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Research seeks answers to eelgrass decline

BY Ben Powless Mar 24, 2023

Where has all the eelgrass gone? That’s the question scientists and land users are trying to answer, along with its huge impact on geese and other wildlife along coastal Eeyou Istchee.

Land users first noticed the decline of eelgrass and waterfowl in the late 1980s, which rapidly accelerated in the early 2000s. Eelgrass is associated with geese distribution, and it’s believed that as eelgrass quantity and quality declines, so do geese and other waterfowl populations.

In 2014, researchers from Niskamoon Corporation, the four coastal Cree communities, Hydro-Québec and universities across the country initiated the Coastal Habitat Comprehensive Research Program. Their aim was to understand how geese use James Bay, study the abundance of the four geese populations, and how eelgrass beds and other habitats influence geese distribution. 

They tracked geese with GPS instruments to determine individual habitats. They sampled more than 100 stations along the coast between 2016 and 2020, looking for chemical elements, dissolved organic matter, and phytoplankton. Researchers were also looking to measure water temperature, salinity, light penetration and water currents.

The team undertook aerial surveys in 2018 to count geese found along coastal traplines and looked at banding of geese “recoveries” between 1960 to 2020 to determine when and where geese populations have been found. 

By 2019, the team began eelgrass surveys at 76 sites in 13 trapline, collecting samples and using satellite imagery. Consultations with trapline users to confirm research results were cancelled because of the pandemic. 

In 2020, as outside researchers were unable to enter Eeyou Istchee, an all-Cree team conducted site visits, including scuba diving to deploy and recover equipment and underwater samples. 

The final report from this first phase will be released in April, focusing on causes of the eelgrass and waterfowl decline. The second phase will identify measures that could improve the James Bay ecosystem. 

In February, Niskamoon Special Projects Manager Ernie Rabbitskin spoke to the Nation when he attended the Society of Canadian Aquatic Sciences’ meeting in Montreal.

“When the eelgrass started declining, [land users] noticed geese were starting to disappear and shifted migration more inland,” Rabbitskin said. “They weren’t stopping at eelgrass beds because there were almost none; they were flying over. Hunters started being unable to feed their families.”

A high degree of eelgrass decline was reported around the Chisasibi area, which Rabbitskin thinks may be related to discharges from Hydro-Québec’s La Grande complex, which was completed in the late 1980s. Eelgrass needs saltwater to grow and the increase of freshwater discharge from the project likely changed its habitat. Rabbitskin said that climate change is also a factor. 

In total, about 50 researchers, as well as numerous Cree land users, Elders and youth took part in studies that assessed traditional ecological knowledge during visits to hunting camps, interviews and participatory mapping. 

Rabbitskin said the project received solid support from communities that first reported the problem. 

“They wanted this research to happen,” he emphasized. “It was the land users who were the priority. The communities listened and from there the research started. There wouldn’t be research without that knowledge.”

Rabbitskin began as a field coordinator, working with researchers, land users and tallymen. This involved going out on boats, skidoos and helicopters to inaccessible areas.

Now that the final report is nearly finished, it will be up to communities and leadership to determine the next course of action. “I’m very grateful to everybody, especially the Cree land users,” Rabbitskin added. “We couldn’t have done it without them.” 

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.