A Nova Scotia ‘gold rush’ means more threats for at-risk Atlantic salmon, even in areas that are meant to be protected

As another new gold mine is proposed in the province, conservation groups are concerned its construction could decimate protected habitat for at-risk species in an area long-renowned for its angling and spawning habitat

St Mary's River1_At the confluence of the East Branch and West Branch_credit Irwin Barrett

A springtime flood along the St. Mary’s River in Nova Scotia. Local conservation groups worry that a proposed new gold mine will threaten the at-risk species that rely on this habitat. Photo: Irwin Barrett

Plans for a new gold mine threaten decades of restorative work on Nova Scotia’s longest river, which provides prime spawning habitat for at-risk wild Atlantic salmon, according to the St. Mary’s River Association.

The organization was founded in 1979 after salmon populations, once attracting famous anglers including Babe Ruth and Michael J. Fox, began to decline.

Since 2014, the association has spent $1.1 million rebuilding riverbanks and spawning habitat pulverized by historic log drives, and just last year received $1.2 million to shield this river from acid rain.

“We look after the river,” said president Scott Beaver, pointing to the fish ladders they’ve built over human obstacles and stocking initiatives to bolster salmon that are now finally returning to spawn.

Rare footage released Wednesday shows a spawning pair of salmon in McKeen Brook, a tributary of the St. Mary’s which Beaver and others in the Nova Scotia conservation community fear will come under a new threat from the proposed Cochrane Hill Gold mine.

gold mining Atlantic salmon species at risk Nova Scotia

Atlantic salmon, an at-risk species, are one of the primary concerns of conservation groups pushing back against a proposed gold mine near Nova Scotia’s St. Mary’s River. Photo: St. Mary’s River Association

The project, proposed by Atlantic Gold (Atlantic Gold was purchased by St Barbara, an Australian gold mining company, last year. St Barbara now runs Atlantic Gold Operations in Nova Scotia), would involve the construction of an open-pit gold mine one kilometre long, half a kilometre wide and a maximum of 170 metres deep alongside the river. In total, the project would involve some 240 hectares (roughly 450 football fields).

According to a project description submitted to Canada’s Impact Assessment Agency, the mine would produce two-million tonnes of gold-bearing ore per year and have a life span of just six years. (St Barbara did not respond to The Narwhal’s request for comment.)

The company has yet to release an environmental impact assessment for the project as it makes its way through environmental review, which it began in 2018.

Mine proposed at height of river conservation

The Cochrane Hill mine would, as described in the company’s project description, process excavated rock into a gold concentrate which would then be transferred 142 kilometres to Atlantic Gold’s existing Moose River mine, where the gold is extracted.

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The Moose River gold mine in Nova Scotia. The company behind this mine is proposing a new project in the province, one conservation groups worry will further endanger at-risk species like the Atlantic salmon. Gold concentrate produced at the Cochrane Hill mine will be transported and further processed at Moose River. Photo: Raymond Plourde

The initial processing at Cochrane Hill would result in tailings ponds on site, contained behind dams perched above the St. Mary’s watershed. Any treated effluent would be discharged into the Cameron Lakes, which drain through McKeens Brook, arguably the most productive spawning habitat on the river, according to Beaver.

In 2018, Beaver met with representatives of the mining company, who described the project plan.

“My life completely changed,” Beaver said of the meeting.

The proposal caused a similar upset for the Nova Scotia Nature Trust, which, since 2006, has constructed a network of protected properties totalling 540 hectares along the St. Mary’s.

A sandbar on the St. Mary’s River in Nova Scotia, a protected area local conservation groups worry is under threat from a proposed gold mine. Photo: Irwin Barrett

The trust — which has a mandate to acquire the most ecologically significant properties throughout Nova Scotia and protect them in perpetuity — has been busy with the banks of the river with its unusual abundance of old-growth and floodplain forests. Ancient hemlocks, maples, oaks and spruce in these rare forest zones provide habitat for a suite of at-risk species.

