The Grand Council of the Crees

Great Whale Environmental Assessment: Impact on fish

Impact on fish

Posted: 0000-00-00

The comments in this file are organized according to themes, and are based on interviews with Eastmain and Wemindji hunters and trappers done by Colin Scott and Kreg Ettenger, transcribed August 1994, and held in the archives of the Grand Council of the Crees, 27 Bayswater avenue, Ottawa, Ont. K1Y 2E4. The subject of these interviews was the impact of the James Bay hydro project works on the Eastmain-Wemindji area. Respondents are identified only by number. These are from Vol 2, Part A, pps 130-138. Edited slightly for publication on this Web site.



General importance of and impact on fish
Lake Trout, pike, waIIeye, and burbot
Note: individual species are named in black type to aid archival search.
The dotted line indicates a new speaker.


General importance of and impact on fish [Top]

If you ever want me to put hunting, fishing and trapping in order, I would put fishing first. And so would the elders, if you talk to them. Fishing was very important in the daily lives of the elders and people that hunted and fished and trapped on this land before any store-bought goods were available. When fur-bearing animals or big game was scarce people were known (to die) of starvation here within the village or within the layout of the Eastmain traplines. But if you had fish in your area that was where you would want to concentrate. And to further elaborate on why it's so important to have good fishing on a trapline or on a series of traplines, when you have night lines out on a lake or on a river, or when you put a net under the ice in mid-winter, no matter what the weather conditions are, they could be the worst conditions, and it will never affect your catch or what is available to you. With trapping, sometimes you'll have a big storm that will offset your traps. You could hang some snares but they could soon be a foot under the snow and they're not doing good. But with night fishing lines, no matter the worst situation, the possibility of you getting something is always there for you.


Question: How important to you are fish as a source of food or as a resource?

Answer: The fish was very important to me because when I was still in the bush, I was a midwife, I used to deliver the kids. And it was the first meal I used to give to the person after the baby's birth, fish. That's why it's very important to me.

Q: What was the reason for that?

A: Because we never give the mother a hard meal after the baby's birth. We made soup with the fish. We boiled the fish and made soup out of it.

Q: So that was mainly just to give somebody a meal that was easy to take?

A: Yeah, even the very sick people that was almost dying, we did the same thing, we gave them fish soup.

Q: Is there any kind of special property, are fish supposed to help a person who is sick or has problems or is weak? Is there something about fish that is good for a person who is healing or who needs to be healed?

A: It's the softest meal I find, that's why it's important to me, the first meal for the kids, sick people and for the mothers after childbirth. Even the breast feeding, we wanted them to drink a lot of fish soup. And we'd make gravy, mix it with fish, put a little oats with the fish, and we would want them to drink lots to get good breast milk.

Q: If you thought that there was something wrong with the fish would that stop you from doing that?

A: Yeah, we can't do it right now. It's all broken. We never have women in the bush since the hydro was around. We can't ever stay there in the spring, we have to come back because we don't have enough things for the trapping and hunting. It's so much changed. We used to have some dried fish in the spring and dried goose in the spring, and all those kinds of birds in the spring that come around, even loon, ducks, all kinds of ducks. We used to dry them and save them for coming down by canoe. We used to paddle down with the canoe, I used to like that.

God wants the people to stay in this world. And he made everything, the land and the trees and the animals and the fish. First thing he made before he made the animals, he made fish, that's why the fish is important for the people, it was the first thing he made. Then after he made the fish and the animals, he made all the people, men and women. That's why we?ve been using the fish, more important for the sick people, because that's the first thing God made in this world, to use for the people and the kids, breast-feeding. That's why the fish are very important to me, I can never stop eating fish.


You'd be amazed if you knew how fish population increases, how I've observed how fish population gets transported. There's a lot of water birds like mergansers, loons, that feed in areas where fish spawn; they collect, they feed on the eggs, they take off and they go and roost on another lake or on another pond. Through droppings and maybe even vomiting, they transport or transfer some eggs to other small lakes or other huge lakes. That's my observation or that's my theory why sometimes you will find a certain species of fish in a lake where it was nonexistent before. But then again, I don't say this is a good point for Hydro-Quebec; this was known even long before Hydro-Quebec's existence in the territory.


