This piece was on the cover of the Winter 2020 edition of the PEN.
When the average Canadian hears the term “wild salmon”, they probably picture west coast salmon. After all, the migrations these fish undertake, and the majestic west coast rain forest ecosystems they support, are legendary. Grizzlies fattening up for winter on spawning salmon, fish leaping huge distance up waterfalls, and the fight of local and Indigenous people to keep the salmon habitat safe from oil spills and unsustainable aquaculture practices these are all images we’re familiar with. But salmon aren’t confined to the west coast of Canada.
Atlantic salmon are also a keystone species, and face their own set of obstacles when it comes to survival and migration. In fact, Atlantic salmon were once a major food species for Indigenous people living along the Ottawa and St Lawrence rivers. They are now rarely seen in these habitats.
It was to raise awareness about the environmental oversights and lack of appropriate conservation efforts that activist Sonja Wood shut down her small fossil museum, and set out from Nova Scotia on September 4th, 2019, heading for Ottawa. The journey would take her forty-nine days. In part, this was because she stopped along the way in towns affected by water pollution and fisheries issues. In part, this was because she made the journey in her motorized wheelchair.
Sonja was injured in an accident on Highway 101 many years ago, and has relied on mobility assistance devices since. The accident marked the beginning of her journey as an activist, and she was eventually approached by salmon conservation groups because of her activism. Now, for twenty years, she has Chaired the group Friends of the Avon River.
The Avon River (headwaters for the Bay of Fundy) is a large salmon producing river in Nova Scotia with a history of environmental concerns. In the 1970’s, an existing bridge over the river was replaced by a causeway, which dramatically altered the flow of the river and resulted in the formation of an artificial lake which is popular among locals, but has been described by environmental writers as “a biological desert” due to the amount of sediment that has built up.
The causeway has also been a constant headache from an infrastructure perspective,
as it was built with little regard for natural erosion patterns and tidal forces, and requires frequent and expensive upkeep. Recently, with a proposed expansion of the nearby highway, these concerns are at the forefront again, and it was this that prompted Sonja to make her journey.
Friends of the Avon River has been working with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) for decades, but navigating the relationship between the federal agency, the province of Nova Scotia, and the local townships has been difficult.
Sonja states that relevant federal legislation regarding environmental assessment and habitat protection have been ignored locally, while federal oversight has been unaware of what is going on in Nova Scotia.
Overall, conservation efforts have been hampered by lack of oversight from relevant government departments. On her journey, Sonja stopped frequently in towns along the route to discuss salmon, fisheries and conservation issues with local residents. In addition to the concerns she sees all the time in Nova Scotia, she heard about water pollution issues, especially from pulp and paper mills, dams blocking fish access to the river, and other concerns.
In Quebec, she heard from small town residents who spoke about how important the Atlantic salmon are for their economies a popular sport fish, Atlantic salmon are extirpated from their American habitats, and people travelling from the United States to fish in Quebec are an important economic boost to small towns. Because of pollution and other threats, some natural, these places worry that soon their salmon will be gone as well.
Sonja was stymied in her attempts to meet with the federal minister in Ottawa by the Federal Election, although she had set out before it was called. However, thanks to media attention and the voices of local activists (such as Fred Schueler, local biologist and partner of the conservation artist Aleta Karstad who was profiled in the Fall 2018 Edition of the PEN), the acting fisheries minister set up a meeting between Sonja and six government officials, which took place on October 25th, 2019.
Sonja reported that the officials were receptive to her message, had generally been unaware of the potential environmental regulation violations that were taking place, and have agreed to investigate. There was also good media coverage of Sonja’s journey and requests while she was in Ottawa, and she was helped along the way by volunteers and faith communities who allowed her and her partner (travelling as support in a small car) to stay or camp on their properties, recharge her wheelchair batteries, etc.
It is Sonja’s hope, and the hope of Friend of Avon River, that the DFO will step in to require proper environmental assessment and enforcement of relevant legislation and guidelines as the area continues to be developed. In addition, conservation groups and associations should use more of their allocated funds for habitat restoration projects.
Atlantic salmon, and indeed all the fish species affected by the health of the Ottawa and St Lawrence rivers, are important parts of the ecosystem of Eastern Canada, and it is the best interest of all Canadians in the long run if laws intended to protect vulnerable species can be properly upheld and enforced.