Tidal Series: An Interview with Dr. Paul Stephenson

Dr. Paul Stephenson is a professor in the department of Mathematics and Statistics at Acadia University and the president of the Striped Bass Association. He is in his second year as president, having served on the executive for around five years. As an angler, he has fished striped bass recreationally all over the province, from the Bay of Fundy to Cape Breton. Recently, the Striped Bass Association has released a document to the press highlighting their concerns and opinions on the development of tidal energy in the Bay of Fundy, published in response to the planned installation of the two 2-MW turbines in the Minas Passage by Cape Sharp Tidal. Dr. Stephenson encourages anyone who is interested or would like to voice their concerns to visit the Striped Bass Association’s website, where they can join as a member completely free of charge. The press release can also be found at the organization’s website: http://stripedbassassociation.ca/home.html.

Kody Crowell: So starting off, you would say that tidal energy and angling are issues you care very much about?

Paul Stephenson: Yes, very much so, and I think that it’s an issue that crosses international boundaries. Right now, there are about seven thousand striped bass anglers in Nova Scotia, and it’s about a nine million dollar industry in terms of gear, bait and so on. This number pales to the North-Eastern United States where there’s about four million fishermen, all contributing to a multi-billion dollar industry. Trust me, right now this isn’t an issue with our American neighbours, but it will be if it ever went commercial and put hundreds of turbines out there.

KC: Why do you think others, including students in Nova Scotia should care about this as well?

PS: Well, there are a lot of students I have seen out there, and I have even given some of them bait when they ran out of their own [laughs]. I think there is a whole generation of students who come out here and fish for striped bass, and I think that it’s certainly of interest to local students from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. I was actually talking to a student the other day who has come here to specifically study striped bass because he does striped bass fishing in his home in New Brunswick. So as the fishing has caught on, it’s become a lot more popular, and that’s why this issue is so important. And not just for striped bass enthusiasts. I mean, from a conservation standpoint, it would be a shame to lose any of these fish. To trade that resource for another resource would be a real shame.

KC: So the press release. It’s quite detailed. How many people worked on it?

PS: Eleven. It was the Striped Bass Executive that actually put it together, and we went through many iterations trying to figure out what exactly we wanted to stress and things like that. The individuals range from academics like myself, and Dr. Trevor Avery [an ichthyologist of Acadia’s Bio Dept], of course. A number of masters students at Acadia who do striped bass research, and some commercial and recreational fisherman are on our executive as well, some of which are self-employed. We wanted to cover a lot of bases. There have been a lot of press releases and statements on tidal energy, and we wanted to highlight the shortcomings of those reports, in particular, the threats posed to striped bass.

KC: Do you think the press release captures the message you were trying to get across?

PS: I think so, yes. The message here being that more research has to be done on striped bass before we could possibly think of commercial development of tidal energy. It would have to be proven to be safe. We would have to be comfortable with the monitoring at the site and know that these results were reliable, and that we could be confident that striped bass wouldn’t be at risk from this development.

KC: Speaking of monitoring, your report mentions that you believe that F.A.S.T., the Fundy Advanced Sensory Technology, to be inadequate.

PS: Yeah, it’s completely untested. If you recall the previous time one of these devices was installed it lasted for a very short period of time. The monitoring equipment failed almost immediately. So what we would have preferred was that this equipment was tested much earlier – years even – before the turbines were deployed, so that we could be confident that the monitoring devices could stand up to the punishment they get out there. In particular in the winter, where it’s just been proven by research from Dr. Anna Redden and her group from Acadia that striped bass are out there all year round.

KC: Yes, you mentioned that you would like to see more winter monitoring.

PS: In the winter when the water is close to freezing, it’s been shown that the fish are going to be in a reduced metabolic state and are probably passively moving with the tides. So models that are being proposed where striped bass are able to detect and avoid – we just simply don’t buy that. What we’re really worried about is that those fish will, in fact, not be able to avoid the turbines and will just be passively passing through them without monitoring. I mean before, nobody even knew that the striped bass were out there in the winter. The thought was that they didn’t have those anti-freeze proteins that other fish have that allow them to stay in the Bay for the whole year and that they had to move into fresh water to avoid freezing to death. Well now, it turns out that there’s a resident population that is out there all year round. We also have a problem with the monitoring in that it’s the developers themselves doing all the near-field monitoring.

KC: So do you think that in some ways the project is being rushed?

PS: Well, I think we would definitely like more consultation with citizens and groups like our own. A lot of commercial and other types of fishermen are very skeptical of the whole consultation process in general, and believe that their interests are not really being heard. Under no circumstances do they see the Fundy Ocean Research Centre for Energy or Nova Scotia Power ever pulling the turbines out of there if it was working and producing power. There doesn’t seem to be any regulations in place to limit deployment or pull the turbines out if, say, the monitoring fails.

KC: In some ways, the only way to test the turbines is to actually put them in the water.

PS: True. And in an ideal scenario, we would want the monitoring equipment to be proven first by sitting out there for a few years, and only then deploy the turbines. Right now, striped bass are actually assessed as endangered by COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada). Why they are endangered is a result of spawning habitat loss. Currently, there is only one river system where they spawn – the Shubenacadie river system. The reason that they have been reduced to one spawning river is because they can no longer spawn at the Annapolis River, which became the case following the construction of the causeway and the turbine down there. So currently, there has not been any detectable spawning going on. What has certainly been going on down there, and is well-documented by Acadia researchers, are instances of fish mortality, in particular but certainly not limited to striped bass. There is no question that the turbine there kills striped bass, and this is part of the problem we have. Striped bass are endangered primarily because of the development of tidal energy in Nova Scotia. This is why tidal energy has such a bad reputation with the angling community – that was a world class fishing destination on the Annapolis river, and now it no longer exists. What we would like to see is that thing removed, so that the river could be restored to its natural state.

KC: So if a turbine is placed down in the Minas Passage or wherever, I suppose in some ways there would have to be a compromise. I mean, if one turbine is placed down there and one or two fish are killed a year as a result, compared to if ten were put down there….

PS: Exactly. You could scale it up as high as you want in terms of fish mortality. I don’t think there’s any biologist who thinks that putting hundreds of these things out there isn’t going to affect the ecosystem in a drastic way as far as fish are concerned. I mean, we don’t even know what the population actually is. So how can we know whether we’re doing any harm to the population? What we would really like, and we understand that this is a difficult problem, is some way of determining whether or not a turbine-fish interaction resulted in mortality. I just received a message moments ago about an open house they are holding on the turbines. The very first line mentions the word “safe” and “reliable.” Safety has not been demonstrated, neither has reliability. The last one of these things, which was smaller, lasted only a matter of days. How can you categorize that as reliable? I think that there’s a lot of propoganda around this, on both sides of the issue, and personally, I don’t know if I would ever support the project, but I think that I would be less adamant about it as I am now.

KC: So you would say that you do not support tidal energy?

PS: Until such time that it is proven to be effective and safe, and that they can prove that fish can detect and avoid the turbines. I have a friend who is a commercial fisherman who seriously doubts the argument claiming these fish would avoid the turbines. I mean, fish don’t do a very good job of avoiding weirs or nets. I once had it described to me that the striped bass would ride around the turbines much like some insect caught in the wind passing over your vehicle. Well, maybe, but there’s still an awful lot of them that hit your windshield.