Saugeen Ojibway Nation confronts effects of climate change on whitefish fishery

The fishing communities of Saugeen First Nation and Chippewas of Nawash are finding higher winds and warmer temperatures are affecting populations of lake whitefish in Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, which many rely on for their livelihoods.

Bagida-waad Alliance collecting information on changes over time from local fishing families and Elders

Lake whitefish are a species of cold water fish native to Ontario that First Nations Fishing communities along the great lakes have created their livelihoods from. (Paul Vecsei via Engbretson Underwater Photography/WWF)

The fishing communities of Saugeen First Nation and Chippewas of Nawash are finding higher winds and warmer temperatures are affecting populations of lake whitefish in Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, which many rely on for their livelihoods.

Now they're taking steps to document the changes they've been observing and figure out how to adapt to them. 

Natasha Akiwenzie, manager of the Bagida-waad Alliance, a not-for-profit research organization founded by fishing families from the communities, said you can tell when someone is a fisherman.

"They do it as a livelihood, as a passion," she said.

"They speak of it almost like a child, like something that they care about, that they believe in and they fight for."

The alliance has begun collecting stories from local fishing families and Elders to preserve their knowledge for future generations.

Andrew Akiwenzie, Chair for Bagida-waad Alliance, fishing on Georgian Bay just north of Wiarton, ON. (Submitted by Natasha Akiwenzie)

By collecting this information, Akiwenzie said the alliance also trying to create a baseline of knowledge to assess when the fishermen started to notice things changing in the water.

"We know something's happening and all the fishermen are in agreement with that," she said.

"We've heard many times that climate change is not here yet, which is concerning because we know it is."

No easy answer

Lake whitefish are a species of cold water fish native to Ontario and common to the Great Lakes.

Akiwenzie said fishermen from the two communities have noticed they weren't catching as many, as the whitefish moved into deeper waters from warmer shorelines. 

"There's no easy answer," said Akiwenzie. "But hopefully at the end of all of this we can help the fishermen be able to continue their livelihood in a better way."

Kathleen Ryan, energy manager at the Saugeen Ojibway Nation Environment Office and an aquatic ecologist, said lakes are complex systems.

Bagida'waad Alliance board members, from left Guy Nadjiwon, Doug Miller, Victoria Serda, Brandi Farr, John Anderson, Natasha Akiwenzie, Meghan Lipka, Andrew Akiwenzie (Submitted by Bagida'waad Alliance)

"If something happens to one fish species in the lake, it can affect everything else in the lake," she said. 

She said temperature is critical for whitefish populations as it works as a signal to tell them when to spawn and lay their eggs in the fall.

Their eggs also hatch after the winter ice, which has been protecting them all season, breaks up. Without ice, the eggs are exposed to the wind and fewer hatch.

Monitoring program

Ryan is working with the chiefs and councils of Saugeen and Nawash on the launch of the Saugeen First Nation Coastal Waters Monitoring Program, which will have sampling sites all over Saugeen Ojibway territory.

"If something happens to one fish species in the lake it can affect everything else in the lake,"says Kathleen Ryan, manager of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation Environment office. (Submitted by Kathleen Ryan)

Climate change isn't the only factor affecting the ecology of the Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, with invasive species like zebra mussels and round gobies and industry also having effects.

The program will look at fish communities, temperatures, coastal wetlands, aquatic plants and overall water quality.

They are also working with the Bagida-waad Alliance and asking community members to share their cultural and ecological knowledge to help inform a scientific baseline for the study.

About the Author

Rhiannon Johnson

Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with the Indigenous unit since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences throughout Ontario. You can reach her at rhiannon.johnson@cbc.ca and on Twitter @rhijhnsn.