“This is starting to become a major natural corridor,” Bonnie Sutherland, executive director of the Nova Scotia Nature Trust, told The Narwhal.

“You have habitat connectivity for wildlife, the chance for long-term viability for these amazing floodplain forests, the old growth hemlocks, habitat for endangered turtles and birds and maybe, someday, the Atlantic salmon can make a comeback.”

“It’s pretty ironic that this proposed mine is coming at the height of conservation achievement on this river,” she added.

gold mining St. Mary's River Atlantic salmon species at risk

Spring reflections in an inlet of the St. Mary’s River in Nova Scotia. Photo: Irwin Barrett

Mine requires road through land trust 

The proposed Cochrane Hill mine would necessitate the realignment of nearby Highway 7, sending it through protected Nova Scotia Nature Trust land.

Doing so would require paving over old-growth hemlocks, disturbing resident wildlife with noise, dust and vibrations, Sutherland said, adding the trust learned about the realignment in a letter from Atlantic Gold.

The nature trust’s mandate makes consent for such road construction impossible, Sutherland said. The road could be forced through, but that would require the provincial government to expropriate trust land under the Mining Act or Highways Act, she said.

Rachel Boomer, spokesperson for the provincial Environment Department, declined to answer specific questions about the possibility of road realignment through trust land.

Boomer said the project is currently undergoing a joint federal-provincial environmental assessment, which will consider “potential impacts to all species, including Atlantic salmon.”

“Once the [environmental assessment] document is submitted, Nova Scotia Environment and the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada will host a joint comment period where members of the public are invited to comment,” Boomer wrote to The Narwhal in an email. “Any member of the public can submit information at that time, and it will be considered in the assessment of the mine project.”

But the environmental review hasn’t relieved the nature trust’s concerns about the potential impacts of the project, or the highway rerouting.

“Expropriation would be wrong on so many levels,” Sutherland said. “This is something you don’t realize is a threat until it looms over you.”

Since 2013, the provincial government has built upon the charitable efforts of the Nova Scotia Nature Trust by announcing some 3,800 additional hectares of protected public land alongside the river in forthcoming provincial parks, wilderness areas and nature reserves, which together with Nova Scotia Nature Trust land covers some 4,300 hectares, enveloping 54 kilometres of St. Mary’s riverbank.

The expropriation of this or any protected land for industrial use could undermine the entire effort, Sutherland said.

One mine in a potential ‘string of pearls’

The Ecology Action Centre is a Halifax-based environmental advocacy charity, which has kept a close watch on Atlantic Gold’s so-called “string of pearls” — four Nova Scotian gold mines intended to open in sequence over the next few years.

The first mine in the string, the Moose River gold mine, is already in operation. Three additional mines — the Beaver Dam project, 15 Mile Stream gold project and Cochrane Hill, itself planned for 2023 — are in the process of federal environmental review.

gold mining Nova Scotia species at risk

The area surrounding the proposed gold mine. Map: St. Mary’s River Association

Charlotte Connolly, campaign support officer with the Ecology Action Centre, is quick to differentiate these modern mines from those of Nova Scotia’s past — underground, high-yield mines following gold veins or deposits.

Modern open-pit gold mines operate differently, aiming to extract only small flakes of gold diffused throughout tonnes of rock. Rock is excavated, crushed and treated to leach out gold. The remnants are then deposited in a waste pile and resulting chemical muds are stored in tailings ponds, which remain long after the life of a mine.

 “To put a mine here is a terrible idea,” Connolly told The Narwhal.

Nova Scotian gold rush?

Despite participating in efforts to conserve land along St. Mary’s River, the provincial government has been supportive of the mine proposal, offering one per cent royalty rates and a Mineral Resources Development Fund, which aids prospectors and developers alike in their search for gold.

The Mining Association of Nova Scotia has taken to the airwaves of CBC to declare a “gold rush” in the province, suggesting, among other things, that the industry’s high wages could be a solution to the economic woes of rural Nova Scotia, a claim the Ecology Action Centre considers exaggerated because this mine has a five or six year lifespan.

