Bridgewater opposes logging in home of critically endangered fish
Watershed holds only surviving wild population of Atlantic whitefish
The Town of Bridgewater water utility is opposing an application to log on Crown land inside the Petite Riviere watershed, citing fears the proposed harvest poses a risk to its water supply and the remaining population of critically endangered Atlantic whitefish.
"It immediately sparked significant concerns on our behalf. We've obviously expressed that to the province," said deputy mayor Andrew Tanner, who chairs the Public Service Commission of Bridgewater.
The commission manages land it owns in the three-lake Petite Riviere watershed that serves as the town water supply.
Hebb, Milipsigate and Minamkeak lakes also hold the only surviving wild population of Atlantic whitefish, an ancient relative of Atlantic salmon and one of Canada's most endangered species.
The commission tries to buy up as much land as it can within the watershed to "restrict any ground disturbance to minimize the possible contamination of the source water brooks and lakes," said Tanner, adding it must rely on other land owners "such as the province of Nova Scotia to employ similar practices."
WestFor, a consortium of sawmills, applied in March to harvest on provincially owned Crown land adjacent to the lakes including a 49-hectare parcel on Minamkeak Lake — the only one of the three still free of invasive chain pickerel, a lethal threat to Atlantic whitefish.
Skeptical of forestry practices
Tanner said logging poses an elevated risk to the watershed, particularly when it's carried out using commercial forestry practices, heavy equipment and road building.
"The Public Service Commission of Bridgewater has had issues in the past related to WestFor's forestry practices within our watershed and travelling through waterways causing significant siltation, waterway contamination, ground disturbance," he said. "It allows access to the public until forest growth regenerates."
Tanner questioned why WestFor needs to harvest in the area.
"There's plenty of other places in Nova Scotia, including very remote locations that they harvest quite successfully, and they replant quite successfully in there," he said. "So why would you ever consider endangering a water source?"
The commission's concerns extend to the potential impact on the Atlantic whitefish.
"It's a delicate ecosystem in that particular area and it's certainly a species that we want to protect, do everything we can to protect and ensure its longevity and continued success," said Tanner.
The consortium stands by its harvesting practices.
WestFor general manager Breck Stuart said the group meets the highest forestry standards in the province and is regularly audited by independent organizations. He noted WestFor worked on commission lands five years ago with no reported issues.
"WestFor also does regular management within the HRM Pockwock Watershed under their Best Management Practices because proper water management is aided by proper forest management on adjacent lands," said Stuart in a statement.
"Our work in the area is well recognized."
'I've heard the concerns'
The decision rests with the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables, which issues harvest permits.
In March the department told CBC News that agriculture and forestry already takes place within the watershed and "there has been no evidence linking these activities to aquatic habitat degradation or negative effects on Atlantic whitefish."
On Wednesday, Minister Tory Rushton said no decision has been made. The public comment period closes on Saturday.
"I've heard the concerns. We've heard from residents and certainly talking with the local MLA there as well and hearing those concerns. It's an application that is still in the process right now," he told CBC News.
Education Minister Becky Druhan represents the area in the legislature. Her office did not respond when asked for her position on the WestFor harvest application.
Environmentalist Ray Plourde of the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax said the province is in a conflict on the issue.
The same department that issues cutting permits also adopted a whitefish recovery plan in 2021 that supports designating the watershed as a wilderness area to add further protection.
"Seemingly one hand does not know what the other hand is doing or has promised to do. And that is the inherent conflict of this department," said Plourde.
He said the stakes are higher in the Petite Riviere watershed.
"If the mainland moose were to go extinct in mainland Nova Scotia, it would be called extirpation, where it is a local extinction — but the species still exists somewhere else on the planet," said Plourde.
"In the case of the Atlantic whitefish, that is not the case … so an abundance of caution and the use of the precautionary principle would come into play to protect the habitat for the Atlantic whitefish."
Bridgewater supports the designation for the same reasons, but approval is moving very slowly.
"So we're working towards that and we were hopeful," said Tanner.