September 23: St. Lawrence Overview

The St. Lawrence River: Outlet (and Inlet) to the Great Lakes 

Over our opening-night dinner, the group heard from representatives of Save the River and the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Governors & Premiers. We learned that the St. Lawrence is no ordinary river. It is a big, swift, relatively straight channel that connects nearly 20 percent of Earth’s available fresh surface water to the Atlantic Ocean. It also connects the Lakes to the Atlantic in another way, as the locks and dams of the Seaway allow international shipping vessels access to the five big bodies of water upstream.  But the St. Lawrence isn’t entirely unique. It’s impacted by the usual concerns – legacy pollution, reduced water quality, invasive species and others.

September 24: Saint Lawrence Science, Seaway Overview, Moses-Saunders Dam and Thousand Islands NP

A Community Effort Brings World-Class Science to the Banks of the St. Lawrence

Located far from a big population center or major university, the St. Lawrence River Institute sits right on the banks of its namesake. Born from a collaboration with area industries, governments, educators and First Nations, the Institute is a non-profit science center that offers both a place to conduct scientific research on things like contaminants in the river and fishery health, as well as facilities that offer community services like science education events and water chemistry testing for Ontario breweries. We stopped in to say hello and hear about their latest research. 

Managing a Working River: An Overview of the St. Lawrence Seaway

The Upper St. Lawrence River, running from Kingston, Ontario to Montreal, is known in many circles by another name – The St. Lawrence Seaway. Constructed in the late 1950s with both Canadian and U.S. support, the Seaway created a maritime economy on the river and allowed ocean-going vessels access to the Great Lakes and Great Lakes commodities access to international markets. The Moses-Saunders dam was an integral part of that plan, raising upstream water levels to navigable depths. We got a tour the facility, learned about outflows and their connection to water levels and heard how economic considerations and environmental concerns are incorporated by the bi-national International Joint Commission, which makes decisions about the river.  

Eel Ladders and Lost Villages: Environmental and Cultural Concerns on a Dammed River

Putting a big wall in the middle of a river has some obvious impacts, both upstream and downstream. We talked about some of those, like the historic resettlement of 6,500 residents during the initial construction of the dam and ongoing efforts to reconnect and improve the ecosystem for the river’s aquatic residents – like the migratory and, some would say, (okay – Adam would say) “miraculous” American eel. 

We then headed upriver to Ed Huck Marina, where we boarded boats for an afternoon in (and among) the St. Lawrence’s iconic 1,000 Islands. We got a water-level view of Thousand Islands National Park as we talked with our hosts about conservation efforts on the river, impacts to local communities, the region’s history, and the importance of outdoor recreation to the local economy.

September 25: Dam Removal, AOCs, and Cultural Revitalization

Tearing Down a Dam and Rebuilding Ecological and Cultural Communities 

The Akwesasne territory covers a large swath of land straddling the U.S. and Canadian border and the confluence of three rivers – the St. Lawrence, the St. Regis and the Raquette. In the 1920s, the Hogansburg Hydroelectric Dam was constructed across the St. Regis, cutting off spawning habitat to fishes like salmon and sturgeon and virtually wiping out important indigenous fisheries. In 2016, however, the 100-meter-long dam came down and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe became the first Native American tribe to decommission a federally licensed dam. The removal of the dam reopened more than 500 miles of the St. Regis and its tributaries to fish passage and provided one small step toward reclaiming some of the resources and territory taken from the Akwesasne by European settlers. We met the man who led the removal project and headed out to where the dam used to be to get an update on how the river has responded and hear about efforts in the state of New York to promote fishery health and conserve more habitat along the St. Lawrence and its tributaries. 

Recovering from a Toxic Legacy: Corporate Settlements and Clean Up on the St. Lawrence 

Of course the Hogansburg Dam wasn’t the only impact European settlement and industry had on Akwesasne waters. For decades, three major corporations– General Motors, Alcoa and Reynolds Metal – operated plants right upstream of Akwesasne territory and discharged their industrial waste downstream. The result was sediments full of heavy metals and PCBs and the designation of that particular section of the river as an Area of Concern. Three sovereign nations — the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe at Akwesasne, the United States and Canada — share authority over the St. Lawrence AOC. We heard about where clean-up efforts stand, and what remains to be done.