“During gold rushes, everyone loses their minds, only seeing dollar signs,” Charlotte said. “They forget every other important thing in the world.”

 Michael Parsons, a geochemist and research scientist with Natural Resources Canada, said that while uranium, zinc and lead do occur naturally in Nova Scotian rock, they don’t tend to appear in mining wastes at very high concentrations.

“The main contaminant of concern at most gold deposits in Nova Scotia is arsenic,” he said, “which occurs naturally in the bedrock around these deposits, and can be concentrated during mining and milling.”

Another concern is mercury. In days gone by, mercury was commonly used in the gold extraction process and is therefore well represented in the historic tailings of Nova Scotia, some of which reside at Cochrane Hill, relegated there by underground gold mines between 1868 and 1928.

If disturbed, this mercury could be another source of environmental contamination, a very real possibility to which Parsons has dedicated significant research.

No open-pit excavation

 Following their presentation from Atlantic Gold, Beaver and the board of the St. Mary’s River Association transformed from volunteers to activists: consulting experts on the polluting perils of gold mining, meeting with relevant ministers, MLAs and the premier, organizing protests, erecting signage and hosting public information sessions.

Beaver is heartened by the number of area residents vocally opposing the Cochrane Hill Gold Mine, deeming it too great a risk to the social, economic and ecological values of the river.

gold mining Nova scotia protest Atlantic gold

Local conservation groups have been organizing protests, erecting signage and hosting public information sessions to raise awareness about the implication of the new gold mine proposal. Photo: St. Mary’s River Association

This collective cry of opposition, however, has focused on the negatives. There has been a great deal of good news on the St. Mary’s River in Beaver’s lifetime, which he decided to showcase with an underwater camera in just the right place, at just the right time.

Saving Salmon is the joint initiative of photographer Nick Hawkins and writer Tom Cheney, collecting stories of Atlantic salmon conservation from across eastern North America, sometimes in words, sometimes in pictures — and now in footage.

The pair accepted Scott’s invitation to visit the St. Mary’s River and joined him for several expeditions in the summer and fall of 2019.

Their reward, aside from a great many photos and clips, were 15 minutes of quality footage of a female salmon on her nest, an exceedingly rare filming opportunity which had thus far eluded the Saving Salmon team.

Beaver has confirmed with both the Atlantic Salmon Federation and Nova Scotia Salmon Association that such footage has never before been captured in the Maritimes, and it was taken, of all places, in McKeens Brook, immediately downstream of where the Cochrane Hill Gold Mine proposes to discharge its treated effluent.

This footage and accompanying photos have been collected and edited into an exhibition which Beaver intends to tour, confronting the espoused profitability of the Cochrane Hill Gold Mine with the resurgence of the St. Mary’s Salmon. The footage alone was launched during a press conference Feb. 12 in downtown Halifax.

“If they push a mine through to the St. Mary’s, there’s no place in Nova Scotia, in my mind, that can be protected from mining,” he said. “The St. Mary’s is the sacred spot.”

The St. Mary’s River in Nova Scotia is considered important habitat for many species, both in and out of the water. Photo: Irwin Barrett




Logga Wiggler/Pixabay

Canada is violating the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and sidestepping international environmental law in its handling of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and a proposed three-berth marine container terminal south of Vancouver, contends the Lummi Nation in northwest Washington state, in a letter this week to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.

“We’re in a state of emergency,” Lummi Nation Secretary Lawrence Solomon said in the release. “Our qwe’lhol’mechen (orca relations) are dying, our salmon are disappearing, our people are suffering. Our schelangen (way of life) is in peril. We have a Xa xalh Xechnging (sacred obligation) to care for our culture and all our relations.”

“As our ancestors keep telling us, there is hope for the Salish Sea, there is hope for us. But we have to do the work,” added Raynell Morris, director of the Lummi sovereignty and treaty protection office. “Part of the work is our nation talking directly to the United States and to Canada about what we all need to do to save and protect these shared waters.”

