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Lake sturgeon conservation agreement blazes new path

BY Patrick Quinn Aug 3, 2023

On June 27, the Cree Nation Government and Fisheries and Oceans Canada announced the signing of a landmark conservation agreement to protect the lake sturgeon of the Southern Hudson Bay-James Bay, a species of special concern under the country’s Species at Risk Act (SARA). 

The agreement is the first of its kind in Canada, providing a collaborative framework for the development of a Cree-led management plan that will identify conservation targets and threats to the species and its habitat, establishing concrete actions for the sturgeon’s long-term survival. 

“This is a first for an Indigenous group to take lead of a management plan in collaboration with the government,” explained Tina Petawabano, CNG director of federal and Indigenous relations. “Other First Nations have been involved in the past, however more in the implementation. We’re pleased we could take part in putting this plan together.”

Cree communities have long had concerns about the impact of harvesting and industrial activities, particularly around the Rupert River and its diversion bays. In 2010, an environmental team began closely monitoring spawning grounds and stocked 5,000 sturgeon fry in places where the river habitat is more favourable.  

When DFO separated lake sturgeon management according to watershed, the Cree Nation was eager to help manage the Southern Hudson Bay-James Bay population, mostly covering where the JBNQA provides exclusive wildlife use to Cree. While SARA mandated the DFO to prepare management plans when lake sturgeon was designated a species of special concern, the CNG asked to work closely with them from the beginning.

After an operational working group consisting of CNG, DFO and Cree Trappers’ Association members was formed, interviews were conducted with 76 community members from nine Cree communities. Workshops then helped to validate the traditional knowledge and first-hand observations that will guide the threat management plan currently being drafted. 

Known in Cree as Nameu or Nimaau, the lake sturgeon has long been valued in Eeyou Istchee and other First Nations as an important food source. It is Canada’s largest freshwater fish, capable of growing over 2 metres and 180 kg and living more than 100 years. They’re often referred to as a living fossil, as the species dates to the time of dinosaurs over 200 million years ago.

“The lake sturgeon is a significant species for our people and communities as our cultural practices and livelihoods are closely tied to the fish,” said CTA regional president Arden Visitor. “It is our responsibility to protect and conserve this species for future generations to come and we welcome the collaborative framework to identify conservation actions.”

When the International Union for the Conservation of Nature declared the lake sturgeon endangered last December, it was believed that rivers flowing into Hudson and James Bay were home to its last remaining abundant populations globally. However, many are concerned that mining and hydroelectric activity threaten its survival.

“You can tell by how they look on the other side of the dams, they don’t look as healthy,” observed Jennifer Simard of Moose Cree First Nation earlier this year. “Some of them have big heads and really small bodies. We know it’s having an impact, and, for us, that warrants enough to start taking action.”

Moose Cree and the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada have created a partnership to research these impacts and hope to work with Ontario Power Generation to identify potential solutions, such as alternating operating hours of the dams to reduce disruption to the fish’s migration patterns. 

As sturgeon in Eeyou Istchee’s rivers can be over 30 years old when they spawn for the first time and only spawn every five to nine years, they are particularly sensitive to fishing pressure and changes in breeding habitat. There are concerns that overexploitation, water pollution and dam construction are depleting their populations, although not to the extent of the Great Lakes, where the once abundant species now number less than 1% of historical numbers. 

The working group will hold discussions this fall with Hydro-Québec along with the provincial environment department, Anishinaabe communities, industrial proponents and other stakeholders. As conservation measures aren’t enforceable, finding common ground can identify specific mitigation steps that each partner could apply.

“The major threats we are addressing are differences in hydrology, water temperature, the flow of water, deforestation and over-exploitation,” said Alain Guitard, the DFO’s director of planning and conservation. “Barriers can impinge the free passage of sturgeon and dams can change the hydrology of the habitat.”

Lake sturgeon will also be impacted by recent forest fires, which increase stream flow due to vegetation loss while leading to higher water temperatures and quantities of debris and sediment. 

Guitard said the DFO sees the nation-to-nation partnership as beneficial for both groups. Reconciling federal conservation measures with the Cree way of doing things supports better informed strategies. 

“It’s a pleasure to work with our CNG colleagues,” said Guitard. “We recognize the leadership role of the Cree to bring their knowledge to protect this important species and its habitat. Our collaboration brings strong support from the Cree communities for the implementation of future management measures.”

The CNG is overseeing some work that the DFO would normally undertake. During monthly meetings, the project’s steering committee discusses updates from consultations in the field and progresses towards the plan’s expected completion a year from now. There will then be a public process to gather public input. 

“We’re setting a precedent now with the lake sturgeon and we’re doing well in the work we’re doing,” asserted Petawabano. “I don’t see why we couldn’t do something similar with other species identified in the future. We’re setting precedent not just for the Cree but to inspire other Indigenous groups. We’re paving the way once again.”

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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.