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Environmental Changes Are Killing the Livelihood of Great Lakes Fishermen

Dan Sedran

By Corey Mintz

There's nothing in the fridge at Akiwenzie's Fish & More processing facility. The 918-square-foot building, adjacent to Natasha and Andrew Akiwenzie's house on the shores of Georgian Bay, Ontario, sits empty and dark. Out-front, gill nets lie on the ground, unused for months.


When these tore during fishing, Andrew Akiwenzie used to mend the 1,800 yards of net by hand, spending three days straight in his basement, stripping out the webbing and tying a knot every eight inches. The $3,000 worth of equipment, once essential to his sustenance and livelihood, now lies discarded, along with Akiwenzie's hopes for the future, buried under a growing pile of almond-coloured fall leaves.

Over the past few years, environmental changes have diminished fish harvesting in this part of the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula. Last summer, things got so bad that Akiwenzie decided to quit fishing for a living. Still grieving but seeking meaning in the loss, Akiwenzie teamed up with other fishers in the area to create the Bagida-waad Alliance and gather scientific data about what has happened to their waters.

Akiwenzie, who has been fishing by hand without any mechanical lifting device for the past 15 years, didn't come from a fishing family. His mother was a bootlegger. She bought beer and whiskey in town and sold it at a markup on the reserve. "Being a bootlegger meant that there were a lot of salty dogs around the table," recalls Akiwenzie.

The fishers who bought from her, looking to become preferred customers, began to teach her grandson about fishing. An uncle would occasionally take him out in a rowboat with no motor. "As a young lad, rowing a boat for my uncle and being able to bring a fish home to feed the family kept us alive," he says.

Back then, Indigenous people of the area were banned from commercial fishing. But they would sell fish via a "party line" (a shared telephone connection), which made it easy for people to hop on and find buyers. In 1993, Justice Fairgreave affirmed the commercial fishing rights of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation (SON), which paved the way for the province to recognize SON's exclusive commercial harvesting rights in the region.

Since 2003, Akiwenzie has made his living by getting up at 4 a.m., building a fire by the lake, fishing on days when it wasn't too windy, and cleaning his harvest in the processing facility. In 2008, he upgraded the building, at a cost of $20,000, to slope the floors toward the drains in compliance with health standards. Frustrated with the market price fluctuations of wholesalers, he began to retail himself, driving back and forth to Toronto (at least seven hours) to supply restaurants and sell directly to customers at farmers' markets.

But over the past eight years, Akiwenzie and other commercial fishers have noticed weather pattern changes in the area. There used to be five good days to go fishing every week, but increased winds have winnowed them down to two. Also, the fish weren't where they were supposed to be, with whitefish near the shore, switching places with trout in deep water and then disappearing entirely. And the fish he did catch weren't the same, with trout emerging from the lake with big heads and skinny bodies. The fishing community, which used to come within annual reach of their million-pound quota, was barely clearing 400,000.

"In the Great Lakes, all of our fish from the shoreline have gone into the deep, where it's cold," said Austin Elliott, a local who has fished for Akiwenzie. "If the thermal plane changes, the fish will come back. If it doesn't and the water stays warm, we're screwed."

By this summer, Akiwenzie had had enough. Fishing was becoming difficult, unprofitable and unsafe. There was little reason to go out anymore. When his boat's motor broke, it was going to cost him at least $12,000 to replace it. Instead, he packed up his nets.

"For the past two months, I've spent a lot of time grieving," said Akiwenzie. "For 15 years, I've fed 150 families, and I got to know people and faces. All of a sudden, to not do that anymore is like losing 150 people in your family all at once."

Today, chefs from Toronto—who Akiwenzie had supplied with fish in better days—have come here to cook a meal of pickerel, wild rice and smoked duck for 180 people at a drop-in lunch at the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation community center before touring the lake to learn about what's happening.

"I've fished Ontario lakes and rivers my whole life," said Missy Hu, a former chef de cuisine at Fabbrica in Toronto. "The alliance is key because we all know that there is something wrong. If we don't act now, traditional fishing communities, Canadian fishing culture and the Great Lakes may never recover."

Akiwenzie has no doubt that what is happening to his environment, his livelihood and his community is a result of climate change, but he lacks the data to prove it. "I may not have the education level behind me, but I have the knowledge base and have seen it firsthand. I've been on the waters for 15 years, and I've only seen biologists twice."

Fortunately, the alliance has its own marine scientist, John Anderson, formerly a researcher for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and a professor at Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. Anderson got involved after retiring to nearby Owen Sound, where he was frustrated by his community's climate-change denial. "I'd go to curling with lawyers, truck drivers, farmers and doctors," Anderson recounted of his re-entry into his hometown. "The climate is changing here, but I kept talking to people who didn't know that or denied it. I put together my first data set, and I built it back to 1880."

For some areas in the region, he found environmental data (temperature, humidity, precipitation, wind "gusts" and direction) that dated back to 1880 (with gaps for the First World War) and often ended in 2006, when Environment Canada stopped collecting data. Finding local measurements to fill in gaps in the federal records, Anderson began to assemble a data set. "Once I had the first one, I could see clear trends here," he said, "so I built a second data set." So far, he has constructed data sets for the waters in nearby Delhi, London, Goderich, Owen Sound, North Bay and Sudbury.

Proud of the data collection, Akiwenzie knows that this won't restore his livelihood or the life he built here. "I'll fight anything, but this was a battle that had no boundaries and no enemy," said Akiwenzie. "There was nobody I could challenge."

Even though Akiwenzie is done fishing, his gathering of scientific evidence might lay the groundwork for future fights over policy in the region. "That's why we started our group, Bagida-waad, which means 'they cast a net' in our language. We have to just watch. Mother Nature is the one who's in charge."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Modern Farmer.

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