The Lummi are “requesting a meeting with Canadian officials regarding the environmental impacts of industrial projects on the Salish Sea off the coasts of Washington and British Columbia,” The Canadian Press reports, maintaining that projects like Trans Mountain “will result in unavoidable, irreversible, and unacceptable harm to the nation’s territorial waters.”

The letter “points to the effect of increased shipping traffic on fishing areas, as well as the dangers of ship strikes, noise pollution, and oil spills for endangered southern resident killer whales,” CP adds. “The letter says so far, Canada has dismissed the Lummi Nation’s concerns with respect to Trans Mountain,” and shows no apparent change of approach with the container terminal plan.

CP notes that Canada officially adopted UNDRIP in 2016, but Conservative senators defeated a bid to harmonize Canadian laws with the principles in the declaration. SOURCE

Canada considers ’emergency’ warning from scientists that could complicate Trans Mountain pipeline expansion

Coldwater Indian Band Chief Lee Spahan speaks at a news conference with other First Nations leaders in Ottawa on Dec. 5, 2018. File photo by Alex Tétreault

The Trudeau government has been weighing scientists’ “emergency” warning about an endangered species for more than a year in a case that could have serious implications for the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

The species in question, steelhead trout, is of great importance to Coldwater Indian Band, a First Nation in southern interior British Columbia that is directly affected by the proposed pipeline expansion.

Local salmon and steelhead populations are “integral to Coldwater’s way of life and have been for generations,” the First Nation has said in a formal submission to the federal pipeline regulator, the National Energy Board.

The Thompson River population of steelhead trout spawn in the Coldwater River, which runs through Coldwater’s reserve and traditional territory along the proposed path of the pipeline expansion. MORE


Tŝilhqot’in’s ‘spiritual war’ to protect land, water, rights

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The Tŝilhqot’in Nation, not unlike other Indigenous Nations across this young country known as Canada, often prioritize their own legal systems and values over colonial legal orders that in most cases were brutally enforced on sovereign nations.

For the Tŝilhqot’in, the most important laws, Chief Alphonse explained, have to do with the protection of water.

Through oral history, Chief Alphonse learned from a young age that other crimes, like stealing, perhaps wouldn’t have traditionally been considered such a big crime. There would be consequences, he said, but they wouldn’t be severe.

“But you come and do damage to the quality of water,” he said, his face suddenly serious, “or you damage the highest elevation spawning grounds in North America… You do damage to the quality of water, in some cases, that was considered one of the biggest crimes you could commit.

“You’re talking about our livelihood and our dependence on the sockeye run, you’re talking about the starvation of a whole nation. To maintain a healthy run you have to have clean water. Water is the most precious thing for our people.” MORE

HUNGER: The decline of salmon adds to the struggle of Puget Sound’s orcas

 Twin monarchs of the Pacific Northwest, chinook salmon and southern resident orcas, are struggling for survival after a century of habitat losses. From the Pacific to the inland waters of Puget Sound and its freshwater rivers, the changes have outpaced adaptation.

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Scientists are worried orca grandmother J17 won’t live through the year. Here, she has lost so much fat that the curve of her neck shows, a condition called “peanut head.” (Courtesy of The Center for Whale Research, under NMFS permit 21238 and DFO SARA permit 388)

What the scientists see each year on this survey underway since 1998 has taken on new importance as oceans warm in the era of climate change. Decadelong cycles of more and less productive ocean conditions for salmon and other sea life are breaking down. The cycles of change are quicker. Novel conditions in the Pacific are the new normal.

The search to understand why Puget Sound’s orcas are in decline continues, as scientists probe a range of threats, from inbreeding and disease, to pollution and vessel noise. But a key area of investigation is the primal necessity of regularly available, adequate, quality food.

