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Mining companies keep draining Arctic lakes and moving all of their fish

Despite the fact that the last time they tried this, 40 percent of the fish died, the mining company is pretty sure this will work out for the best.

by Hilary Beaumont
Jul 5 2016, 8:54pm

Des poissons de l'Arctique semblables à ceux qui seront relocalisés dans le Nunavut. (Bob Wick/Alaska Bureau of Land Management)

In what's being called a "fishout program," Canada's most remote northern territory has given the go-ahead for a mining company to drain an entire lake and relocate all of its fish. Once mining is done, the company plans to re-flood the lakebed and put the fish back.

Though the plan may seem absurd at first blush, it's actually the second time the mining company has relocated fish from a lake in order to expand its open pit Meadowbank gold mine — a practice by mining companies that's become surprisingly common in northern Canada.

It's become so normal that the Canadian government drew up guidelines in 2011 for how mining companies should drain lakes and relocate fish.

Agnico Eagle Mines Ltd. wants to drain 500,000 cubic metres of water from Phaser Lake in Nunavut, one of Canada's three arctic territories. The lake, a wolf head-shaped body of water with a maximum depth of five metres that's home to a small population of lake trout and round whitefish, would be drained and treated. From there, the water and the fish will be dumped into nearby Wally Lake.

The fish relocation would happen before the end of August, if the project gets final approval from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

It's unlikely all the fish will survive the relocation. In the company's previous lake-draining fish relocation, 40 percent of the fish died. And in a January 15 letter, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans warned the company that Wally Lake "may already be at carrying capacity," meaning new fish would have to compete for the same resources as the fish that are already there. That could mean even more dead fish.

But the company promises that once mining is done, it will re-flood the lakebed and connect it with nearby lakes, which ultimately would have a positive impact on the fish. In a presentation, the company said the fishout would only affect one bird — a single loon that has been observed on the lake. The company also promised to monitor water levels in lakes downstream to make sure they're not affected.

The company says the expansion would contribute 600 new jobs to Nunavut by 2020. The expansion would yield 400,000 tonnes of ore.

According to DFO regulations, there are different methods for fishouts, but generally they involve first estimating the fish population, then using nets cast from boats to catch the fish. Once most of the fish have been caught, the lake is drained to concentrate the fish in one area, and then it's a free-for-all and pretty much any fish-catching techniques can be used, including baited lines and electrofishing, which is exactly what it sounds like — electrocuting the fish.

The caught fish chill out in holding tanks so they can de-stress before being released into their new lake home.

In its previous fishout, the company said the dead fish were either fed to dogs, or used for biological research — but it hopes to have better success this time around.

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @HilaryBeaumont