On March 4, the Crees from Chisasibi spoke in the House of Commons with the help of Yvon Levesque, Bloc Quebecois MP for Abitibi-James Bay-Nunavik-Eeyou, and members of the scientific community about the decline of the eelgrass beds in both James Bay and Hudson Bay. They requested that a study be commissioned by the federal government.

Chisasibi Chief Roderick Pachano was in parliament that day as his community is being directly impacted by the decline of these beds that water fowl feed off and fish spawn in. As the eelgrass beds decline, so does the traditional food source for his community.

According to Pachano, prior to Hydro-Quebec’s development of the North, the eelgrass beds were abundant. “There were aerial studies done by the Canadian Wildlife Service. And, it was estimated that they saw 250 square miles of eelgrass beds that stretched to the north end of James Bay,” said Pachano.

After the second phase of LG-2A was put into operation the community started to notice for the first time that there was not as much eelgrass. In more recent years the damage would have stemmed from the development of EM-1.

Pachano believes that the major changes in the ecosystem came about with the increased water flow through the La Grande River from the diversion of the Caniapiscau River, the Eastmain River and now the Rupert River. Previously the water level had been very low in the winter, very high in the spring and stable throughout the summer months. But with the diversions, the water level has become increasingly consistent throughout the year.

Pachano referred to various reports produced by Hydro-Quebec that point to a number of factors which could have impacted the eelgrass including wave action, ice and weather change. But, said Pachano, “we have determined through several studies that these factors are not likely the cause.”

What is impacting the eelgrass is a change in the salinity of the water and turbidity caused by the increased water flow and sliding earth that has come from the development in the area.

With the loss of eelgrass, there have been far fewer geese around that would normally feed on this plant. Even the fish, which would normally spawn beneath the plant and use it for cover, are not doing so anymore. The geese that remain in the region have now started to develop problems as their diets have changed.

The Crees from Chisasibi went to Ottawa, where they addressed the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans (FOPO) and discussed the impact on the loss of eelgrass beds on migratory birds and fish. They also requested a study be conducted to find the source of the problem. There has been very little monitoring on behalf of independent bodies in James Bay as Hydro contractors have been doing the bulk of it.

As Pachano states, “What is the purpose of monitoring someone only to watch him die? What’s the point?”

On June 13, Pachano was told the FOPO has sent its recommendation to the government that “it must establish within its jurisdiction, a program of research and large-scale monitoring of the ecosystems of James Bay and Hudson Bay. It is essential to various Aboriginal communities involved to participate in the research and monitoring so as to incorporate traditional knowledge.”

The verdict on whether or not the government will actually set up a study will not be announced until August.

In the meantime, the community of Chisasibi has been working with Dr. Frederick Short, an eelgrass specialist from the University of New Hampshire, to find a means to re-grow the eelgrass beds. Whereas the region had previously been perfect for eelgrass to flourish, now some environmental factor is preventing its production.

Said Pachano, “They want to grow. We see them coming up in shoots, just a few inches in length but that is about it. Eelgrass usually grows a lot longer than that.” As a result, migratory birds simply cannot have access to them.

According to the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, the Crees are guaranteed the same level of harvesting for the same effort. However, the Crees in Chisasibi are not yielding the same harvest as a result of this possible environmental disaster. The matter needs further investigation to find the source and to see where the blame can be placed.