Across the Pacific Northwest, 40 percent of chinook runs already are locally extinct, and a large proportion of the rest that remain are threatened or endangered. Meanwhile, most other marine mammals are surging in population, adding to the competition both southern residents and fishermen face. MORE

The uncertain fate of the lower Fraser River’s last salmon island strongholds

Most of this iconic salmon river’s foreshore wetlands, marshes and islands have been logged, diked, drained and converted to farming. Only a handful of un-diked islands remain, but now three of them have been bought and logged by developers, while conservationists mount a last-minute attempt to buy them

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The tip of Carey Island in mid-February 2019. At this time of year, cutthroat trout can be found in this side-channel habitat, along with sturgeon overwintering in deep gravel holes. Winter steelhead are also moving along the Fraser main stem (in the background of this photo), which will soon see the first spring returns of chinook salmon beginning in March. Photo: Jayce Hawkins / The Narwhal

Three of the last un-diked islands on the lower Fraser River have been bought by developers and heavily logged, threatening the most productive habitat stronghold for salmon and white sturgeon left in the entire Fraser watershed.

Fisheries scientist Marvin Rosenau, an instructor in the British Columbia Institute of Technology’s fish, wildlife and recreation program, found out about it by accident. Back in June 2017, he was driving home to Abbotsford from a fishing trip in the interior, when he turned a bend just above Bridal Falls and looked down at Herrling Island.

“The whole landscape was bereft of trees,” he said of the 780-hectare island in the main stem of the Fraser River about 20 km northeast of Chilliwack. “It just ripped my guts out to see that.”

For Rosenau, a biologist and obsessive sports fisherman who has dedicated over 30 years to protecting the river, it was just the latest calamity for the Heart of the Fraser, one of the planet’s most productive networks of fish-friendly channels, islands and wetlands stretching 80 kilometres between Mission and the town of Hope. MORE

Work on Trans Mountain pipeline crossing in B.C. destroyed salmon habitat, scientist says

A Trans Mountain pipeline crossing in Stewart Creek, in Chilliwack, B.C., on Dec. 12, 2018. MIKE PEARSON /THE CANADIAN PRESS

Work on a Trans Mountain pipeline crossing in a British Columbia stream has destroyed salmon habitat, raising concerns about the Crown corporation’s ability to build infrastructure through waterways if the expansion project proceeds, a scientist says.

Mike Pearson says the “amateur hour” work on the Stewart Creek crossing in Chilliwack will reduce food sources for coho and chum salmon and limit their ability to hide from predators. The fish are part of the diet of endangered southern resident killer whales.

“There was no consideration given whatsoever to the habitat, which is just not acceptable,” said Pearson, a biologist with 30 years’ experience, in an interview. MORE


‘Drastic and scary’: Salmon declines prompt First Nation to take Canada to court over fish farms

In an unprecedented move, the Dzawada’enuzw nation is claiming in court that farming Atlantic salmon — which often carry disease — in their traditional waters constitutes a violation of Aboriginal rights

A salmon fish farm operates off the coast of the Broughton Archipelago near Vancouver Island. MYCHAYLO PRYSTUPA /THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Moon and other members of his community were in Vancouver Thursday to file an Aboriginal rights lawsuit against Canada that challenges federal fish farm licenses within their traditional territory in the Broughton Archipelago — the latest action in the nation’s escalating bid to revive shrinking Pacific salmon and eulachon stocks.

If successful, the lawsuit would not only close fish farms that affect the Dzawada’enuxw nation but could potentially be used by other First Nations to shut down salmon farms throughout B.C.’s coast, according to lawyer Jack Woodward, who is representing the Dzawada’enuxw [pronounced ‘tsa-wa-tay-nook’]. MORE


Is the next Standing Rock looming in northern B.C.?

Ground zero in the global battle against climate chaos this week is in Wet’suwet’en territory, northern British Columbia.

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As pipeline companies try to push their way onto unceded Indigenous territories, the conflict could become the next Standing Rock-style showdown over Indigenous rights and fossil fuel infrastructure.

Since 2010, the Unist’ot’en clan, members of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, have been reoccupying and re-establishing themselves on their ancestral lands in opposition to as many as six proposed pipeline projects. MORE