Cree partners keep large-scale eelgrass research on track during pandemic 

For decades, Cree hunters have been reporting a dramatic decline in eelgrass beds along the James Bay coast and dwindling numbers of Canada geese, which are a staple in the Cree diet. 

All-Cree team retrieves 'priceless' data from the bottom of James Bay

Wemindji diver Henry Stewart was a key member of an all-Cree team that stepped in when COVID-19 travel restrictions kept southern researchers away. (Submitted by Henry Stewart)

An all-Cree team of partners has stepped in to salvage a key year of data collection in a large, multi-year research project looking at changes in the coastal habitat of James Bay. 

The Coastal Habitat Comprehensive Research Program began in 2017 and aims to combine traditional knowledge with science, to better understand environmental changes happening in the bay. Cree hunters have for decades been reporting a dramatic decline in eelgrass beds in the area and dwindling numbers of Canada geese that feed on the grasses. The geese are also a staple in the Cree diet. 

This summer was meant to be a key year to collect data to better understand why that's happening, before COVID-19 put those plans at risk.

"With COVID-19, the researchers couldn't come this summer," said Ernie Rabbitskin, who is manager of special projects for Niskamoon Corporation, a body that oversees agreements between Hydro-Québec and the Cree. The project is jointly funded by the Cree Nation Government, Hydro-Québec and Niskamoon. 

It was like we watched our whole big plan crumble before our eyes.- Marc Dunn, advisor with Niskamoon

"It was like we watched our whole big plan crumble before our eyes," said Marc Dunn, an external advisor with Niskamoon who specializes in impact assessment and has been involved with the project from the beginning.

Dunn said there was a real risk that they would lose the entire year to COVID-19, and a risk that the Cree tallymen would lose interest in the project.

"Momentum is very important. And if you lose momentum, it's very hard to get it back," said Dunn. 

Cree traditional land users say eelgrass beds have declined drastically over the last few decades. (

Instead, what happened has really moved the project forward and solidified the involvement and enthusiasm of Cree partners and tallymen, according to Rabbitskin. 

Rabbitskin and fellow Niskamoon staffers Laura-Lee Sam and Geraldine Mark co-ordinated the tallymen and collected water and eelgrass samples offshore near the communities of Chisasibi, Eastmain and Wemindji. 

"I think it went really great," said Rabbitskin. "The land users were very impressed and happy that the Cree team was able to accomplish this." 

Both Rabbitskin and Sam are environmental technicians, and Sam worked as a lab technician and relayed the data to the researchers stuck in the South. 

Laura-Lee Sam, who works for Niskamoon and has training as a lab technician, has carried out tests on water and eelgrass samples collected this summer. (Niskamoon Corporation)

Also part of the Cree team was Wemindji diver Henry Stewart, who successfully retrieved five moorings and instruments from the bottom of the bay. The instruments have been collecting temperature, salinity and current speeds near the eelgrass beds since the summer of 2019. 

"They have a whole year's worth of continuous measurements, which are priceless," said Zou Zou Kuzyk, an associate professor at the University of Manitoba and the lead for integration among the different research teams that are part of the program. 

Zou Zou Kuzyk is an associate professor at the University of Manitoba. Pictured here in Chisasibi in January of 2019, when researchers presented the scope of the program to traditional land users. (Susan Bell/CBC)

Kuzyk is also involved in the ocean water component of the research. The other components include looking at what the river systems are bringing into the bay, looking at waterfowl and their habitats along the coast, the health of the eelgrass beds, and Cree knowledge as it relates to everything else.

"It's a really important problem. It really matters in the lives of the Cree in these coastal communities," said Kuzyk, adding it was the Cree traditional land users that made the project happen. 

"This summer ... it's just an example of how much it matters," said Kuzyk.

Rabbitskin hopes the full research will be back on track for next summer. 

He said in addition to having researchers from the South, having an all-Cree team available next summer will allow them to go to multiple sites at the same time and cover a larger area. 

The final findings of the project are expected to be released in the first half of 2022.

Cree land users helped get water and eelgrass samples and were part of an all-Cree team working on the Coastal Habitat Comprehensive Research Program this summer. (Niskamoon Corporation)