This is an area where a lot of fish spawn. During the spawning season we used to make efforts to be there, we would net them, we would dip net them, we'd get a large amount, we would take as many as we wanted to. And the whole idea why we did that was we stocked up for the winter in case the winter wasn't as productive in other animals. We smoked the fish for long keeping, we preserved the fish, and we had it for the whole winter, and whenever you felt like having fish you just picked it off the cache and you?d just recook it or just warm it up and it was there. That's why fishing was such an important part of my life.


Fish are always hidden, you never see fish. Even as I was growing up on the trapline, that's one of the few species or few things that I hunted that I could never see, although it was always one of the easier things to kill once you've known their establishments, their patterns or their cycles or their concentration areas.


I believe that the fish have a migration route too, they have migration patterns, and those patterns are connected to the weather and to the temperature of the water. The faster it warms the earlier you will have them disappear into deeper waters. And some of them even seem to go forever, some of them maybe don't even return. Just like the goose pattern, a lot of people in the James Bay area, along the coast or inland traplines believe that the waterfowl has been changed with all this construction. If things on the land or in the air can change as a result of the hydro development project, since the hydro project involves water, therefore my theory is even things under water have changed.


There were native expert fishermen, like I considered my father to be one of them. When he checked his nets he'd be able to tell if the fish were in good health, and take all the good ones. If he came across one that he felt needed recuperation he'd put it back in for another day, you know? Stock up for another day. And today, if my father set a net on the river, on the Eastmain River below the dam, I'm sure most of the fish would go back in the river. And as far as the flavor, I've noticed a change, it tastes different. I've seen a decrease in the size of fish that have come out downstream; they no longer look as nice or look as good as before the hydro.


I can say that today the fish we eat is worse. It used to taste very good, way back. And I remember that back in the old days, when they used to be able to fish by net just across the river here, the fish used to taste so good. People used to catch lots of fish. I remember that it used to be so good compared to today, I think the fish is not as good as it used to be.


Well, we used to get these fish that looked very healthy, a long time ago, because my dad used to fish there a long time ago, on the lake, with a net. Now we get a lot of skinny fish now, none of those big fat ones they used to get. They used to look fat and round, but now you get a lot of long ones, about three feet long, and they're skinny.

It really affects a lot of fish, since the James Bay project. When you catch a fish sometimes you can see that it's not normal, the way it looks, you can't eat it. A long time ago you used to have healthy fish, a lot of big fish that are fat and round, and you never saw a fish that's got a big head and narrow body. Now we're starting to have that. And we're going to see that more in the future.

Unless you catch them we don't know how they look when they're contaminated with mercury. You eat too much fish, you get sick, that's what they say.

Q: I guess you're saying, just by looking at a fish whether it seems to be healthy or not, but do you think you can tell whether it's been contaminated by mercury or not?

A: Oh, yeah, they can tell, they can tell it's been contaminated by mercury. Because when you open the fish it looks sort of fat, you can see the yellow lines, call it fat, that thing's was never there a long time ago, fish weren't like that. Now since the mercury makes them sort of fat, it's sort of.. .I know the word in Cree but I cannot say it in English. They can tell, they can tell it's affected by mercury.

Especially the old people who cut up a fish that's been caught on the reservoir, they can easily tell. Because they've been eating fish since they were born, so they can easily tell if a fish is no good, or if it's been affected by the project. It's real easy for them to know why you're not supposed to eat this fish, why you can't eat this fish. They know more than we do, because they've been there a long time.

Even if you don't destroy it you're going to contaminate it, you can't eat it. Someday, all the fish will be contaminated, even in the bay they'll all be contaminated, they'll have mercury. They say the fish in the bay don't have mercury. How do they know the fish in the bay don't have mercury? Did they ask the fish, "Do you have any mercury?" You know, it's crazy to say, "the fish in the bay there, you can eat all you like of the fish in the bay, they're not contaminated." It's crazy to say that. In the future, the fish will all be contaminated, in the future everything's going to be contaminated.


I am going to talk about how the fish reproduce here in Quebec, where and how... They just seem to bump into each other and this is how they spawn their eggs. If all the eggs could produce fish, if there is not a dam near, or flood waters don't destroy them, there would be so many of them. They produce very well, especially the babies; we really don't know how they feed their babies, we can't see how they do this. We would be able to see the (baby) fish feed if it was meant for us to know or see. There is no place on the babies where they can be fed (through).

