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Research project presents initial results on decline of staple food for geese

BY Dan Isaac Feb 15, 2019

“With the eelgrass disappearing, we’re also losing the culture”

Elder Louie Kanatewat

Since the completion of the second phase of the La Grande Complex in the 1990s, eelgrass, a perennial flowering underwater plant and staple food for migrating geese, has been on the decline in coastal Eeyou Istchee.

“I feel sorry for the younger generations who’ll never get to see the goose hunts I saw,” said Chisasibi Elder Louie Kanatewat of the effect the decline has had on the annual hunt. “With the eelgrass disappearing, we’re also losing the culture.”

The Grand Council of the Crees (GCC) held a special assembly in 2015 to discuss disappearing eelgrass and the dissatisfaction coastal land users had with Hydro-Québec’s treatment of the issue. 

Then, following the 2016 annual general assembly, the GCC, Niskamoon Corporation and Hydro-Québec agreed to launch an independent research project aimed at examining the cause of the disappearance.

From January 29-31, the project’s researchers – from three different universities – tallymen and coastal community members met at the Yaayimutitaau Shikaapaashkwh Eelgrass Symposium in Chisasibi to discuss the findings of the research.

“The research project began three years ago, but we’ve learned the hard way that when you work with universities it takes time to get things going,” Niskamoon Corporation Environment Director Marc Dunn said.  

Understanding the territory represented a steep learning curve for some. However, the project had other hurdles to leap beyond the logistical and geographical issues. The research relied on traditional knowledge, and in some instances translating English to Cree was cumbersome.

“We know that eelgrass doesn’t like sediment,” Dunn told the Nation. “But the issue was raised that ‘clear water’ is a hard concept to translate into Cree.”  

At the Chisasibi symposium, only initial results were ready for presentation – “We are nowhere near finished,” said Dunn. But he believes it was constructive despite some tense moments.

“There were people who had strong feelings which is perfectly normal, but I don’t think that negative comments are a bad thing because they bring issues to the surface,” he observed. “It can be perceived badly but this is the way these things have to work.”

Some information presented to the community is already well known. For example, eelgrass is a saltwater plant, and suffers from the declining salinity levels near Chisasibi caused by the pumping fresh water from La Grande into the bay. In Eastmain further south, sediment has had an adverse effect on eelgrass by preventing sunlight from reaching the plant.

While there’s general agreement that Hydro-Québec’s dams contributed to the decline of eelgrass, Dr. Zou Zou Kuzyk, a Geological Sciences Assistant Professor at the University of Manitoba, said the issue is complex.

“With climate change, we know a lot of properties are changing. We know the ice season is getting shorter and the temperatures of seawater has been gradually increasing over the last 30 to 40 years,” Kuzyk told the Nation. “We can’t do our science in isolation of the large-scale changes.” 

For her part in the research project, Kuzyk and her team looked at the ocean while the two other teams focused on rivers and eelgrass in general. She believes that the work the three teams are doing will have a lasting effect.

“Already a lot that is being learned is advancing the scientific understanding of James Bay,” said Kuzyk, noting that there had been no major scientific studies conducted in the area, and therefore no new data collected, since the 1980s.

She spent much of her time working on the project with the Cree out on the land. “We’ve benefited greatly from working with the tallymen and trappers,” she said. “We would not have been able to set out on a skidoo trip to do our work if the Cree weren’t our guides.”

Traditional Cree knowledge has also played a significant role in her research, acting as a benchmark to validate some of their results.  

“The nature of science is that you discover something new along the way. I think the traditional knowledge component of the research has helped in revealing the limitations of our scientific observations,” said Kuzyk.

“The scientific method that we have to use is very rigid,” she continued. “We can’t replace the quantitative scientific observations we make, but we can validate them through what the Cree have observed.”

“My dad told me, the goose knows where the food is. We need to start looking at other ways to attract the geese to the coast.”

Elder Louie Kanatewat

Following the symposium, Dunn told the Nation that he’d be seeking a yearlong extension of the project’s mandate – initially set to conclude this July.

He’s hopeful that Niskamoon, the GCC, and Hydro-Québec will approve the extension. If that happens, another symposium would be held in 2020 to review the findings with the communities before the research is sent off for peer review.

But Louie Kanatewat wasn’t as hopeful about the prospect of bountiful eelgrass returning to the James Bay coast.

“Our Elders predicted this. Personally, I don’t think the eelgrass is ever coming back,” lamented Kanatewat. “My dad told me, the goose knows where the food is. We need to start looking at other ways to attract the geese to the coast.”

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Dan Isaac is a Mi'kmaq and Mohawk journalist with a BA in Creative writing from Concordia University. He’s been writing for the Nation since 2016.