Winds of Change, Stories of Neyaashiinigmiing Fishers from the Bagida’Waad Alliance

Submitted by Joanne Rodgers

Erratic winds and warming waters are threatening the First Nations commercial fishing industry.
The Bagida’waad Alliance, a registered not-for-profit corporation, was founded in March 2018 by Chippewas of Nawash Fishing families. The goals are to research and educate how climate change is affecting the waters of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, encourage their youth to document the stories of the Elders about the fish, and to do more active stewardship of the lands and waters.
At BPEG’s March Meeting, Natasha Akiwenzie shared the observations of Bagida’waad members regarding changes in the waters over the last 15 years; and related her family’s story of no longer being able to earn a livelihood and having to close the last provincially certified Indigenous fish processing plant in Southern Ontario.
She said that Fishers need two good days to fish: one day to set the nets and the second day to lift the nets. Natasha recalled that in the past, her family could fish for five days on average then it dropped to three days, and currently with the strong erratic winds, it has been difficult to find those two days. Strong winds bring white caps and dangerous swells, while erratic wind directions and speeds bring more algae that tangle the nets and destroy the mesh, increasing both the risk and cost to the Fishers.
Natasha said from their historical memories and intimate knowledge of the fishing grounds, they know what is currently happening is not part of a cycle but that something is wrong.
Whitefish stocks are declining, the fish are no longer where they traditionally have been, and fish caught are coming up “soft”, which Natasha explained is when fillets are flaky, not firm. This indicates that the water is too warm for whitefish, and the Fishers jokingly say the fish are “pre-cooked”.
The greater frequency of snow squalls may be due to the lack of ice cover, and less cover means that fingerling whitefish have no protection from the waves and are smashed into the shallow rocky shoals.
When asked about the restocking by the Ministry of Natural Resources, Natasha said it would be preferable to stock bait fish. Current practices of restocking with predator fish creates an aquarium-like environment and disrupts the natural balance of the ecosystem. Ideally, she thought if the MNR could stop restocking non-native fish for 5 years, it would be good to see how Mother Nature looks after it.
The Alliance has been applying for grants, some of which are to buy equipment to track near shore water temperatures at a variety of depths and collect the empirical data to see if it substantiates what they have been observing.
They are currently running a project named “Oshki Maadaadiziwin Jaa Bimaaji’ut Gigooyike: New Journey to Save Fish,” which involves community youth interviewing Elders and Fishers to document and compile the stories for a book and mini-documentary – this will be shared at the Sources of Knowledge Forum this May. This project includes recording the Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge in their community to be able to show the correlation with the academic scientific data. They aim to collect the data through accessing existing government and institutional research, as well as filling the gaps with their own research equipment and studies.
They are partnering with many other conservation groups to share knowledge and gather information. Their unique perspective offers insight about the stark changes in the waters of Lake Huron and what can be done to help in the coming years.
For an audio recording of this presentation, check out the BPEG Channel on Youtube.
Next Meeting: Environment Matters – A Conversation Cafe: What are the challenges on the Peninsula and how can BPEG be part of the solutions(s); Anglican Church Hall, Lion’s Head, April 3, 7:30pm.