When Debbie and Allen Hall bought waterfront property on Lake Fanning in Nova Scotia, they looked forward to a relaxing semi-retirement with their six grandchildren swimming and playing in the lake.
But, a decade later, the Yarmouth-area lake is unusable because of scummy blue-green algae blooms, most likely caused by manure run-off from nearby mink farms. The Halls considered moving and taking a financial blow, but have now resorted to building a swimming pool in an effort to reclaim a fraction of the lifestyle they dreamt about.
“We used to think of the classic cliché of fun at the lake, running and jumping off the dock. Now there are massive blooms from late May until November and when they die off, the bacterial decomposition uses up all the oxygen and we end up with huge dead zones,” said Debbie Hall.
Nova Scotia lakes and rivers have been polluted by excess nutrients and phosphorus to the point that no one knows when — or if — they will recover and studies point the finger at fur farms.
There are now 150 mink farms in Nova Scotia and the industry generated $140 million last year with most of the pelts going to Russia, China and South Korea.
There were few regulations as mink farming expanded in Nova Scotia over the last decade and manure, extra feed and carcasses were thrown into wetlands while run-off from farms seeped into the Carleton, Meteghan and Sissiboo River watersheds.
“Now the wetlands are absolutely saturated with this crap so I don’t expect to see improvement in my lifetime,” Hall said.
Her fears are supported by the latest report prepared for Nova Scotia Environment by Michael Brylinsky of Acadia University.
Water quality surveys carried out between 2008 and 2012 showed lakes within the watersheds to be seriously degraded “primarily with respect to high nutrient over-enrichment resulting in the development of high algal concentrations,” says Brylinsky’s report, released in July.
Brylinsky identified mink farms as the likely culprits in a 2012 report and his latest report confirms that finding.
“These studies have also shown the degradation in water quality to be primarily a result of high phosphorus inputs resulting from releases emanating from mink farming operations,” it says.
Brylinsky found that, last year, water quality in monitored lakes did not change significantly.
New legislation and regulations governing fur farms have been introduced by the Nova Scotia government, but critics say they do not go far enough or set penalties. Those affected by mink farms are also angry that farmers have been given three years to comply.
The regulations include requirements for farms to have an engineer-approved management plan, surface water and soil monitoring programs, concrete pads for storing manure and compost and setbacks from property lines and water courses.
Jocelyne Rankin, water coordinator with the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax, does not believe the new rules will be sufficient.
One problem is that the Department of Agriculture, which is encouraging the booming industry, is responsible for enforcing regulations, Rankin said.
“The fox is guarding the henhouse,” she said.
The process will be complaint driven and, in small communities, residents are often reluctant to report on their neighbours, Rankin said.
Ecology Action Centre has teamed up with Mountain Equipment Co-op this summer to encourage outdoor enthusiasts to ask the Government of Nova Scotia to restore the province’s lakes and rivers.
Julia Bancroft of the Tricounty Watershed Protection Society questions why the regulations do not include consequences, such as making polluters pay.
“This is the third version (of the regulations) and they have watered them down,” she said, pointing out that mink farmers will still be able to compost on site.
“All the carcasses and manure and excess feed can be piled up and they call it composting,” she said, describing a stench and influx of seagulls at farms near her lakefront property.
Almost all the farms are in headwaters and tests show at least 10 lakes and 75 kilometres of the Tusket River have been affected, Bancroft said.
“They say it’s a green product and, yes, it is. All our lakes are green,” she said.
“You can’t bathe in the water, you can’t swim in it, you can’t boil it and you can’t cook with it. Nothing makes it OK.”
However, Dan Mullen, Nova Scotia Mink Breeders Association president, believes others have to take some responsibility for polluted waters instead of pointing the finger solely at mink farming.
“I don’t say we have zero impact, but there are many other impacts on the water system like old septic systems and run-offs from clearcuts,” said Mullen, who believes some of the opposition is coming from animal rights activists.
Provincial regulations should help allay fears and set standards, Mullen said, adding he believes it is better to work with farmers, rather than setting penalties, as it will head off problems before they occur.
As the industry grows, there are also fledgling spinoff operations using mink manure, such a making pellets for organic fertilizer or burning it to generate electricity, he said.
“It is unprecedented in North America to have such a stringent set of rules about disposal of manure and carcasses,” Mullen said.
However, John Werring, David Suzuki Foundation senior science and policy advisor, who helped review Nova Scotia’s fur farm rules, said he believes the regulations are toothless.
“The initial regulations were sound and would have been effective, but, for some reason, government changed their whole opinion and went to results-based regulations, putting it in the hands of industry,” he said.
“They are not tough at all. They were originally, but they backed off,” said Werring, adding that it seems to be another case of corporate profit and government’s desire to create jobs winning out over environmental protection.
But for some, cleanup efforts and regulations have already come too late.
Barrie MacGregor is the former CEO of Yarmouth YMCA, which ran Camp Wapomeo on Lake Fanning from 1921 to 2009.
The lake was used for swimming and canoeing by the approximately 600 kids who attended the camp each year and lake water was treated and used for cooking, washing and drinking.
Blue-green algae first appeared in 2006/07 and, in 2009, the camp closed because the lake water was unusable, meaning water had to be trucked in while campers were taken to a different lake for recreation.
“The blue-green algae was the tipping point for the camp,” MacGregor said.
Others, such as Debbie Hall, would like to see Nova Scotians question the need for a mink farming industry.
“It’s fur. It’s a cosmetic industry. It’s not as if it’s for food,” she said.
This story was made possible through support from Mountain Equipment Co-op as part of its Homewaters campaign, which is dedicated to preserving Canada’s fresh water from coast to coast.
Image Credit: Lake Fanning by Debbie Hall