very bad shape” and it is not even clear any more if the original genetic strain of Petitcodiac River salmon even exists within the overall Bay of Fundy salmon population, she noted.

Smelt also still exist in small numbers, as do sea run brook trout. There are still healthy populations of eels, but tom cods, which come up the river under the ice in mid-winter don’t seem to be getting past the causeway at all anymore, Locke said.

Still, if a decision is made to allow the river to flow freely again, Locke believes hope still exists for many of the species which used to thrive in the Petitcodiac River system.

“Pretty much almost everything except the salmon, striped bass, and sturgeon have good potential to come back.”