The atmosphere in the downstairs meeting hall of the Little Current branch of the Royal Canadian Legion was remarkably subdued considering the frustration felt by members of the Little Current Fish and Game Club (LCFGC) over the future of their Sheguiandah walleye hatchery and the highly successful educational program operated by the club each spring.
The issue centred on the lack of walleye to be found in the club’s weir nets during the spring run due to the presence of nets across the bay. Those nets, allegedly set by a member of the Sheguiandah First Nation, inhibited the spring spawning run up Bass Creek.
Discussion during the meeting made it clear that club members recognize the aboriginal and treaty rights of Indigenous harvesters, but the realization that all of the hard work of capturing, milking and fertilizing walleye eggs in the frigid water each spring was in jeopardy due to spring netting of the spawn by one individual without regard to the future of the fishery was clearly demoralizing for those present.
The meeting began with a motion to suspend the hatchery program and the highly acclaimed educational program associated with that work. The hatchery program was established in 1986 and the educational program has been ongoing since 2005 and has been highly successful in educating Grade 4 students from most of the Island’s public and federal schools about the importance of conservation to the future of the fishery and the work being done to support and enhance that fishery. The resurgence of the walleye sports fishery in recent years also speaks volumes as to the success of the hatchery program.
“Every year it kept getting better and better,” said LCFGC president Bill Strain, who noted that the members of the club’s Riverwatch program reported that the run “some nights was incredible.”
Mr. Strain noted that there had been issues in the past with Indigenous harvesters from outside the local First Nations territories coming to Bass Creek to spear fish, but that a collaborative effort between elders from local First Nations and the assistance of Anishinabe Nation Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee had alleviated those challenges.
But over the past couple of springs there has been a significant drop in the number of walleye making the journey to Bass Creek.
“This year the Riverwatch couldn’t see any fish,” said Mr. Strain.
The key element that has been different recently is that a local First Nation harvester had spread nets across the mouth of the bay during the spring run. Club members reported having seen that individual selling walleye on the online classified site Kijiji.
In fact, so few fish made their way into the club’s weirs at the mouth of Bass Creek that the hatchery program now appears to be becoming unsustainable.
Approaches have been made to local First Nations’ chiefs seeking a meeting to discuss the impending calamity and to lobby Indigenous communities for their assistance in finding a solution, but with a number of elections in the immediate offing, those pleas have so far gone unanswered, leaving the club members who spend each spring struggling through freezing cold water in the pre-dawn hours both demoralized and frustrated.
The club’s First Nation liaison is Jesse Beaudin of M’Chigeeng.
The meeting heard an impassioned plea from members of Manitoulin Streams to refrain from suspending the educational program, which they credit with bringing awareness of the importance that stewardship plays in the preservation of nature’s resources for future generations.
“What everybody does at the LCFGC’s education program has had a big impact,” said Manitoulin Streams project manager Seija Deschenes. “We have been getting a lot of positive feedback.”
The education program sees Grade 4 students from Island federal and public schools gather in the springtime at the club’s Bass Creek hatchery to partake in workshops and lectures from club members and officials from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry on conservation, the club’s hatchery program, animal and fish identification and a host of other associated themes.
Students are able to see the walleye removed from the weirs, brought to the tanks, milked of sperm and eggs and even help to mix the two together to fertilize the eggs. The students are taken on a tour of the hatchery and follow the progress of the eggs as they develop into fry.
The club later takes those fry to ponds where they are protected as they develop into fingerlings that can then be planted back into Sheguiandah Bay.
“I think we are making inroads into developing a broad appreciation of conservation efforts,” said Ms. Deschenes. “We don’t want to see the education program lost.” Ms. Deschenes suggested that members of her organization could step up to assist more with the program. “To lose this legacy would be such a waste,” she said.
She went on to suggest reaching out to members of the Sheguiandah First Nation to assist with the program as well and opening up the educational program to the broader public, “so that Sheguiandah First Nation members can participate.”
Some 1,500 students from local schools have participated in the program and each student in Grade 4 is presented with a rod and reel from the LCFGC in a ceremony at the school each year.
Fuel the Fire television show producer and Manitoulin Streams board member Neil Debassige outlined some of the challenges that face First Nations leadership in dealing with the question of netting in the spring and overharvesting of the resource and how the process (and effectiveness) of a band council resolution comes about—and the timelines that these process run.
“You have to understand that the chiefs are dealing with some very challenging issues, issues of poverty, economic development and a lack of adequate housing,” cautioned Mr. Debassige. “These are things that they can see in their communities every day. The fish are something that they do not see, they are hidden under the water, out of sight and out of mind. There are very pressing matters that are occupying their time.”
After some further discussion a motion to close the hatchery and educational program was set aside in favour of a motion creating a three-member liaison committee with a mandate to approach local lands offices to lobby for a solution to the challenge and their support in helping to preserve the fishery for future generations.
In the meantime, the future of the hatchery and educational programs remain hanging in the balance.