Preserving tradition, restoring rivers
By Aleisha Pannozzo
This month, I had the opportunity to interview Kayla Sunday, Environmental Programs Manager, and Britney Bourdages, Environmental Projects and Remedial Action Plan Coordinator, of the Environment Program at Mohawk Council of Akwesasne (MCA). Through our chat, Kayla and Britney shared the amazing work that the MCA’s Environment Program has undertaken in their territory. They have a substantial aquatics program that focuses on the health of the Kaniatarowanenneh (St. Lawrence River), as well as a terrestrial program that involves culturally based environmental assessments, turtle incubation programs, stewardship initiatives and much, much more.
MCA’s Environment Program strives to achieve Sken:nen (Peace) for all of creation by undertaking projects and services that respect, preserve, and protect the natural world (MCA). The aquatics program heavily focuses on the health of the St. Lawrence River—and for good reason. Akwesasronon have lived alongside the St. Lawrence River for thousands of years and have always lived in harmony with the natural environment.
“We turn our minds to all the Fish life in the water. They were instructed to cleanse and purify the water. They also give themselves to us as food. We are grateful that we can still find pure water. So, we turn now to the Fish and send our greetings and thanks. Now our minds are one.”
This excerpt is from Ohen:ton Karihwateh:kwen (Thanksgiving Address), which is recited at the opening and closing of ceremonial gatherings and other significant events, as a reminder of essential elements to be collectively thankful for. Fish are important to the Mohawks, and their relationship has been disrupted by environmental contamination. The creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway opened up opportunities for industrial factories, and this operational hub became the source of decades of industrial pollution that severely degraded the health of the river and its surrounding community (L.A Times). In 1987, after data indicated the severity of the situation, the St. Lawrence River Cornwall/Akwesasne area was designated as an Area of Concern (AOC) by the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
At the time, the MCA played a key role in seeking this designation due to the widespread impact that Akwesasronon experienced over decades as a result of this extensive industrial pollution. This contamination not only affected the health of the river but also the cultural traditions of the Mohawks who relied on the river and its fish for food.
A remedial action plan (RAP) was developed to define water quality issues and identify specific remedial actions needed to improve the health of the river, local ecosystems, and local communities. It focuses on Beneficial Use Impairments (BUIs)— impairments from human activity that negatively affect the use or enjoyment of the river. The St. Lawrence River Area of Concern at Cornwall and Akwesasne has 14 BUIs, 7 of which have been deemed ‘unimpaired’ since the last assessment in 2022 (St. Lawrence River RAP). Due to the nature of the relationship between the river and Mohawks, MCA is in the process of creating Cultural Delisting Criteria to ensure a more holistic and complete overview of the BUIs, which were established in the late 80s and only included Western scientific criteria.
They continue to be at the center of collaborating with various government departments, agencies, and environmental organizations to restore the health of the St. Lawrence River and preserve the cultural traditions that are so intimately woven with it. Please read below to learn about the amazing work that the Environment Program is doing to restore the health of the St. Lawrence River. For a deeper dive into MCA's extensive range of projects beyond the river, I invite you to explore their website and Facebook page.
I would like to extend my sincerest gratitude to two remarkable women who play pivotal roles in the Environment Program at MCA— Kayla Sunday and Britney Bourdages. Their willingness to generously share their time with me to discuss the multitude of projects underway at MCA has been instrumental in shedding light on the vital work being done in Akwesasne and along the St. Lawrence River. This piece would not be possible without their wealth of knowledge, invaluable insights and contributions.
Eutrophication Monitoring Study
In partnership with the River Institute (RI) and Raisin Region Conservation Authority, MCA is conducting a 2-year eutrophication monitoring study. The purpose is to conduct water quality monitoring in tributaries, tributary mouths and at offshore areas within the St. Lawrence River Area of Concern at Cornwall and Akwesasne. They will be assessing nitrogen, phosphorus, and fecal coliform levels, to help assess the status of BUI #8- Eutrophication and Undesirable Algae. In addition to monitoring for algal blooms, they will be sampling benthic invertebrates for further analysis of water quality. In the event that test results determine unhealthy levels of these nutrients, point sources of contamination will be identified.
