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

Three weeks after fishermen reported a massive fish kill of gaspereau along the Gaspereau River near Wolfville, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans still has little to say about either the estimated size of the kill or whether charges will be laid against Nova Scotia Power under the federal Fisheries Act.

The Act includes sections with respect to “doing serious harm to fish” and “a duty to notify” with respect to fish mortality. Photographs taken May 29 by fishermen of gaspereau — a bony, migratory species that is netted, salted, and mostly shipped to the Caribbean for food — showed dead fish in the water and littered along the river bank not far from the White Rock hydro station.

“There is an ongoing investigation involving the analysis of fish samples and the collection of other information is still required,” said David Jennings, communications manager for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. “Since the incident, DFO has worked with Nova Scotia Power to take steps to reduce further mortality at the White Rock generating station.”

Those steps have included Nova Scotia Power lowering water levels at the White Rock hydroelectric station on the Gaspereau River and turning off the turbine for two weeks.

“In response to the fish mortality, flow rates were immediately reduced and fish barrier plates were installed on May 30 at the intake pond to encourage migrating fish to return upstream or proceed through the bypasses,” said Tiffany Chase, a senior communications advisor with NS Power.

“On May 31, the turbine was turned off to enable local fisherman to safely remove their gear downstream. This practice takes place at the conclusion of each fish run, and was unrelated to the fish mortality. However, due to the high number of gaspereau still visible in the intake pond above the generating station, Nova Scotia Power decided not to restart the turbine, and it has been off since that time to minimize the risk of impacting fish that can be seen lingering near the intake pond.”

Fisherman Darren Porter claims the Gaspereau Square Net Fishermen Association, as well as members of two First Nations, notified DFO they found “tens of thousands “ of dead gaspereau  between Monday May 22 and  Sunday May 28, with numbers spiking dramatically late Sunday. Neither DFO nor Nova Scotia Power will say whether Nova Scotia Power reported the fish kill.

Porter calls the May 28th numbers “unprecedented.” He also says the kills were “preventable,” because DFO and NS Power representatives had accepted the fishermen’s invitation and attended their Annual General Meeting in April where the issue was discussed. “We warned DFO and NS Power that this was going to happen,” says Porter, “that fish were going to be killed.”

“What happens,” he claims, “is when NS 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 is over. They go wherever the current takes them. We asked for more monitoring, more enforcement from fisheries officers, because really, NS Power does not have a licence to kill fish.”

Three weeks ago NS Power communications manager David Rodenhiser told The Examiner that the company had increased water flow on Sunday afternoon, May 28 to facilitate the running of the annual charitable Rubber Duck Race on the river. The event has been part of the annual Apple Blossom Festival for 22 years without a similar incident. But Porter says earlier fish kills that week should have prompted NS Power to postpone the event and take the public relations hit.

“At White Rock, we provide different flows for the smelt run in April, the gaspereau run in May and June, and salmon in the spring and fall,” says NS Power communications advisor Tiffany Chase. The fishermen say the big run of gaspereau is over with a much smaller one yet to come. Chase says water along the Gaspereau River is currently being diverted at a normal flow rate through the spillway at the dam and the company will consult with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans before re-starting the turbine, which she says could occur “as early as this week.”

The company says it’s important to note a small number of dead fish can still be seen in the canal upstream from the White Rock hydroelectric station, where there is no mechanical equipment to blame, and that a small amount of fish mortality is typically associated with spawning. If the gaspereau run is over by July 1, the river is often used by tubing enthusiasts (who float down the river on inflated rubber tire tubes) if the water is high enough.

DFO spokesman David Jennings says more information will be available to the public after a report on the fish kill is complete.

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

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