For just over a decade, Mattagami First Nation has been involved in an “exciting adventure” to restore the walleye population in a local lake.
The community runs a hatchery that they use to fertilize walleye eggs and release between one million to two million fish back into Mattagami Lake.
Chief Chad Boissoneau said it feels good knowing he’s involved in a project like this.
“It’s an exciting adventure,“ he said.
Walleye, also known as pickerel, is a precious commodity to First Nations people because they rely on it for food, he said.
Mattagami Lake has been used by First Nation communities for fishing and hunting for decades. The number of people using the lake has doubled over the last 10 years, Boissoneau said.
Since there can be between 200 and 300 boats a day on the lake on the weekend and about 100 boats on a weekday, the walleye population has been decreasing, the chief said.
As the community relies on traditional activities such as fishing, it’s important to look after the future generation, he said.
“The reason why we did it is that the impact on our on the lake is maxed out right now. The elders and the community members know when they can’t go and catch the six or seven fish they usually catch, there’s an issue,” he said.
Before the hatchery started, the chief let the Ministry of Natural Resources know what they were planning to do.
Boissoneau said the ministry was reluctant to help the community and required a study first.
“When my Elders can’t go there and catch the fish like they normally do, that tells me the population is going down. I don’t need no scientists coming here and telling me that,” the chief said.
The results from the study, which was done after the hatchery had started operating, showed the population of walleye was indeed down, Boissoneau said.
The hatchery started out of a small building that was used for fishing derbies with some available funding coming from Nishnawbe Aski Nation, the chief said. The brand new building was constructed the following year.
Boissoneau said the hatchery is simple to operate and requires minimum management or knowledge.
The project’s volunteer and sponsor Marc Caron said he’s never seen anything so rewarding.
“The positive feedback we would get from the surrounding communities is rewarding on its own. For so many years, First Nations communities were accused of over-harvesting and whatnot. This is our chance to change that stigma and actually give back with the surplus,” he said.
As the walleye spawn at night, the volunteers set up the nets in the evening. If you miss the spawning period, you need to wait another year, Boissoneau said.
On average, volunteers collect about 12 females weighing over five pounds and 24 males, he said. The females and males are all released back into the water after.
The whole process lasts up to 30-35 days. It involves catching live fish, milking the female fish, fertilizing the eggs, mixing them with a feather and incubating the eggs inside the bell jars for about 21 days, depending on the water temperature.
Once they hatch, the fish — known as fry at that point — are released back into the lake at several strategic places.
The water in the hatchery is drawn from the lake. They could control the hatching but, “then we’re just messing around with something that we shouldn’t be doing,” Boissoneau said.
From the fertilization to the hatching stage, a walleye has a one to five per cent chance of survival in the wild, according to Caron and Boissoneau. With the hatchery, that rate is boosted to 95-99 per cent chance.
Boissoneau said eliminating predation allows more eggs to hatch.
“I don’t know how much percent survives after we put them into feeding ground,” he said. “We eliminate that predation that would happen in natural (environment).”
If possible, the community would like to have a rearing pond to grow walleye to a bigger size. That would be a “big undertaking” requiring full-time work and knowing how much food to put in so that walleye don’t eat each other, Caron said.
“We’re not properly set up for that at the time. This is why we give it back to Mother Nature at the fry level and hope she takes over from that point,” he said. “The bigger you release them, the better the chances of survival they have.”
Based on the feedback from community members, lots of small fish are now being caught, too, which indicates the lake’s fish population is being restocked, Boissoneau said.
Had there been more people helping to harvest fish, they’d be able to collect more eggs and expand the hatchery, Caron noted.
“As far as the amount of fish we collect during our harvest, that’s pretty well is the capacity of the hatchery,” he said.
It’s important the fish is collected from the Mattagami Lake and is returned to the same lake, Caron said. The community is considering tagging the female fish so they know whether they had already caught it before.
Throughout the years, mining companies like Lake Shore Gold, IAMGOLD and GoldCorp, and other corporate donors have been helping fund the project.
According to Boissoneau’s estimates, it takes about $50,000 to set up the hatchery and get all building supplies and water reservoirs. After that, it’s between $15,000 to $20,000 to manage it.
Whatever funding they get each year, they ensure they have enough to give to volunteers and community members who help out by paying for their gas or throwing a community barbecue, the chief said.
There’s usually one full-time person who is hired to manage the hatchery for 30-35 days. They also hired Elders and community members who collect the fish, according to Boissoneau.
For the chief, it’s also a good feeling when he sees students come over to learn and help. There’s also a micro-hatchery with one bell jar and a reservoir at the school.
“One of our biggest achievements is getting all the young people involved. They actually see the full process, they participate, understand the concept,” Caron added.
There’s been some negativity about the hatchery with some complaining it’s against Mother Nature, Boissoneau said.
“This process has been going on for years, years before we got involved. It’s been around for quite a while,” he said. “I really don’t focus on the negativity.”