They don't feed their young, but we still know where they grow and reproduce. It is really a miracle/wonder how we see them survive. All the fish behave the same I guess and how they reproduce. Nimaauch --- sturgeon --- eggs produce the baby nimaawish --- the female and male bump into each other and this is how the eggs are produced (mating) also the kukimaau --- lake trout --- is the same and atihkimaakw --- lake whitefish, nimaapiich ---common suckers, ukaauch --- walleye, miyaahkituu --- burbot, maasimaakus --- brook trout, mihkuchikaash --- small red sucker, also the small fishes, it is not known where they come from. I guess they were there before the other fish spawn. When the eggs from the female join the sperm of the male then we have the babies (fish). This is where fish come from. I can't go on and explain exactly but this is what my parents taught me about fish. I tried to observe and preserve what my father and mother taught me. I don't want to lose this. I want to hold on to their teachings, even today.


Sturgeon [Top]

The sturgeon, you know, was kind of regarded as the top fish. The king of fishes. A very powerful swimmer in the water, he can go up big rapids, but fragile outside the water, like he dies more quickly out of water than other fish.


Yes, this particular fish thinks very highly of itself, it knows when it is being threatened. He could not stay where the area was flooded. Lake trout are similar in this way. These two fish can detect anything that will threaten them. For instance a long time ago when someone upstream dipped his greasy cup in the water, the grease will flow downstream to where the sturgeon are. Even if you cannot see the greasiness of the water, it will affect them and they would be all gone from that area. That is exactly how your grandfather (interviewer's) told us. That's how careful they were when they went sturgeon fishing.

When your grandfather told us that story about the greasy cup being dipped into the water... One person did listen to what he was told. It was when the people were short of food, and summer was coming. It was like that a lot of times, when the people ran short of food. Back then the people did not have things to use for survival like a net or ammunition. They could not kill anything, but they found a place where they could fish sturgeon. When they arrived at the area they docked their canoes at the top of the rapids, where the sturgeon was believed to be. They traveled from downstream because that is where the water flowed from.

The leader of the group would portage the rapids, this is where he wants to catch something for his people to eat. When he came around the bend he saw sturgeon -- a lot of sturgeon in the rapids, that is what your grandfather told us, I don't think that he was old enough yet to participate in the sturgeon fishing, but your great grandfather did. He went back and told the others to be very careful not to dip their greasy pots or pans into the water. I guess they would wash their pots and pans right down at the river. There was this one woman who did not listen and washed her cooking pots. After she dipped the cooking pots in the water the grease flowed to where the sturgeon where, the sturgeon dived to the bottom of the lake. It was hard to kill sturgeon after that.

A: The one who listened to what he had been told would be able to eat. He still wouldn't take anything until he fed his family first. He realized there was no food to eat back home, he had the wisdom to save food for his family and not to feed himself first, even though starvation gave him little strength to hunt. He put his children foremost. He only had the strength to take care of his children. All he thought about was when he got home that his family will all dine together. They said this was what he recounted to others.

Q: When did this occur?

A: A long time ago...


In the past years, I've noticed that the sturgeon is the most sensitive to any changes in the water; that seems to be its nature...


Well, as far as I'm concerned the most heavily hit is the sturgeon. It's not totally wiped out below or even within the reservoir, or below the dam sites; not totally wiped out, there's some that exist there, but no longer do they come in the huge size that I once knew, or no longer do they come looking good. When I say looking good I mean, when Natives talk about a fish, they always refer to if it's in good shape, if it's nice and fat, that's what we refer to when we say that. Along with that the health conditions of the fish are no longer the same. So for me, that's the fish, the sturgeon, that is the most heavily hit.


I saw a friend of mine catch three sturgeon in an area that I think is affected by salt water coming in. Normally the sturgeon shouldn't be there because sturgeon is so fussy with the quality of water where either it builds its habitat or where it feeds. The colour of a sturgeon before and even now on my trapline is brown, but the ones that I saw caught below the first rapids on the Eastmain River were sort of a beige colour like this conference table.


On the Eastmain River one time we caught a sturgeon, it had a big head, you couldn't even eat it, it was so skinny. Its head looked kind of big, and its body was very, very skinny. Either it was an old fish, or, I don't know, I guess a lot of fish are like that (now).

I don't think anybody will eat it, the way that sturgeon looked, nobody ate it, (they) told us to throw it in the garbage. We showed it to my mother-in-law, she said to throw it in the garbage, it's not fit to eat, no good to eat. You can tell, if you've been a hunter for a long time, you can tell when you've caught something that's not right.


Q: On the last point, is it true that there were no sturgeon found in this (upper) part of the Eastmain River before the flooding?

