'It breaks your heart': Thousands of fish die in Tusket River

·5 min read
Thousands of gaspereau died recently when they were unable to find passage up the Tusket River. (Submitted by Aaron Leblanc - image credit)
Thousands of gaspereau died recently when they were unable to find passage up the Tusket River. (Submitted by Aaron Leblanc - image credit)

Troy Doucet said he was flooded with disappointment as he surveyed a fish kill on the Tusket River Monday that he estimates is more than 100,000 fish.

"We are like a small fishing group and Nova Scotia Power does not give a damn about us," Doucet said in a phone interview Tuesday.

"And not only Nova Scotia Power; DFO, in my mind, does not give a damn."

Doucet is the co-chair of the Yarmouth-Shelburne Gaspereau Advisory Committee. He said that although the discovery of the dead gaspereau started making the rounds on social media on Monday, he believes the kill probably happened about a week ago and the fish are now coming to the surface and spilling out of the river.

The fish are near a Nova Scotia Power powerhouse, just down river from the company's hydroelectric dam, about a 15-minute drive from Yarmouth.

A need for effective fish passage

Doucet said he believes the fish attempted to use the fish ladder at the dam. When that wasn't working because of how many of them there were, they looked for another way, drawing them toward the powerhouse, he said.

The problem with that, said Doucet, is the fish ladder at the powerhouse is designed for salmon and does not work for gaspereau.

"The angle of the ramps, the water pressure coming through, the height to get in the boxes — it will not work for gaspereau."

Despite a net having been added to that area to try to prevent fish from getting into the pond, Doucet said he believes the fish were able to get over it when water levels were high, leaving them there to die when river levels dropped with the tides.

"If we had a gaspereau ladder here, we do not have this fish kill."

Fish passage has been an ongoing problem on the river, said Doucet. Despite efforts to get the fish ladder at the dam improved and a proper ladder installed by the powerhouse, it hasn't happened.

'It's B.S.'

What the area needs, he said, is effective fish passage.

"You can define fish passage as having two fish go up the ladder. That is not effective fish passage."

Submitted by Troy Doucet
Submitted by Troy Doucet

In a statement, a spokesperson for Nova Scotia Power said protection of the environment, fish and fish habitat are "very important" to the company.

"We are working closely with DFO to assess the situation. Operations at our Tusket hydro system have run as they normally would, keeping water levels at the appropriate level throughout the fish migration season."

A spokesperson for DFO told CBC in a statement that the department is monitoring and assessing the situation and working with Nova Scotia Power on fish passage on the Tusket River system.

The spokesperson said the department first learned of reports of the fish kill on May 17.

Doucet said he's not happy that, as co-chair of the advisory committee, he was not told about the kill when DFO learned about it.

"It shows where I stand — where we stand — in this advisory committee," he said. "We thought, possibly, DFO is there to hear some of our concerns. By being left in the dark and not being notified tells me it's B.S."

The season has been shortened in recent years because of concerns about fish stocks.

Fishing has been reduced from five days a week to three. And while the season legally opens on March 15, Doucet said everyone agreed to wait until the beginning to April to begin fishing to further help the stocks. The season closed Monday.

Although Doucet acknowledges stocks were "in a mess" three or four years ago, he said things seem to be turning around.

"The last two years — especially this year — the volume of fish that's on this river is the largest I've seen in the 32 years that I've been in the game."

But those gains don't mean much without effective fish passage. Aaron Leblanc used to fish the river before moving to another out of concern about fish passage and the ongoing work by Nova Scotia Power at the dam, which is years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget.

Doucet said the most recent fish count for the year estimates about a million fish have gone up the river.

'That's a whole season's fish'

To lose 100,000 fish will have significant implications, said Leblanc.

"That's a whole season's fish and they haven't gotten to spawn yet," said Leblanc.

"We reduced our fishing efforts over the last three or four years to try and help the fish population. To see something like that, it breaks your heart."

Gaspereau are caught using dip nets or gillnets.

There are 27 commercial gillnet licence holders and about 60 commercial dip net licence holders on the Tusket River. Primarily a bait fishery, the species has become valuable not just for the fishermen who catch them but for the broader fishing industry.

Doucet estimates the gaspereau fishery is worth more than $2 million, but he said its value extends to the lucrative lobster fishery, which is turning to the fish as a bait option at a time when other species, such as mackerel and herring, are facing stock challenges of their own.

"Fresh bait is not available as plentiful as it was in the past," said Doucet.

"So you put a good fresh product — bait — on a lobster pot, they're generating a higher catch, which provides a lot more money on that end."