Dead gaspereau along the side of the Gaspereau River. Photo: Darren Porter

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is investigating an abnormally large fish kill near a Nova Scotia Power hydro station on the Gaspereau River, about eight kilometers from Wolfville.

Photographs taken by fishermen of gaspereau — a bony, migratory species that is netted, salted, and mostly shipped off to the Caribbean — show dead fish littered in the water and along the river bank not far from the White Rock hydro station. Fishermen called DFO yesterday to report the kill and protection officers showed up Monday morning, as did members of the Valley and Sipekne’ katik First Nations.

“We aren’t letting this go,” said Darren Porter, a director of the Gaspereau Square Net Fishermen’s Association. “We warned representatives of Nova Scotia Power and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans who attended our annual meeting in April that this was going to happen, that fish were going to be killed. We asked for more monitoring, more enforcement from fisheries officers, because really, Nova Scotia Power does not have a licence to kill fish. The first migration coming down the river toward the turbine began Monday and fish started to die. Thursday was bad and Sunday was a massive kill on an unprecedented level.”

A DFO manager described the size of  the fish kill Sunday as “out of the ordinary.”

“We don’t have a clear estimate yet about the size of the kill nor do we know the cause,” said Mark McLean, the manager of the Fisheries Protection program, “we are still investigating.” McLean declined to say whether Nova Scotia Power had called to notify the Department of the fish kill, a “duty” under the federal Fisheries Act. NS Power also chose not to answer that question.

McLean estimates thousands of fish are dead. They can’t be sold for food. Fisherman Darren Porter estimates “tens of thousands” of fish were killed trying to exit the river since the migration began a week ago.

The federal Fisheries Act contains a section that allows charging a company with “doing serious harm” to fish.

“What happens is when Nova Scotia Power runs too much water to produce electricity, the fish don’t go down the bypass, they swim directly toward the turbine and their life’s over,” says Porter. “Fish will go wherever the current takes them. To magnify the problem, on the weekend there is no one here cleaning out the bypasses which get plugged with sticks, so the fish really had no way around except to go through the generator. Nova Scotia Power needs more staff to clean out the bypass.”

In an email statement from Nova Scotia Power spokesperson David Rodenhiser, the company says it is working with DFO to learn what happened on the river and it will adapt its procedures based on what it finds out. In the meantime, Nova Scotia Power offers this explanation for why so many fish were killed Sunday:

We believe the gaspereau were drawn into the turbine when we increased water flow through the White Rock hydroelectric station Sunday afternoon in order to boost flow through the White Rock Canal for the annual Apple Blossom Festival charity rubber duck race. We have been increasing the water flows to assist organizers with the charity rubber duck race for 22 years, and we have not experienced this before. We take our environmental responsibilities very seriously.

Darren Porter questions that. He says not only did fishermen warn the utility in April that stronger water flows would result in more dead fish, but smaller fish kills had been happening all week long.

“Nova Scotia Power knew when they upped the river Sunday to get those little duckies down they had been killing fish and knew there were more fish coming down, so they should have cancelled or rescheduled that race,” suggested Porter.

David Rodenhiser disagrees. After 22 years without an incident, he says the company had no reason to anticipate this one would be any different.

Fortunately, the stocks of gaspereau are healthy again; as part of a conservation effort fishermen agreed to stop fishing on Wednesdays and weekends to see if it would bring back their numbers. The species is often used for lobster bait and although it is of low value compared to many other fish, DFO says this year could see as many as 800,000 gaspereau in the river, a big  increase.

“We have asked for more monitoring of the Gaspereau River by DFO and NS Power,” say a frustrated Porter. “Every fishery has to monitor its mortality in order to manage the stocks. Why does NS Power not have to monitor and record their kills?”

NS Power confirms dead fish are not something it tracks or records during the production of electricity. The DFO investigation is continuing.

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. This is so wrong. NS Power should face heavy fines. Killing animals for zero gain must stop.