The Akwesasne’s Ambitious Plan to Turn Habitat Degradation into Cultural Preservation

After a welcome, orientation and lunch at Akwesasne’s Thompson Island camp, we heard the story of the ambitious cultural preservation program that the Akwesasne launched with settlement money from the Alcoa and Reynolds Metal plants. Hoping to do more than simply restore habitat, the Akwesasne decided to reconnect their citizens to traditional resources and knowledge through an apprenticeship program pairing elders with aspiring practitioners of basketmaking, hunting, fishing, native-language speaking and more. We also learned about traditional medicines from Akwesasne practitioners, and went on a guided walk to learn about the many wild medicinal plants growing on the island.

September 26: Ports and Shipping

Keeping Commerce Moving on the Banks of the St. Lawrence – Tour of the Port of Montreal

Nearly 1,000 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean, the Port of Montreal sits along the shortest direct route from Europe and the Mediterranean to North America. As an international container port, it serves Toronto, central Canada and the U.S. Midwest and Northeast regions as goods like cereal grains, petroleum products and cruise ship passengers move up and down the St. Lawrence and out to the Atlantic. We spent the morning meeting with the Montreal Port Authority and touring its facilities as we got the chance to see how a port operates, learn what goods make up its prime commodities and hear about how it has outgrown its Montreal riverfront property. The port is in the midst of a $750 million expansion to grow its container handling capacity and stay competitive with large American ports. As an interesting sidebar, part of this expansion plan involves some environmental impact “banking” and the creation of a large island wildlife preserve on the river.

Shipping on the St. Lawrence

We’d heard from the folks that receive all of the ships moving up and down the Seaway, so next we turned our attention to what it takes to manage those fleets. A representative of Fednav, Canada’s largest ocean-going dry-bulk shipping company, met with us to talk about the logistics of modern international trade and the Great Lakes’ maritime industry’s recent report on its economic impact. According to the report published earlier this year, cargo moving on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway supported 237, 868 jobs and brought in $35 billion (U.S.) to the U.S. and Canadian economies. We also learned how the industry is adopting protocols and investing in new technologies to help prevent the spread of invasive species, lower their fuel consumption and carbon footprint, and accommodate new best practices for avoiding other impacts like whale collisions. 

September 27: Whales, Whales and More Whales

Out Where the River Gets Wild 

After Quebec City, the St. Lawrence becomes part river, part estuary – a large, slow-moving brackish body of water that heads northeastward and eventually opens into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic Ocean. About half-way through this journey, the Saguenay River enters the picture, creating the unique marine habitat encompassed by the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park, which is home to, among many other organisms, the southernmost population of beluga whales on earth. We stopped at the Pointe Noire Observation and Interpretation Centre to get an introduction to the park, spotted some belugas (!), and met the Parks Canada officials responsible for balancing the conservation of several species of whales with the thriving tourism industry that brings thousands of hopeful whale watchers each year.

Right Whale, Wrong Place

For years, the conservation of the beluga whale moderated human endeavor in this part of the world as boats were asked to slow down and whale watchers keep their distance to keep this endangered species safe. Then, in the summer of 2017, a new behemoth lumbered on the scene. As warming ocean waters pushed their preferred planktonic food source to higher latitudes, North Atlantic right whales followed their prey – right into the St. Lawrence. That summer, 12 right whales died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. With a population of fewer than 500 whales left, this new development sent the shipping and fishing industries scrambling to come up with ways to mitigate the danger to whales – while the entities that oversee those industries began temporarily shutting down fisheries when whales were spotted and lowering the speed limit for ships bound for the Great Lakes. We learned more from GREMM (Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals) about how federal and provincial officials work with the maritime industry, commercial fishing interests and whale-watching operators to ensure that whales and humans both get what they need out of the St. Lawrence. 

Scientific Research, Marine Conservation and Massively Charismatic Megafauna

It wouldn’t be reporting if we didn’t go see what the fuss was all about! We headed out to see if we could spot some of the whales that keep Tadoussac’s tourism industry humming throughout the summer and fall - and we weren’t disappointed, spotting beluga, fin, minke and humpbacks. Along the way, we heard about the Eco-Whale Alliance, a program involving five marine tour business owners, Parcs Québec, Parks Canada and the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals that promotes responsible practices for whale watching activities in the Marine Park. We also talked with Parks Canada scientists about their current research projects in the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park.

