Swimming against the current: more than a century later, gaspereau are back

 HALIFAX – Gaspereau have returned to Indian River on the St. Margaret’s Bay Hydro System for the first time in well over 100 years.

On May 16, 1881, an inspector with the then federal Department of Marine and Fisheries toured the St. Margaret’s Bay watershed and noted the lack of fish because dams used for running and milling logs did not have fish ladders.

Nova Scotia Power now uses that system to generate 30 gigawatt hours of hydroelectricity a year. Last year, the utility invested $4 million into building the largest fish ladder in Nova Scotia at Sandy Lake Dam.

On May 17 - 135 years and one day after the federal inspector had been there - a field biologist with Nova Scotia Power checked the ladder and spotted three gaspereau in the resting pools.

“It’s awesome, it’s absolutely awesome,” said Darcy Pettipas, the senior environmental technologist who for two weeks had been checking the ladder for signs of the fish. He’d seen speckled trout and smallmouth bass, but no gaspereau.

Pettipas was working on another project the day the biologist saw the three gaspereau. He headed out to the fish ladder the next day and dipped his underwater live view camera into the fishway.

It turns out there were so many gaspereau he didn’t need the camera. “We saw many gaspereau throughout the ladder as well as speckled trout, smallmouth bass and a white sucker,” Pettipas said.

“We weren’t sure if the gaspereau would come back or not,” said senior environmental scientist Jay Walmsley. That’s because it had been generations since gaspereau last spawned in this river system.

The intent of the ladder is to ensure the passage of species of fish that have to migrate to fulfill their life cycles, such as gaspereau and the endangered Southern Upland Atlantic salmon. Gaspereau swim up the river in the spring to spawn in the still waters of the lake then swim back to sea in the fall.

“Gaspereau tend to go back to spawn in the same river that they’re used to. They imprint on the steam on their way out, and when they come back to spawn, most go up the river they were born in,” Walmsley said.

But it seems the new fish ladder, through both its design and the 30 cubic feet per second of water that flows through it, created enough white, bubbly water in the river to attract some of the fish to the ladder.

From the ladder, the fish will make their way to Sandy Lake.

“Gaspereau are important because they bring nutrients from the ocean and the more different types of fish we have in the system, the greater the diversity and productivity, and the healthier the system,” Walmsley said. “They are very beneficial to the ecosystem.”

Walmsley said this success holds tremendous potential. It’s hoped the fish will eventually extend to the whole catchment area of the Indian River.