A: I agree that there was no sturgeon there before, but I want to point out to you that where the Matagami-LG-2 road crosses the Eastmain River, downstream from that it was always known that there were sturgeon there. One of the reasons why we felt there was no sturgeon in that area (upstream of the Eastmain diversion), there was a rapid and it had a fall, a real drop in the landscape, so the sturgeon couldn't get over the rapids. Mind you, there was sturgeon in the Nemaska traplines next to us, and also in the Mistissini traplines which are east. And also there was sturgeon in Low Lake and the Little Opinaca, which is now the existing reservoir of Phase I of the hydro project. When the reservoir on the Low Lake and the Opinaca River was created, it sort of joined the lakes to the Eastmain River, so I believe, and every other trapper probably who hunts in this territory believes, that the sturgeon that we are now experiencing on this stretch of the river have come from the Eastmain-Opinaca reservoir. I know and I can confirm to you that there is sturgeon present at the future EM-1 site. But at this time I cannot confirm to you or even point out to you in honesty -- and maybe I should be the one to suggest that somebody should do a study and find out -- if there is sturgeon even higher, more upstream than the future EM-1 site. You know, if we have some here, there's a strong possibility from my view as a hunter and a trapper that sturgeon presence could be possible (further upstream). With a little assistance from technology and expertise, you know, a further study would determine that.


Q: Going back to this place, I just had a question about the sturgeon-fishing place where the woman was able to catch all those sturgeon and look after people. You say that you couldn't do that now? That sturgeon place is gone?

A: The river all the way up to here (indicating on map), to where it has been closed (dammed), you cannot get any fish here at all. It is all dry now. On the river here, fish was always caught here. Today, one cannot catch any fish here at all, just along the coast. Here at this place where people fished, sturgeon were very healthy here, and people set their nets all along the river here because there are no rapids here at all. All kinds of healthy fish, sturgeon and other kinds of fish, were caught here. But today you cannot catch anything here at all. No one can hunt here at all, all along here.

Q: All the way up to Kaa Naataauhkaau?

A: Yes.

Q: Has anyone found where the sturgeon have gone?

A: I don't think that anyone knows. A.W. used to live here (indicating on map), and they would catch fish that were long and skinny. The fish looked like they were starving. The fish must be slowly starving and dying because the water is becoming unhealthy, polluted. Here at Upishkuchishtush and here to Kaanaayaapiskaau, this is where B.W. used to go sturgeon fishing when they still lived in the area. They would catch a lot of huge sturgeon here. One sturgeon they caught was as long as the living room of one of the original houses in Eastmain. if you laid it across the living room floor, it would reach one end to the other. They were really huge. The circumference of the sturgeon would be the size of 45-gallon oil drum.

Q: Somewhere about ten feet (in length)?

A: Yes. And very healthy fish. They had to use two big motor canoes to bring it in.

Q: How did they catch them, in a net?

A: Yes, by net. We went upriver and we found a big fishbone. It was about this long. It was up on the edge of the first rapids.


I can tell you of an incident on Conn Lake. Conn Lake is recognized for sturgeon fishing. Somebody had flown in there with a float plane, probably some fishermen or somebody, nobody knows which individuals or if it was a group or a party of people. They must have refueled, because they threw the forty-five gallon drums they refueled with in the water. And I was there with my friend Robert a couple years ago, we were surprised we couldn?t catch any, there was nowhere in that lake that we could find sturgeon. And if you look at the way I was raised and the way he was raised and the way the community understands it, it's all because of those drums that were in the water, still with a little bit of fuel in them. It's the same thing that happens to beaver, if the water is tampered with in any way they?ll disappear, and nobody knows, even the tallyman of that trapline doesn?t know, where to look for those sturgeon anymore.


One of the things they did before, back in the early 1960's, I think, they had commercial fishing then. They fished for sturgeon. And there's a guy from Moose Factory or Moosonee --I don't know if he was a game warden, or he was involved in conservation I think --and he used to make all the arrangements for them. When they had a full load of fish he would send a plane over and pick them up. And they said they used to make good money out of that.


Sakami is famous for sturgeon and lake trout; they get very big...

Q: What do you know about the spawning areas for sturgeon; what do they look for?

A: Sturgeon in this area spawn on the twentieth of June, or the week of the twentieth. At that time the water is at its maximum on the lake. A few years ago my father was saying that they might move because of the water levels; the sturgeon might go in deep water.

