Documentary shows fish kills impact

Mary MacKay
Published on August 25, 2014

Fish Tales P.E.I. is a short documentary produced about Island rivers.

©Submitted photo

After a third fish kill in as many years, a quartet of creative and environmentally attuned Prince Edward Islanders decided it was time rivers had a voice.

Now after a year in production and a film launch at Macphail Woods Nature Centre in Orwell last week, Fish Tales P.E.I. is available to watch online for free on Vimeo.

This short documentary, shot on Prince Edward Island in the summer of 2013, captures how Islanders interact with rivers and also their perspectives on the future of the province's watershed heritage.

"It's been very much a labour of love over the past year. We really just want people to see it, talk about it and go from there with their own ideas and hopes and plans," says Connor Leggott, who co-produced Fish Tales P.E.I. with fellow volunteer filmmakers Adnan Saciragic, Ashley Prince and Hanna Hameline.

Last year's fish kill spawned the idea for a video that would explore how local rivers and waterways influence Islanders' views on social and environmental issues.

"We basically wanted to tell stories about the human impact of fish kills and then to go beyond that as well because if you want to talk about a problem we don't want to just hit someone over the head with a hammer with bad news," Leggot says.

"I think for socially-conscious PSAs that's a trap they can find themselves in. If you just give bad news-bad news it's something people get tired of hearing, so we really wanted to explore what are Islanders historic connection with rivers and what are people's really personal stories and connections. . . whether it was family, work or volunteering.

"And then we got into what do you see in rivers today, what are the challenges you see? And what can you see looking forward?"

The film crew team interviewed people who derived their living from the waterways, such as shell fishers and watershed group staff, representatives from the agricultural industry and others.

"We also talked with people who had really strong family connections (to rivers). One story that opens up the documentary that is one of my favourites is a PhD candidate at the university who studies rivers and river habitat but he talks about as a kid walking along rivers and using a pussy willow branch as a fishing rod, how he learned that from his dad and it was passed down. That's something really special," Leggott says.

"He really typifies what Fish Tales is all about. . . someone who has a really personal connection, but someone who is also today really passionate about the scientific aspect of rivers: protection, studying fish habitat, fish spawning patterns and things like that."

In co-producing the film Leggott got to delve a little deeper into the subject of "fish kills."

"People described fish kills as a big high-publicity event that the media really goes for, then after a couple of weeks the talk about it dies off, but the effects of fish kills lasts longer than that," he says.

"And there are also other connected problems; the biggest one people mentioned was sedimentation, which is dirt, especially topsoil from road construction, from agriculture that runs into the rivers. And there are different problems from that that people discuss; one of that is it disrupts the habitat of the trout, for example, they need to lay their eggs in a gravel bottom bed and if there's too much sediment going in then that disrupts their habitat and reduces their ability to spawn for future generations."

The other river-destroying culprit that goes along with the sedimentation is nitrogen fertilizer - nitrates - that washes from fields into rivers as well.

"That's when we get things like anoxic events and nitrification where the nitrogen causes a lot of plants like sea lettuce, which grows and blooms in the water, and when it dies off it sucks a lot of the oxygen out of the water. You get these stinky white milky green estuaries and then you also have fish, shellfish and other critters that are living in the water that die off from that as well," Leggott says.

"Another interesting point that a lot of people brought up was that people talk about fish kills but the more appropriate term is river kills because it's not just fish that are affected. . . ."

One common thread throughout, Leggott says, whether the interviewees lived in watersheds areas, were farmers or with the Federation of Agriculture, was that they all recognized topsoil can't be leaving the fields and that better crop rotation and soil management practices are needed.

Leggott hopes the film puts the spotlight on rivers as being an important part of our heritage that needs to be appreciated.

"And part of that appreciation means knowing more about what's going on and caring about what is being done with rivers, caring about the direction they're going in, and whether that means just continuing the conversation and fostering that understanding or whether it means speaking up to government or industry or watershed groups or any other player in that, speaking up with them to let them know what people want with their rivers."