Fort William First Nation to do fish health analysis

By Carl Clutchey, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Chronicle-Journal

Though you still have to go a fair ways beyond Thunder Bay’s harbour to hook a lake trout healthy enough for the dinner table, efforts continue to restore the polluted section of Lake Superior so it may again become a good place to drop a line.

The latest initiative is a Fort William First Nation-led analysis of fish consumption habits, which is to survey band members on what they’ve caught and observed while they’re angling in the harbour area.

“The survey has already been developed and should go out (to respondents) in August,” Fort William environmental officer Bobbi-Lee Bannon said on Tuesday.

Bannon said she’s hoping to have about 100 responses combined from community residents and Fort William band members who live off reserve. An analysis may be ready early next year.

Few Fort William members fish in Thunder Bay harbour these day, opting instead for inland lakes. Those who do drop a line on Lake Superior know that fish health improves the further one ventures from the harbour.

Though common Lake Superior species like lake trout are no longer being observed with tumours or deformities, they often continue to be covered in an unappetizing slime, and dark flecks of tiny mites can appear in the gills, Bannon said.

The fish consumption survey project is being supported by a $13,500 provincial grant, which is part of a broader $6-million program that was announced this week for Great Lakes restoration initiatives.

The overall aim is to “improve water quality, reduce plastic and salt pollution and increase collaboration with farmers, Indigenous organizations and communities to help improve the Great Lakes,” a provincial news release said.

Fort William has also been keeping in touch with Lake Superior experts in Minnesota to watch for invasive species.

Thunder Bay’s harbour was designated as a federal “area of concern” in 1987, mainly due to a historical legacy of unchecked industrial pollution from forestry operations at the waterfront and inadequately treated sewage.

According to a federal backgrounder that was updated in May this year, “significant progress has been made to improve environmental conditions in the area of concern,” including the use of beaches and restrictions on harbour dredging.

Levels of phytoplankton and zooplankton — microscopic organisms in the water column that fish eat — had shown to have improved in the harbour as recently as 2020.

“Studies show wetlands are healthy and improvements have been made to fish habitat due to the cleanup of contaminated sediment, reconstruction of shorelines and spawning areas, and improvements to water quality,” the update said.

A particular milestone for harbour health was achieved in 2003, when the $20-million Northern Wood Preservers Alternative Remediation Concept (NOWPARC) project was completed.

The project “isolated 32,000 cubic metres of highly-contaminated sediment and created five hectares of fish habitat,” the federal backgrounder said.