Saturday, 30 July 2011

Fishkill: Noun or Verb

It's understandable, but unacceptable. Last week's monsoon-like rain led to an extensive fishkill in three rivers in Western PEI. There's been the usual hand-wringing and accusations, and promises to fully investigate and make improvements. I feel sad and discouraged for the watershed management groups who volunteer so much time and can see stocking efforts lost in a heartbeat, for the many farmers who have taken steps to farm more responsibly but will be tarred with the same brush as the few who haven't,  and for people who expect that whomever is responsible (the final verdict isn't in, but all signs point to fungicide, possibly insecticide runoff from a potato field) will be held accountable, because that too is unlikely.  These fishkills are difficult  to investigate (dead fish are found hours even days after they died, and often well away from where they were killed, water samples are diluted, etc. etc). Prosecution presents more challenges. Judges have been convinced that  if farmers have the proper buffer zone (fifteen meters) and are following the same practices as other farmers,  then they can't be held responsible.

Here are a few things I learned  over the years:
1. Most farmers are very well aware that they're handling dangerous materials when they head out into the field with the sprayer, but as the Irish potato famine attested, if a farmer (conventional or organic) doesn't spray to prevent late blight (it's too late once the fungus lands on the potato leaf, these fungicides coat the leaves to kill the fungus spores blown in on the wind) then they won't have a crop to harvest, and the multiplication of spores will make them very unwelcome to their neighbours as well.

2. As potato farms got bigger to cope with low prices, farmers have little choice but to spray when they'd rather not: when the wind is blowing for example, or just before big rains are predicted.  It's a bad excuse, but a legitimate one.

3. Organic farming in and of itself is no solution.  The copper-based fungicides used by organic farmers to control late blight are just as dangerous to fish as the ones used by conventional farmers:

4. Unfortunately, hilling potatoes creates perfect gutter-like furrows that can move a lot of water and soil very quickly where there's any slope. One solution for this is something some farmers on PEI are using called a dammer-diker.

It creates a series of small reservoirs in the furrows that capture and hold runoff. Could this (should this) be mandatory equipment on sloping land around waterways??

5. I think the real solution is what's called a riparian zone around waterways. This upgrades the fifteen meter buffer zone to include shrubs and trees that can soak up runoff (not just pesticides but nitrates as well).

This is obviously a long-term project.  Here's what I'm thinking: whether farmers like it or not, fifteen meters is the law,  so maybe take the outside five meters for planting trees and shrubs. There is financial support to do this, and in fact the ALUS program will also make yearly payments if the outside 5 meters are turned into a riparian zone.  I think this gives farmers some cover as well to continue to use the pesticides that are unfortunately absolutely necessary to staying in business, organic or not. If these pesticides remain on the field where they're needed rather than in waterways, then everyone and everything is better off.

6. And finally I wish all of this had been dealt with fifteen years ago when the Royal Commission on Land Use presented its report. There would have been a lot of upheaval, anger, and political fallout at the time, but maybe, just maybe the province would be better prepared to deal with more severe weather events from  climate change, and the word fishkill might slowly be forgotten.

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