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Chisasibi crab experiment inspires citizen scientist initiative

BY Patrick Quinn Sep 22, 2020

A recent discovery by two Chisasibi fishers has inspired the Eeyou Marine Region Wildlife Board to launch a “Citizen Scientist” initiative. The EMRWB is now calling on Crees to share their knowledge of the animal species of James Bay. 

“Once we saw how much interest Roger Orr and Bertie Wapachee’s crab experiment was getting, we felt that it was an excellent opportunity to let people know that this is exactly the kind of information we need to collect,” explained EMRWB Wildlife Management Director Angela Coxon.

What began as a simple trip on the bay with a crab trap brought by Wapachee has turned into an increasing obsession for the pair, aided by information from social media contacts following their quest. They tried various combinations of trap designs, bait offerings and locations over several weeks before hitting the jackpot with nearly 30 crabs in mid-August.

“I always wondered what was out there, what the bay offered besides the fish we caught by the coastline,” Orr told the Nation. “It was such an awesome feeling, to actually succeed in something that we had no history of in our culture – to pinpoint it without even having the technology or documentation, just by using intuition alone.”

Inspired by shows like Deadliest Catch and Coldwater Cowboys, Orr whipped up some traps from scraps lying behind his business, Retro Daze Café. Something was devouring the chicken wings and Klik canned meat Orr had tucked into his old socks as bait, but they couldn’t be certain it was crabs until they designed a trap the crabs couldn’t escape from. 

“We couldn’t prove anything until we started pulling out crabs,” Orr observed. “Weather played a big role in how long those traps would be there – if it was too windy, it was impossible to go out. We caught the first one in the second week of setting traps and praying to the crab gods.”

Realizing that crabs were unlikely to live in James Bay without a significant population, the fishermen persisted and found a 150-foot hole using sonar farther in the bay. They moved all their traps to this area after noticing a congregation of seals on nearby rocks.

“I figured they’re feeding on something not far from that hole,” Orr said. “Seals started jumping into the water – it was an awesome sight. Sure enough, that’s where we hit the jackpot.”

While crabs had been reported decades ago in Wemindji, this latest discovery was exciting news for the region’s marine biologists, not to mention Orr’s hundreds of social media followers. A rise in connectivity, accessible technology and thirst for data make such projects and other “citizen science” increasingly possible.

“We’re looking at expanding our mandate depending on what species are being discovered by citizen scientists,” said EMRWB chairperson Gordon Blackned. “Roger and Bertie were just going to the islands by Chisasibi, but further out in the bay there may exist other animals. Perhaps even lobsters.”

While Cree have traditionally found abundant harvests close to shore, community consultations to define the board’s research priorities in 2017 revealed an interest in expanding this seafood diet. Are there opportunities to harvest shrimp and crab or perhaps farm clams, mussels or seaweed? Blackned notes that the variety of James Bay sea life has never been fully explored by marine biologists. 

“Realistically,” asked Coxon, “do I think there will ever be a harvest of crab or shrimp in the EMR? Probably not, because those species prefer extremely cold, deep water for optimal growth, offered by Hudson Bay and the Arctic and Atlantic oceans. We need the experts and land users to help us answer the questions.”

A proposed two-year research expedition of James Bay that would start next summer in a Department of Fisheries and Oceans vessel could provide more scientific data. If approved, information sessions will be held this winter in each community with opportunities to participate in sampling.

Regular meetings with the EMRWB’s Nunavik counterpart also help to improve knowledge of the region’s wildlife patterns. Climate change and other factors have resulted in polar bears and beluga whales venturing further south in recent years, migration changes that the citizen scientist initiative also hopes to illuminate.

“It’s quite interesting learning from the Inuit what species they’re interested in,” Blackned told the Nation. “There’s a much wider variety of harvest – the beluga, polar bear, seal, walrus. They mentioned there is a commercial harvest for shrimp in their area.”

Other research collaborations are examining the decline of eelgrass, an important food source for migratory geese. Changes to water conditions caused by climate and hydroelectric projects are harder to measure. But observations from land users play a valuable role in monitoring eelgrass health and identifying potential invasive species that may contribute to habitat loss.

“Reporting all wildlife observations can help identify critical habitats, rare and invasive species, as well as any changes in population abundance, distribution and migration important to Cree cultural practices,” explained Coxon. 

“Citizen science and traditional knowledge go hand in hand,” she continued. “There are no better people to report their observations than the people who have their hands on the pulse of the land.”

EMRWB’s primary focus is to document all species in the marine region, particularly those that are new to the area or expanding their range. While they will unveil a new website this winter with an online app and electronic reporting forms, observations can in the meantime be emailed to wildlife@eeyoumarineregion.ca or reported to your local CTA-EMR officer. 

Following the successful crab experiment, Orr is hungry to pursue more explorations in the mysterious depths. He is particularly interested in lumpfish, mussels and sea urchins – all considered delicacies and believed to be plentiful in James Bay. Several urchins were found attached to the crab traps.

“I would just like to thank everyone who followed this journey with us to figure out these sasquatches of the deep,” said Orr. “I’ll probably go out one more time because I overcooked the last batch. They don’t take long to cook at all, two minutes maybe. They tasted really good.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.