Farmers pushing boundaries with Island rivers

Rosie MacFarlane stocks the Brudenell river with fingerlings as part of her team’s effort to keep the Island’s fish population healthy. Gwydion Morris photo.
Rosie MacFarlane stocks the Brudenell river with fingerlings as part of her team’s effort to keep the Island’s fish population healthy. Gwydion Morris photo.
Nov. 3, 2014

There’s an alarming number of fish kills on P.E.I. and that’s because land is so cheap it’s treated as a commodity instead of a valuable part of nature, says an instructor at Holland College.
One example is around 1,000 fish were found dead in the North River over the summer, said Ben Hoteling, who teaches in the Wildlife Conservation Technology program.
“We can buy it and, when it’s used up, throw it away and start somewhere else,” said Ben Hoteling.
Farming is such an important part of P.E.I.’s economy, but the farmers’ practices are destroying the natural habitat around them, he said.
The pesticides they spray on their various crops leak into nearby rivers, killing any living thing that calls the water home, he said.
“We have to look after things a lot better than we are now.”
Farmers are supposed to follow buffer zone regulations, which means leaving 20-50 metres of land between the water’s edge and the field. But when farmers don’t follow these rules, nothing stops the harmful chemicals from flowing into the river when it rains, Hoteling said.
“If we keep using the land the wrong way, the land becomes unhealthy and gets back at us.”
Watershed groups around the province are working to protect these habitats, and they’re doing an excellent job, he said. But as hard as they work, the farming business will always have a bigger impact.
Hoteling used the Morell watershed group as an example of the good work being done on the Island. He recently flew over its rivers to take pictures, but wasn’t able to see the water due to the tree cover.
That meant the land bordering the water was being protected. It was healthy and the regulations were being followed, Hoteling said.
Becky Petersen is the Watershed coordinator with the Morell watershed group. The work on their healthy rivers began in the 1980s, she said.
A number of cottages were to be built along the river’s edge, so the watershed group sat down with the owners and they all agreed to extend the buffer zone on that part of the river to 60 metres, more than the municipal regulation required.
Unfortunately, this only applied to a section of the watershed’s rivers, she said.
“The biggest mistake they made was cutting it off.”
The resources needed to extend the buffer zone past that point would have been hard to come by back then, she said. But today, the group is still trying the push that buffer zone farther up the river.
“That’s where we have to go.”
The group is meeting resistance up the river as more farms border the water. The farmers have agreed to meet the municipal buffer zones, but are hesitant to giving up more land, and possible profits, to meet the group’s request.
Petersen hopes the watershed group can sit down with these landowners and convince them, and the local residents, how important protecting Morell’s rivers is.
“We’re looking to build bridges with these people, instead of burning them.”
Rosie MacFarlane, a biologist with the province, is leading a team to stock Island rivers that have dwindling fish populations due to fish kills.
P.E.I. has strong rivers and is able to produce brook trout at a good rate, but fish kills can take a toll on the numbers, she said.
“We have a stocking program in place so we have fish available in the event of a fish kill.”
The program also stocks heavily angled rivers, such as the Morell river which is popular with anglers.
The process begins in the fall, with eggs being collected from the rivers. They’re then taken to the Abegweit fish hatchery, where they hatch in the spring. They’re held at the hatchery until they’re about three inches long, or until they’re strong enough to be released back into Island streams, MacFarlane said.
These small fish are called fingerlings.
A backpack electro-fisher is used, that’s a rod that stuns the fish momentarily so it can be captured.
The process starts again about a week or two after the fingerlings are released.
These streams are often off the beaten bath, meaning a lot of bushwhacking to find a good spot, MacFarlane said.
“We have to walk a lot of stream to find the stock that we’ll need.”