Tim Hollingers Research – how resource development in the Lake Nipigon and Namewaminikan River impact the environment and the community
Posted on: October 8, 2020
Photo of Tim from the research trip

An interview with Tim Hollinger about his research expedition that commenced on September 27th, 2020.

What is your research about?

Our department has worked with BZA Rocky Bay (Biinjitiwaabik Zaaging Anishinaabek First Nations) for the past few years. They have been trying to kick into gear a watershed monitoring program because they have gone in on some ventures,  dams, and developments. They feel like they have been left out of Lake Nipigon monitoring and conservation for the past 100 years, which is true. They want to be in a position where they have their own data, as opposed to listening to the MNR and getting big excel spreadsheets of data that says everything is okay. They want to understand and participate for themselves. That’s the bigger objective of our work with them.

Lakehead provides technical assistance and guides them along. They will come to us and say, “we want to learn about XYZ” and then we can provide them with pathways to carry that out with the scientific method.

Some background on the study

This is the second year working through the First Nation Environmental Contaminants Program (FNECP). They did a 1-year study in 2017 on the Namewaminikan river, it’s also known as the Sturgeon River. It’s on Lake Nipigon. The river has a long history of gold mine development in and around those areas. There have also been gold mine developments in Beardmore, which they call “the Beardmore gold belt”. The area has a lot of old abandoned mines in that watershed as well as in the blackwater watershed. In 1995 there was a dam built on the river for hydroelectric development, but it was declared that it wasn’t viable or profitable after only 5 years of operation. A lot of the first nations communities had opposed the dam, but the government didn’t take their word seriously, because this happened in the 1990s. The site was a sacred site and the government had completely disregarded that. When they went to build the dam, they had part of the bank washout and human remains washed downstream because it was a burial site. There’s that context, but fast-forward to 2015-2017 they built two new run-of-river dams upstream. Having a history of gold mining and log driving in that river system, they had a concern for mercury contamination. The river is a popular river where people fish. They had concerns back when they built the dam over mercury contamination.

We did a study and it wasn’t that definitive, but it did show that compared to other areas there are elevated mercury levels so there’s cause for concern. The hydro company had hired biologists to do sampling and monitoring over the past few years, but the community really wants to be able to do the monitoring themselves.

Our upcoming research expedition

We are in the second year and the second phase of this environmental contaminants program. Starting September 27th, Rob and I will be going out on Lake Nipigon with a community fisherman on a tugboat along with two biologists from the Aboriginal Ontario Fisheries Research Center based out of North Bay. They are biologists that work in part with the MNR and First Nations communities, although they are not funded through the FNECP. We are going out with them to catch a bunch of fish at 5 different locations on Lake Nipigon to analyze those for mercury content. The biologists from the organization are trying to figure out a population study for sauger on Lake Nipigon. This is all part of the environmental contaminants program. That project is more geared to the community because that’s what they want to do in the future, more widescale monitoring. What we are doing is taking a closer look at the dams this year with the mercury content and the fish. They had proposed an increase in headpawn levels. They are supposed to be run of the river dams, but with an increase of headpawn, that causes more mercury in the system. They are also concerned with historical context of resource development, gold mining, logging, and clearcutting within that water shed.

Tim Hollinger’s Project

For my project I am doing a land classification in GIS as well as getting fish, water, and sediment samples above and below each of the dams to see if there is any gradient or trend within the river system. We will also look at what factors in the watershed are affecting that. We are mainly concerned with mercury, but arsenic is also a concern, but more so for the blackwater river which is located further south. Our project is mainly looking at the river and the big lake monitoring project in hope that BZA can develop the capacity to have their own overall watershed monitoring program. Lakehead will still be involved and do research with them, but the hope is that they become more self-sufficient to carry out their own studies and have a full-time position in the community as an environmental monitor position.

Study Objectives

  1. Identify mercury levels in fish and sediment on the Namewaminikan River as it relates to 3 run of river dams and past development within its watershed;
  2. Identify mercury levels in fish and sediment at the mouth of river systems that are being deposited into Lake Nipigon in areas of interest to the community;
  3.  Quantify the potential stressors on watersheds and aquatic systems that are of importance to the community using GIS in order to engage community members in a better understanding of data collection, interpretation and monitoring

How has covid-19 affected your research?

We were supposed to go out on this expedition in June. We were going to try to bring as many elders and youth out as possible/ The original project was supposed to be us tagging along in this community event. They had all the tents, boats and food for everybody, and we were just going to tag along. That was supposed to be at the end of June/early July. It’s come down to 2 biologists, 2 Lakehead researchers, and 2 fishermen. Covid-19 has changed the community involvement side of the project because it doesn’t reach out in the same hands-on way that we had planned. In the future we plan to have community workshops and education sessions on mercury as well as engage with the community to get their input for the second year of the study. WE want to see if they have any concerns moving forward. There will still be community involvement and it is a community-based project because Ray Novos came up with the whole project. Ray will tell us what he wants, and we tell him what’s reasonable and feasible to do. We aren’t going out on the lake telling them where we need to catch fish. We’re saying “these our areas of interest based on what Ray has told us, take us out and fish where you would fish based on these general areas and we’ll sample the fish you would catch and feed to the community. We’ll see what those mercury levels are at different points in the lake. It’s a big lake so we will be out there for 6-7 days. Covid-19 has changed the time frame, ideally it would be done in mid-summer. It’s going to be a lot colder, but it will still be done and be a great experience.  

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