Although the Quebec government has denied it for years, the facts are that Lake Chibougamau has been and still is contaminated by waste from the mining facilities nearby.
In August 2005, Nation editor-in-chief Will Nicholls exposed a government cover-up in his article entitled Poisoned (Volume 12, No. 20). The effects on the local population and the surrounding wildlife have since become an issue that needs to be corrected. In spite of all this, there is still hope that the situation can be fixed.
If we look at our neighbours in the United States, we can see all the progress that has been made towards rectifying the damage done to the environment. A good example is the case of Bunker Hill, Idaho. After being a large mining project for most of the 20th century, government agencies, with the help of locals, have managed to restore the damaged ecosystem to a healthy one.
This project has been in the works since 1998-99, when Quebec’s Ministry of Sustainable Development for the Environment and Parks and the Ministry for Natural Resources and Wildlife began studying the walleye and lake trout populations in Lake Chibougamau. The first sign that there was a problem in the fish population was the sparseness of the younger lake trout as opposed to the larger adults.
After discovering the imbalance in the lake trout population, the government followed up with three tests done between 2001 and 2005 to see if mine-tailing contamination was the cause. The tests showed that there was a higher concentration of mercury in the local Trout Lake but nothing out of the norm compared to fish from uncontaminated lakes.
One of the researchers involved in the study and implementation, Mathieu Morin, a biologist and wildlife officer, said, “The source of the problem, as it turns out, might be coming from environmental or genetic factors in the fish.”
In that regard, the government shifted its research to figure out all the factors that could be involved.
So after those three tests, Quebec began studying the spawning areas of the fish in 2005. It comes as no surprise that some of those spawning grounds are located at or near the mine-tailing sites around the lake. Now that they understood a part of the problem, the focus shifted to solving it.
With the help of Christopher Covel, Oujé-Bougoumou’s representative for the steering committee, government wildlife officers were brought into contact with local tallymen. As Covell puts it, “The government was more than happy to have the local tallymen help because they know that lake better than anyone else.”
Tallymen Matthew Wapachee and his son Philip knew exactly where the best spots were to place the lake trout in order to insure the best chances for survival.
The fish used for the restocking were bred from the local trout in Lake Chibougamau and raised in a fish nursery. Of the 60,000 eggs that they sent to the nursery, about 46,000 survived giving them a high survival rate of about 75%.
On May 27, the nursery-raised lake trout were dropped into Lake Chibougamau. They were released at different points in the lake and in the deepest parts where the trout like to make their spawning points. Plus, they were liberated further away from the tailing sites so that they wouldn’t be affected.
This was the first and only mass release of fish back into the wildlife in the region. The government doesn’t have another fish release planned for the region as future projects would depend on the success of this one.
Asked whether he thought the release was a success, Morin said, “The high survival rate at the fish farm played a big part in the success of the release. But in the lake we don’t know the results – it’s up to the fish now.”
Indeed, if the lake trout had hands, their future would be in it.