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Runoff from potato farms blamed for fish kills on Canadian island.

With thousands of dead fish--including salmon, speckled trout, and rainbow trout--two fish kills in Prince Edward Island's Dunk and Tryon Rivers in the summer of 2007 serve as a wakeup call for better management of agricultural land in a Canadian province where potatoes are the largest crop.

Fish kills are not new to this small, 150-mile-long island nestled between the Northumberland Strait and the Gulf of St. Lawrence on Canada's east coast. Since 1994 there have been 29 reported fish kills in Prince Edward Island's streams and rivers. All are attributed to agricultural runoff.

Todd Dupuis, director of regional programs for the Atlantic Salmon Federation, talks about the lack of implementation of the Prince Edward Island Environmental Farm Plan and the legislated 10-meter (30-foot) buffer zones. "It's true a large proportion of farmers have gone through the plan, but there is no compulsory need to implement it," says Dupuis.

Prince Edward Island Environment Minister George Webster, who is a potato farmer in the Maple Plains area, says there are two parts to the buffer zone legislation. One part is enforced, and in the other farmers volunteer to implement berms, grassed waterways, and terracing of fields.

Todd Dupuis also believes the 10-meter buffer zone is too narrow and is not adequate to filter pesticides. The zones "were designed to protect rivers from sunlight, to provide food for the river in the form of leaves, insects, and other vegetation," he says. According to Dupuis, there is currently no buffer zone wide enough to stop heavy rainfall laden with farm chemicals. "It just blows right through."

In addition, Dupuis questions a slope legislation allowing potatoes on any land 9 degrees or greater. "That 9 degree slope is where you get terrible erosion. We need to take the land out of production."

Gerald MacDougall, manager of forest, fish and wildlife for the Prince Edward Island Department of Environment, says when it comes to collecting water samples following a kill, "Chemicals can be flushed out in a couple of hours." So the sooner they hear of a fish kill, the better. He notes that buffer zones are primarily engineered to "catch the end," and he adds, "There's a lot more to it than buffer zones."

The fact that the red clay of Prince Edward Island is highly erodible from rain compared to the soil of other Canadian provinces plays a big part in the fish kills. The pesticides often adhere to the soil and are washed into streams with the soil after a heavy rain. "Farmers are obliged to do everything they can to prevent a chemical spill or runoff, but there's not a lot the farmers can afford to do as long as consumers' demand is for cheaper potatoes," says MacDougall.

Kevin MacIsaac, chair of the Prince Edward Island Potato Board, says growers have spent the last few years installing buffers and removing some potatoes from hilly land. "When I heard about this, I said it's a sad day for Islanders, and I felt bad for the farmer who might have caused it," says MacIsaac.

John Clements, head of the investigation and enforcement for the Prince Edward Island Department of Environment, indicates a loophole prevents charges being made for the recent fish kills. Provincial lawyers have determined that a section of the legislation written in 2002 is so confusing, it would be impossible to get a conviction.

That loophole protects six potato farmers found to be in violation. Clements says he saw problems with the legislation when it was written. When the legislation was passed, "the field offices felt they would have a problem dealing with it," recalls Clements.

In some cases, fields do not have proper buffer zones and problems exist with headlands having rows ending in clay or potatoes. The farm operations were directed to remove the potato headlands within 48 hours and establish a grass cover. "To date, 95% of that has been done," says Clements.

Environment Minister George Webster intends to enforce and/or change the laws surrounding buffer zone legislation. Webster says he is unhappy that legislation was passed with so many loopholes. "What's on paper is not adequate for a conviction and that appalls me."

The minister says his department will move immediately to plug the discovered loopholes. "Our department will invest in the resources needed to make sure this important piece of legislation does what Islanders want and expect it to do: protect our environment."

Kathy Birt is a freelance writer living in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada.
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Title Annotation:IN THE NEWS; Prince Edward Island
Author:Birt, Kathy
Publication:Journal of Soil and Water Conservation
Geographic Code:1CPRI
Date:Nov 1, 2007
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