Plans by a working group to poison Miramichi Lake as part of an eradication project to rid the Miramichi water system of smallmouth bass remain on hold as talks continue with Maliseet communities in the Upper River Valley.
The working group, including the North Shore Micmac Council and the Atlantic Salmon Salmon Federation, initially planned to begin the project on Aug. 17. They plan to add Noxfish II, with the active ingredient rotenone, into the lake near Napadogan, Lake Brook, and a 17-km section of the Southwest Miramichi River.
Noxfish II will kill all gilled aquatic species, including the bass, considered an invasive species and a danger to the river system's historic salmon population. The working group said it would help repopulate the project area's native species upon completion of the project.
An effective protest by a group of determined Indigenous women in canoes prevented the project from moving forward as planned and forced the working group to further consult with Indigenous communities in the territory.
With the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the provincial Department of Environment and Local Government approval, the working group team arrived at the lake on Aug. 17 to find Wolastoqewi mothers and grandmothers, primarily from Tobique and Woodstock First Nations, paddling the lake in canoes.
Calling themselves "water protectors," the women and supporters forced at least a delay of the project.
"We're not stopping until we get the information," said Andrea Polchies over the phone from her canoe the day after the eradication project was scheduled to begin. "We want to know what's going on."
While the working group claims it had comprehensive discussions with Indigenous leaders, Polchies said she didn't hear about the project until three days before its planned start.
"If they want to do something of that magnitude in the territory," Polchies said, "Each chief is supposed to take it back to the communities so we can have a discussion and vote on it."
The Indigenous women managed to get their canoes on the lake despite roadblocks on Aug. 17, denying access to the lake for anyone other than cottage owners and working group officials.
After failing to get a court injunction on Aug. 19 to remove the Wolastoqewi mothers and grandmothers, the working group agreed to a renewed consultation process with Wolastoqey Nation New Brunswick (WNNB) support.
"There has been consultation with both Mi'gmaq communities and Wolastoqey organizations in New Brunswick," the North Shore Micmac Council said in an Aug. 20 release. "However, there was a breakdown in communication on the part of DFO in the consultation process with the Wolastoqey Nation through no fault of the Wolastoqey Nation."
The release also indicated support from leaders of the WNNB for the project.
Neville Crabbe, the spokesperson of the Atlantic Salmon Federation and the working group, confirmed an agreement to include the WFFN as part of the five-year monitoring process.
"There will be Wolostoquey participation in the project afterwards," he said.
Polchies said the working group and WNNB held public sessions at Woodstock and Tobique First Nations recently.
While the WNNB leaders may be on board with the project, she saw little support from the community during the Woodstock meeting. Polchies said the majority of those in attendance at the meeting opposed the project.
She said the "water protectors" plan to keep a presence on the lake until they are satisfied with the process.
The Indigenous group joined cottage owners around Miramichi Lake who have fought the project for more than two years.
Crabbe said the working group supports the renewed consultations but acknowledged a decision is required soon to complete the project he deemed vital to protect the river's salmon stocks.
"We can't do it when there's ice on the water," he said.
Crabbe said the working group and the WNNB held public meetings in Tobique, Woodstock, Kingsclear and St. Mary's First Nations, with the final meeting held Monday, Sept. 13, in St. Mary's.
Crabbe said the working group willingly delayed the project until it received the results of those meetings.
"It's important to hear and answer their questions," he said.
As a result, Crabbe said, the working group did not set a date for the project to start in 2021, noting they are assessing their options.
"It's premature to talk about 2021," Crabbe told the River Valley Sun on Sept. 14.
He acknowledged the project now faces a time crunch to complete the project his year.
The water temperature is a crucial issue. The project calls for two treatments, with the second treatment occurring a month after the first.
Even if not carried out this fall, Crabbe said the working group remains resolved to complete the project. He said it remains the best option to rid the Miramichi water table of the invasive smallmouth bass.
Jim Dumville, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, River Valley Sun