Unusually late freeze means many waterways are still unsafe
Fish ecologist says there may be implications for aquatic life
As a passionate ice fisherman, there isn't much that can keep Ron Estey from his favourite hobby — except maybe this year's ice conditions.
"I'm almost 40 years old and I've never seen the ice like this," he said. "It's just been a terrible year for ice production."
While some bodies of water "in the back country" may have four to six inches of ice, most waterways still aren't safe, says Estey.
"I would definitely use extreme caution anywhere in the southern part of the province right now."
Estey is the moderator of the New Brunswick Ice Fishing page on Facebook and has travelled the province and beyond for ice fishing.
While he has managed to do some ice fishing already, including last week at Killarney Lake in Fredericton, most of his favourite spots are far from ready.
Glancing out his work window aboard the Belleisle Bay ferry, he said many waterways froze for the first time this week.
"We haven't had a freeze up in the bay until just this week," said Estey, adding that he could still see open areas on the bay from his vantage point.
"The river system is definitely not safe," he said.
Estey, who lives in Hammondvale near Sussex, said his threshold for ice fishing is a minimum of four inches (10 cm) of ice. He's been keeping a pretty close eye on the two-week weather forecast and he's hopeful that continuing cold temperatures will mean the ice will be thick enough in a few days.
Snowmobilers are also being warned about unsafe conditions.
Ross Antworth, the general manager of the New Brunswick Federation of Snowmobile Clubs, says the responsibility lies with individual operators to ensure the ice is safe before they venture out.
"Snowmobilers are responsible to check ice crossings themselves," he said Friday. "This has always been the case, and with a late start to winter and unseasonably warm temperatures, we would caution anybody, before they put themselves, or their snowmobile, on any ice."
With such a late start to the ice season, this isn't exactly a great year to launch a new ice fishing business.
But that's exactly what Brett O'Neill has done.
O'Neill owns The Shacks, which rents out fishing huts at the Renforth ice fishing village in Rothesay — or it would if there was enough ice.
He has three huts that come with everything one would need to give ice fishing a try — holes, poles, bait, and wood for the stove.
O'Neill, who operates the business with his girlfriend, Maya Dempsey, is disappointed that the start of his first season is delayed, but he's hopeful that with a few more days of cold temperatures, they will still have two solid months of operations.
"I don't know if anybody's out there yet right now. It wouldn't surprise me if people were out there tomorrow or the day after. That wouldn't surprise me one bit … Somebody has to be the tester."
The late freezing of waterways could also have an effect on the ecosystem, explained Tommi Linnansaari, a fish ecologist and associate professor at the University of New Brunswick.
The normal accumulation of ice and snow provides a more predictable environment for the aquatic world beneath, explained Linnansaari. With a solid ice surface and a decent layer of snow, temperatures are stable and the amount of light is reduced.
Linnansaari said aquatic creatures "have evolved through eons of time with conditions where ice cover is the norm."
They assume those conditions will continue and they prepare for winter accordingly, often slowing their metabolism and food intake.
Warmer temperatures and more light lead them to be more active, thereby expending more energy, he explained.
"So there might be repercussions to the energy balance of the fish."
Linnansaari likens it to battery life. He said fish have a finite wintertime battery life.
"Some may basically run out of battery, so they'll die. That would be the extreme outcome."
He said some fish species are more at risk than others, particularly the ones that are "completely inactive" in the winter — species like yellow perch and minnow-type fish.
Warmer winter temperatures may also have further implications on the food chain, said Linnansaari.
Warmer water temperatures could trigger certain invertebrates to hatch earlier, creating a "temporal mismatch," which means that they may not be available as a food source for species that count on them at critical stages of their development — salmon hatchlings in June, for example.
"These are the sorts of things that we don't know yet if they'll manifest, but it's conceivable that that is what is going to happen," he said.