Siltation, sawmills and salmon on the Medway

Could the return of salmon to our rivers be a unifying goal for all Nova Scotians; and the return itself the principal criterion for sustainable management of whole watersheds (including the forests)?

CBC News reports that a fishing guide has lodged some complaints about chronic siltation events on the Medway River. The silt is derived from sawmill wastes on the Freeman Lumber property in Greenfield.

“Bangs Falls, N.S., resident Paul Connolly dips his hand into the Medway River and it disappears into the grey, silty water pouring in from the Freeman Lumber Mill property just upstream.

“The sawmill is not going away. It has to stay. It’s an employer in Queens County, but it’s having such an adverse effect on our river,” says Connolly, a local fishing guide fed up with chronic siltation from the mill.

“He says rains of five centimetres or more result in a mud slick of siltation and whatever else is in the mill yard, which stays in the river for up to 16 hours.”

View Silt runoff from big Nova Scotia sawmill under investigation
Paul Withers for CBC News, Apr 19, 2018.

The article reports that “two years ago, the province ordered Freeman Lumber to come up with a plan to divert water around its facility at Greenfield”, also that Freeman Lumber
has spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years on siltation control with mixed results.” Siltation is especially damaging to salmonid spawning habitat.

The Medway was once the largest or amongst largest two or three salmon-producing rivers in Nova Scotia* but as in most other rivers, salmon populations have undergone almost continuous decline since the arrival of European settlers.
*“Thomas E Knight, Report on the Fisheries of Nova Scotia (Halifax: Grant, 1867), p. 26, states that in 1815, as many as eight hundred tierces (378 000 live lb) of salmon were being taken from one of Nova Scotia’s larger rivers. This was probably the Mersey, although the Medway and LaHave rivers cannot be ruled out. It is rather difficult to accept that such a catch actually came from one river system.” – Note 89 in The Atlantic Salmon in the History of North America by RW Dunfield 1985. Canadian Special Publication of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 80.

The many mills constructed on the river from the late 1700s through the 1800s were a major factor in salmon decline. Today surface water acidification associated with acid rain/low buffering capacity of the watershed is the major impediment to re-establishing salmon in the Medway, and in other watersheds of Nova Scotia’s southern uplands. Clearcutting increases water acidification (as well as degrading habitat by hydrological and other mechanisms), thus clearcutting should be severely restricted in acid-stressed watersheds of Nova Scotia.

The Medway River Salmon Association, founded in 2007, strives to re-establish salmon in the Medway and improve habitat for both salmon and trout.

Some fascinating details about the history of salmon in Nova Scotia rivers and elsewhere in northeastern North America are given by RW Dunfield in The Atlantic Salmon in the History of North America (1985)

Declines in salmon were related to mills and sawdust as early as the latter 1700s:

In his diary of 1795, the Reverend James Munroe reported the following about the LaHave River salmon: [They] come on the beginning of April, for common, and run a little more than two months….The salmon is said not to be near so plenty as they were, owing, people think, to so many sawmills upon the rive. No doubt the sawdust, for one thing, and the dams, for another, prevent them getting up the river to the lake to spawn, or their catching them about the time they spawn. Whatever cause it may be owing to, the salmon are not near so plenty as they were on the rivers along the coast, and the people on general assign the above reasons for it.

Footnote #63 cites what was likely an early Freeman family mill:

Timber, however, soon competed with fish, and by the turn of the century, milldams were being erected on many streams; there were at least three such dams on the St. Croix above Scoodic Falls by 1802, facilitating the enormous timber industry that developed on the watershed. In the construction of these dams, little consideration was apparently given to the passage of fish. Some of the early structures, however, did not hinder movement, as they were built only partially across the stream bed, or were left open for certain periods of the year. 63

Note 63: Such dams were still in evidence in the Maritimes in the twentieth century; the remains of such a structure could be seen on the Medway River, at Greenfield, Nova Scotia, in 1967.

The connections between salmon and forestry must be well understood by Harry Freeman & Sons who have operated mills on the Medway since 1830. Remarkably, the late Harry Freeman was a fisheries scientist and a lumberman:

[Harry Freeman] was recognized internationally as a scientist, authoring, co-authoring and refereeing scientific papers. He developed laboratory research methods still in use today, and pioneered in studies of fish health, particularly that of the Atlantic salmon.

At the same time, as Charalyn said, he lived and breathed forestry, working in partnership with his father – also named Harry Freeman – in developing the lumber mill in Greenfield and serving on a variety of forestry boards and in forestry associations. When his father died in 1982 Harry continued to build the industry in Greenfield. Harry’s own sons, Charlie and Richard, joined the company, with Charlie serving today as company president.

From Celebrating the life of Harry Freeman, Nova News Now, Jan 30, 2010″

All of which leads me to wonder… why couldn’t the return of salmon to our rivers be a unifying goal for all Nova Scotians; and the return itself the principal criterion for sustainable management of whole watersheds (including the forests)?

Dreaming? Talk to Walter Regan! Talk to the Atlantic Salmon Federation. Talk to the Nova Scotia Salmon Association and learn how some of the choices we make individually can help (or hurt) salmon. Talk to the dozens of salmon/river/wildlife associations in Nova Scotia. We can learn from and be inspired by salmon recoveries in the U.K. Perhaps most of all, we can be inspired by this most magnificent fish itself and its long history in Nova Scotia.

Peverill’s Brook close to where it flows into Marsh Lake and thence into the Sackville River. The “digger log’ was installed by the Sackville Rivers Association

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