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Burlington fisherman, scientists, Mi’kmaq conservationists collaborating on Avon River study in lead-up to Highway 101 twinning

WINDSOR, N.S. — Darren Porter’s metallic-coloured boat enters the muddy brown Avon River alongside the Avondale Wharf.

Two students from Acadia University are running a bit behind – but they come with coffee in hand.

Porter’s son, Hunter, is up front helping with the nets and traps as they get underway.

Darren Porter lowers his boat into the Avon River next to the Avondale Wharf in Newport Landing with his son, Hunter Porter, in the back.

Porter, who’s sporting a large, greying beard, shorts and flip flops (now covered in mud), looks like a wise sea captain with a tobacco pipe in his mouth. He knows the Avon River well, perhaps better than anyone, and that’s why scientists from Acadia are joining him to study the species that call it home.

It’s early, about 6:45 a.m., and the small team heads towards the edge of the Avon River, blocked by the causeway, where Highway 101 sits.

The sluice gates are closed for the month of July, and Porter predicts the number of fish they catch will be low, as there will be a lack of fresh water entering the salt marsh side.

His instincts ring true; they only end up catching two fish after being out out on the river for about three hours.

They use a large net that snakes along the river, with buoys bobbing above the water, following the currents and the tides. Four small eel traps are thrown into areas close to the shore of the salt marsh.

They’re really surprised when all four eel traps come up empty.

Acadia University science students Lita O’Halloran, left, and Maja Reinhartsen prepare to record data about the species they find in the Avon River as part of study commissioned by the department of transportation and infrastructure renewal.

Porter said the numbers fluctuate every day they go out to collect data for the study, but he’s still surprised by the low numbers.

“We’ve lost a large percentage of our salt marshes to agriculture practises, dams, and stuff like that. It’s a big problem for the ecosystem,” Porter said, steering his motor with the ease of a grizzled veteran. “They claim that the salt marsh that’s formed off the causeway is important, which is true, but what we’ve lost above the causeway is equivalent to and exceeding that.”

Porter said that the twinning of Highway 101 with the current proposal could mean expanding the causeway out into the salt marsh, which he’s concerned about.

He says one way or another the government needs to make sure there’s regular fish passage through the Avon River in order to sustain fish species.  

“They claim they don’t want to open up the causeway because of the salt marsh, but they’ll in-fill it anyway,” he said. “We really can’t afford to be losing any more salt marsh.”

The causeway and aboiteau along Highway 101 near Windsor has become a point of contention for an upcoming road twinning project. Some are advocating to open it up for fish passage, others are concerned about the implications that might have.

The study is being conducted for the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal – to form a baseline analysis of what species currently inhabit the Avon River. It will also be used by the Department of Fisheries.

Porter said he’s happy to be part of the process, which he calls comprehensive as it incorporates local fisherman knowledge, academic techniques, courtesy of students from Acadia University, and traditional and cultural knowledge from Mi’kmaq conservationists.

Salmon presence

Although they have yet to find wild Atlantic salmon in the Avon River close to the causeway, Porter says he’s caught several closer to the Minas Basin. He argues that if the causeway was opened on a more permanent basin, then salmon would run down the Avon once more.

Porter is aware that some people doubt the existence of salmon in the Avon River, but he said he catches them every couple of years at the sluice gates.

“People who say there are no salmon here have an ulterior motive,” he said. “They want the causeway to stay.

“I’ve seen salmon here, registered salmon here, taken pictures of them here, with the gatehouse behind me,” he said. “That’s in the last 10 years, three or four salmon reported by me alone.”

Scientific process

Maja Reinhartsen, one of the students from Acadia University working on the study, is wearing a deep blue Chicago Cubs hat while pulling up fishing line and jotting down notes in her notebook.

“We’re using some pretty straightforward data, like the times, the tide levels, the gear types, just to give an indication,” Reinhartsen said. “We’ll use that to indicate what the averages are going to be.”

At one point they pull up a striped bass – they lay it on a wooden measuring stick and write down the details. The specimen is tagged with a small plastic indicator and then released back into the water.

The study began in April 2017 and will continue until October 2018.

Acadia student Maja Reinhartsen jots down some notes while Hunter Porter looks on.

“The previous studies haven’t really captured the sort of data that we’ve been able to show in this,” she said. “That’s mostly because of Darren and having that local knowledge factor; it’s made a huge difference in terms of the amounts of fish and variety of species we’ve seen.”

Data gathering was heaviest between April and June, where they were going out five or more times a week, when the fish presence is at its height. Between July and October they’ll continue to gather data three times a week – checking both sides of the causeway.

Reinhartsen said they’ve documented gaspereau, several varieties of herring, stripers, bass and many more. They haven’t documented Atlantic salmon as part of this study, but Porter remains hopeful they will.  

Other factors

Lita O’Halloran, another student on board, said they’re aware of the underlying controversy surrounding the causeway, but added that their primary goal is to provide data that will help stakeholders make informed decisions.

During their research, she’s noticed a large amount of sediment build-up on the Lake Pisiquid side of the causeway as well in their observations.

“I can see there being flooding issues in that sense because there’ll be nowhere for the water to go,” she said. “We look at the biotic factors, but also the a-biotic factors — or, not just what affects the fish, but also the people that live around here as well.”

Although the field studies don’t conclude until October 2018, they’re hoping to have some of their findings available by the end of 2017.

Porter, said he’s happy to help out with the study because he cares deeply about the ecosystem of the Avon River.

“I grew up in Mt. Denson, went to school in Falmouth, Windsor; this is where I grew up,” Porter said. “I fish inside (the causeway) commercially, outside commercially; I fished my first striped bass when I was with my grandpa when I was four-years-old right off that causeway.”

Porter said he’s hopeful that with good science and a responsive Department of Fisheries, they’ll find a way to allow fish passage along the Avon.
“To me, this project is near and dear to my heart, you know?” Porter said.

Ducks and other birds fly around the salt marsh that surrounds the Avon River.

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