MCA is in their second year of osprey monitoring to inform the Remedial Action Plan for BUI #3- Degradation of Fish and Wildlife Populations. One of the delisting criteria for this BUI includes the presence of successfully reproducing osprey in the Area of Concern for a minimum 5 years. In 2023, they observed 3 successful nests, with chicks reaching fledgling status; however, not all nests were successful, with some remaining vacant or experiencing unsuccessful reproduction. Ospreys are a type of hawk that are protected under the Ontario Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act. The St. Lawrence River provides important habitat and is a critical food source for ospreys who depend on fish from the river. These birds impact fish population sizes, maintaining the delicate balance of the food web, and ultimately contributing to the health and vitality of the river (River Rapport).
Fish Contaminant Study
In the Fall of 2020, the MCA led a 2 year contamination study for local fish found in Akwesasne waters that have previously been under-sampled through provincial fish contaminant monitoring programs. Over 300 fish were sampled and sent to the lab to be tested for mercury and PCB. The data is currently being analyzed to help inform consumption guidelines and will be used to inform BUI #1 Restriction on Fish and Wildlife Consumption. Lake sturgeon and American eel— both culturally significant species to Akwesasronon—are presently being sampled and will be sent to the lab for contaminant testing to provide a comprehensive study that is inclusive to their values. If any eels are sick, morbidly injured or dead, they will also be necropsied to determine if they were from stocked or native populations, which will help determine the effectiveness of stocking programs and provide further insight into the health of native populations.
Fish Identification Nearshore Study (FINS)
The Fish Identification Nearshore Study (FINS) began in 2015 as a partnership between MCA and the RI in an effort to understand and monitor changes in nearshore fish communities in the Upper St. Lawrence River and its tributaries. This research project is the most comprehensive study of its kind and has resulted in one of the largest datasets for the upper St. Lawrence River. MCA has secured funding for the next few years to conduct an MCA-led Akwesasne Chapter of this project. The goal is assess nearshore populations and water quality parameters to help determine future restoration projects and provide data to inform our knowledge in relation to the current health of our shoreline communities. Methods for FINS include using drones to lessen impacts on the ecosystem, so a strong focus for the MCA has been training for aerial drone certification. A few weeks ago the RI and MCA FINS teams identified an invasive species, the rusty crawfish, at yellow island. They are an aggressive species that easily spreads and can outcompete for resources with native crawfish. They’ll be documenting their spread in Akwesasne and the upper St. Lawrence River to better manage their invasive population.
Understanding Sturgeon to Protect our Future
As the oldest and largest native fish species found in the North American great lakes system, lake sturgeon have swam our waters for over 200 million years. Yet, their survival is being threatened by human activity. Poor water quality, over-harvesting, habitat degradation and fragmentation (via dams and other barriers) have endangered the Great Lakes-upper St. Lawrence population in Ontario. Complicating matters, lake sturgeon are late-maturing and only reproduce every 4 years on average, making repopulation all the more difficult (NWF). Recognizing the severity of the situation, MCA is conducting an initiative funded by the Aboriginal Fund for Species at Risk (AFSAR) to assess populations of lake sturgeon in the St. Lawrence river. They will monitor, survey and implement initiatives, such as spawning beds, to restore populations. They recently received telemetry equipment courtesy of the Canadian Wildlife Foundation, which will be used to better understand spatial movements of lake sturgeon to identify critical habitats for remediation or restoration. So far they have tagged 20-30 sturgeon through work with Traditional Practitioners— fisher-people who work with sturgeon for ceremonial purposes. These practitioners are integral to preserving cultural traditions and facilitating the transmission of cultural knowledge that has been passed down for millennia.
Lake sturgeon hold deep cultural significance to the Mohawks of Akwesasne. From the art of fishing, to the intricacies of cleaning, smoking and eating, these traditional practices flow through generations and continue to this day. Rooted in family and community sharing, these skills are often taught in Kanien’keha (Mohawk language) (SRMT). The MCA, along with partners such as the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, continue to work towards the conservation of lake sturgeon to protect populations— and by extension, Mohawk heritage. Community workshops for lake sturgeon and American eel are planned for this year to nurture this connection and celebrate their traditional uses, from food preparation, medicinal uses and textiles, ensuring that their cultural legacy continues to thrive.