Q: To spawn in?

A: Yes. But one of the trappers was telling me that he found spawning in the same place even though the water level has gone higher.

Q: Do they go upriver to spawn?

A: Yes, but they just go up to the first rapid and there they spawn.

Q: How many of those rivers are around Sakami Lake?

A: I don't know.

Q: Are there a lot of rivers and streams that flow into the lake?

A: The major river is called Sakami River, which flows in from the east; it's a big river, wide and it's a big spawning area. Many years ago they would spear them (sturgeon) with a harpoon.

Q: How big are the fish that you see there?

A: I heard that somebody tried to spear a sturgeon just at the mouth of Sakami River; this happened before my father's generation. They were using an eighteen foot canoe and the guy behind was pushing the canoe; he had his harpoon up like this, trying to spear right behind the head where it's like you've got a plate; it's very strong and difficult to penetrate so they try to spear it just below the plate. There's also a cord that goes down (spinal cord) and if you can cut that then the fish doesn't move. So that's what they aim for, just below the head. This guy was saying that they were using an eighteen foot canoe -- you could see the fish beside the canoe and he said that the tail was behind him where he sat in the stern and the head was a little bit beyond the bow of the canoe.

Q: So it would have been longer than eighteen feet?

A: Yes. Longer than that.

Q: But the guy in the stern of the canoe was scared and said "heh, we can't carry this thing".

Q: Where would they put it, right?

A: Yes. One flip of the tail would capsize them. I've also heard, just recently, that some workers on the lake have seen a fish that moves like a dolphin, completely white. The only explanation that I've heard was from my Dad who said that years ago somebody had talked about white sturgeon the lake and they had never been killed.

Q: Did they say how big the fish was?

A: No. The first thought that came to them was that it was a beluga whale.

(R.) says there's too much waste in the water (the sturgeon appeared to be late in spawning, The sturgeon are very sensitive to changes in the water; like if you kill a sturgeon upriver and there are lot of sturgeon downriver then you will not see them again until next year. We don't even build fires near the river because the sturgeon are so sensitive. My brother-in-law was saying that there were caribou guts on the water on that lake (from white sport hunters).

Q: So they were supposed to spawn on the seventh (of June)?

A: They said they spawn around the seventh. Well they could be late because of the late fall and spring. But he blames it on the condition of the water.

Q: They've seen nothing?

A: Yes. R. is going to go back up there again. My father says it's not so bad with lake trout and other kind of fish but the sturgeon is most sensitive. If you burn wood and then you throw it in the water that even could start a chain reaction and the fish would go upriver; I guess they learned that from experience.


Q: Why is the sturgeon so sensitive?

A: I don't know; maybe the sturgeon is superior. He is very sensitive and easy to kill, and can't stay out of the water very long; once its skin gets dry it dies.


I remember when my father used to spear sturgeon during spawning at the falls. Sometimes he would put the net across the river to catch suckers. He wanted a fire made at the top of the rapids and told us to put the coals into the water, to scare the fish down into the net; fish are really scared of fire. Also he told us never to pitch a greasy cup or pot out on the river. The sturgeon sense that there are humans around when they see the grease in the water and this makes them swim to the bottom of the lake.


Lake Trout, pike, waIIeye, and burbot [Top]

The lake trout, is another (besides sturgeon) that is sensitive to the change in the water type or the disturbance of the water. I guess the lake trout like to stay around in clear water areas. Since the flooding (Sakami Lake) the water became muddy and the lake trout, I guess, moved somewhere else.

The other kinds of fish are not as sensitive to the water, as the lake trout and the sturgeon. I think that there are some other kinds of fish still in the reservoir. But I noticed that the taste is much different. The taste of the pike or whitefish is not the same as it was before. If somebody has been eating fish for quite a while, they would notice that the taste is much different than what it was before the flooding.


...(at Sakami Lake) the pike spawn almost anywhere. The walleye seem to have one area there where they spawn.


...the water (in Sakami Lake) wasn't (prior to the diversion) all one color, it was different colors. I guess you have lakes like that all over. Sometimes you go along the lake and you can see a line across it where two currents meet; there's a little ridge along the water which when you cross it you notice that it's clear on one side and not on the other side. Where there's clear water that's where you find the lake trout.


Chinushaau --- pike --- in the spring you can see them in the grassy inlets, there are lots of them and this is where they spawn. This is where they release their eggs. The female and male fish.