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When children of the James Bay Cree grow old enough to hunt, their elders take them for a Walking Out.

“It’s the first time a child touches the ground, the first time meeting Mother Nature,” said Davey Bobbish, chief of the Chisasibi Cree along the bay’s eastern coast.

“It symbolizes Nature welcoming another hunter, providing food and resources. The child is welcomed into Nature.”

Once, Chisasibi’s children could Walk Out practically from their front door, and every spring and fall, rich beds of eelgrass just offshore filled with tens of thousands of geese.

“It touched your heart, seeing all those geese.”

But when Bobbish takes his two grandchildren Walking Out in a few weeks, he will have to go far to the south. The eelgrass is gone and the geese no longer come to Chisasibi.

“There’s been a lot of changes.”

Eelgrass meadows are considered one of the most productive habitats on Earth. They clarify runoff, shelter fish, feed birds, house bugs and snails and anchor the entire near-shore ecosystem. They are protected under the federal Fisheries Act.

The Cree suspect Hydro-Quebec’s massive dams and reservoirs along the La Grande and Eastmain rivers release so much fresh water they have damaged, if not destroyed, the salt-loving eelgrass beds all the way up to Hudson Bay, more than 100 kilometres north.

They may be right, said Fred Short, a seagrass ecologist with the University of New Hampshire. He began studying James Bay in 2004 and now, halfway through a four-year research program on eelgrass, his work suggests a link between Hydro-Quebec’s operations and the marine plant’s disappearance.

“We found very low salinities in areas where eelgrass was just hanging on,” he said.

In 2008, Short found that salinity lower than 10 parts per thousand was fatal to eelgrass.

Before development, water that fresh used to be found only around the mouth of the La Grande River. But now it’s found as far as 40 kilometres up the coast.

As well, water from the La Grande reservoir is silty, allowing less light to filter down to the grass.

River outflows also have increased 60 per cent. After 2000, most of the water has tended to come in high summer, peak growing season for eelgrass.

Finally, freshwater freezes more quickly than seawater. A longer ice season means less eelgrass growth.

Hydro-Quebec referred questions to Niskamoon Corp., which oversees agreements between the power company and the Cree. The utility has said in the past that the problem is caused by disease, climate change and shoreline changes.

Short discounts those suggestions.

“Salinity (is) a big part of the problem, and water clarity is also a concern.”

He isn’t ready to unequivocally blame eelgrass loss on Hydro-Quebec. Upstream agriculture and deforestation could play a role.

Final answers may be coming. Short is part of a new research effort co-sponsored by Hydro-Quebec and Niskamoon Corp.

The study began in 2016 after loud complaints from all four communities along the east coast of James Bay, said Robbie Tapiatic, Niskamoon’s director of remedial works.

“The concern of the people was getting louder and louder. We want to go in detail what the real cause is.”

Researchers from three universities – with assistance from local people – are looking at James Bay, the 13 rivers that flow into it and the plants and animals that live there.

“We will be able to understand, at least, the connection between that and hydroelectric development,” said Marc Dunn, Niskamoon’s environment director. “We’ll be able to see what sort of development projects may be contributing to lower water quality.”

The Cree hope the research will suggest ways to fix the problem.

“We’re hoping for a series of recommendations, if there’s anything we can do to minimize the effect on the eelgrass,” Dunn said.

But it’ll be a couple years before anything emerges.

Meanwhile, the Cree adjust.

Wild geese, which once made up half the meat on their tables, have been largely replaced by store food – neither as fresh nor as healthy.

That’s not the only consequence, said Bobbish.

“It was excitement, a tradition. Ever since the disappearance of the eelgrass, we’ve lost a lot of it.

“The way we teach our children how to handle themselves out on the bay, even the names of the islands, Cree terminology ... this is what we’re losing.”

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