September 28: Climate Change, Invasive Species, and Urban Flooding

Adapting to a Changing Climate in Quebec

From catastrophic floods in 2017, to increasing coastal erosion in the gulf of the St. Lawrence River, to a heat wave in the summer of 2018 responsible for more than 90 deaths, climate change is here and Quebec is dealing with its impacts. We chatted over breakfast with a researcher studying what challenges these changes present for communities along the St. Lawrence River, and learned how provincial and municipal officials are responding to the new normal. 

There Go the Neighborhoods: Invasive Species as a Global Change Issue

There are more than 180 known exotic species in the Great Lakes, an invasion made possible by the St. Lawrence Seaway and its artificial connection between the lakes and the Atlantic. While most of these non-native species simply exist at low numbers with no discernible impact on the native ecosystem, a few – those prolific zebra mussels come to mind – have had dramatic and costly impacts. In response to this, ocean-going “salties” are now forced to “swish and spit,” or discharge ballast water they took in at foreign freshwater ports at sea and take on salt water to kill anything hitchhiking in their ballast tanks. Proponents of this measure touted its success since no new exotic species had been detected since 2006. But, just this summer, two new non-native species of zooplankton were found in Lake Erie. We heard about all of this, but also broadened the discussion of invasive species to a more global perspective or, as some researchers likes to call it, a “global change” issue; invasive species have many parallels to climate change, from their impacts on ecosystems across the planet to their own brand of “invasive species denialism.”

No Avoiding an Awkward Segue: Back to Extreme Precipitation and Urban Floods 

During the spring of 2017, sustained record rains and rapid snowmelt sent the St. Lawrence River over its banks across Quebec, flooding more than 5,000 homes – most acutely in Montreal, where the Ottawa River joins the fray. Residents and officials on both sides of the border blamed the IJC for mishandling water levels under the new Plan 2014, but in fact the entire Great Lakes system was high and Lake Ontario was overwhelmed. Now, looking at a climate-changing future of wetter weather and unpredictable flows, scientists and local officials are working to be better prepared for the next flood. We heard from one researcher who’s sounding the alarm and asking for action.

September 29: Tench, Tech, and Telling Stories Better

Fishermen Are Pulling Up Nets Full of Fish, But There’s a Catch 

Moving from invasive species as a global issue, we narrowed our focus to something a little more regional. While commercial fishermen on the St. Lawrence River have traditionally landed species like American eel, black sturgeon and yellow perch, over the last few years they’ve often returned to shore with tales of a different fish overrunning their nets – an invasive species simply called tench. (Fun Fact: scientific name is tinca tinca). Tench, many believe, is the fish most likely to become the Great Lakes’ next successful invasive species. That’s a new take on an old story, however. Tench were originally introduced across the U.S. as a potential food source in the late 1900’s but, except in rare cases, never quite seemed to take. Then, in 1986 they were illegally brought to a Quebec fish farm near the Richilieu River and, like so many invasive species before them, they did two things: escaped to the nearest waterbody and wildly exceeded expectations.

We headed to McGill University’s Gault Nature Preserve to meet tench up close.

An Ambitious Ecosystem Experiment Asks Where Will Tench Invade Next? 

 One big problem scientists and fisheries managers have when trying to predict the spread and impact of invasive species is simply a lack of information. What type of habitat do they prefer? What food sources will sustain them? We visited an ambitious experiment that is trying to get at some of those answers by raising tench in several different types of habitat and seeing which locations produce the healthiest fish. While the results may not tell us everything tench are capable of – many invasive species have defied the accepted science on their suitability for certain ecosystems – what researchers learn here in the nature preserve will help them identify the locations in the Great Lakes that are most likely to be preferred habitat if and when tench arrive. 

Telling Environment Stories Better – In Analog and Digital!

Natural resource stories are some of the hardest to fit into the usual journalism mold. Or, as our esteemed founder always put it, “they don’t break, they ooze.” Adding to the difficulty,  journalists have now traded the role of gatekeepers for one of sifters and winnowers in a digital world – finding facts in a deluge of information. We sat down for an afternoon of exploring some of the difficulties of doing “good” journalism on complex issues, examining some of the stories we’d encountered on our trip and talking tips and tricks for getting the most out of our own reporting and writing. We also explored useful tools that can help journalists investigate issues, tell stories better and reach a wider audience.