$4.4m given to create Canadian ecosystem network

By Willie Poll

Laurentian University and the Vale Living with Lakes Centre, along with 10 other Canadian universities, received $4.4 million dollars in funding to create the Canadian Network for Aquatic Ecosystem Services.

“Up on the Hudson Bay coast we’ve been working with first nations communities addressing some of their concerns that the rivers are changing,” Dr. John Gunn, Canada Research Chair for Stressed Aquatic Systems and Director of the Vale Living With Lakes Centre at Laurentian University, said.

The first nations peoples of Northern Ontario have been noticing climate change, water levels getting lower, more weeds, and more pike which was a species rarely seen in these rivers before. Using traditional ecological knowledge, as well as science, the Living with Lakes center hope to answer some of the main questions the first nations people are raising.

“Our project is asking big questions over a number of many years ahead of us, how will climate change change the nature of the fish and the water quality in such a big system, and what will be the impact of new development such as rail ways, roads and towns,” Gunn said.

The research being done on the Hudson Bay coast happens to be on some of the most controversial territory: Attawapiskat. Recently Attawapiskat has been fighting for aboriginal rights and the environment. Currently the area is very difficult to reach and costly to visit. The area is desolate and much of it lacks electricity, running water, and clean drinking water. It is home to a diamond mine, as well, there has been an oil deposit recently found close by. These factors can mean many things for the first nations peoples as well as the environment including railways and roads being built, as well as urbanization.

The north is also home to the second largest wetland in the world, an important place because according to Gunn, it is a wetland that absorbs contaminants from the atmosphere like green house gasses and is a major site for cleaning up the atmosphere that could be considered the lungs of the earth. The project will also involve testing these areas to further predict their future. An issue raised throughout the north is the mercury, which over the year has accumulated there and does not appear to be getting any better.

“Mercury is from the burning of fossil fuels,” Gunn said. “Most of the mercury is caused by coal and natural gas. Combustion then travels through the atmosphere, and then, unfortunately, the north is where it settles. Warm mercury polluted air comes down and settles in cold areas, so the poor first nations people don’t get any benefit from the activity that generated all of this, but the pollutant even from China come over the pole and land in Northern Canada.”

Many of the once commercial fishing rivers have been contaminated, and although it is mainly the older fish that have high levels of mercury, it is still an issue, said Gunn.

“The people in Attawapiskat, or other first nations communities, do of course use the fish very importantly for food,” Gunn said. “And we don’t want to discourage that because the mercury problem is concentrated in a few large individuals in the population and if you had to choose between eating wild fish and eating junk food, fish is better. A lot of these people suffer serious diabetes and health problems, their best quality food is their wild food.”

Using a unique mixture of traditional knowledge and science, the team hopes to start sampling the water shed soon, but with a small team working on an area the size of Nova Scotia, in one of the most controversial places, the challenge is a hard one.