Missisquoi Bay Tragedy

On August 17 2012 thousands of dead fish washed ashore at Missisquoi Bay QC, a popular fishing and recreational site on Lake Champlain (2). The compounding effects of high temperatures, calm water and excess nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen caused blooms of blue-green algae to occur. In general, excess phosphorous and nitrogen comes from wastewater treatment facilities, developed land use, agricultural practices, and eroded streambank sediment (10). As the lakefront tends to be prime developed property, individual actions, such as fertilizing lawns, can supply the excess nutrients to the lake. Atmospheric contributions of nitrogen through human activity can also contribute to eutrophication (9). The Gazette newspaper report explained the situation in the following video.

Video:The Gazette – Blue-green algae kills thousands of fish in Missisquoi Bay

Missisquoi Bay is surrounded by rolling hills and farmland. There are many dairy farms which grow corn and hay for their livestock (6). As in most cultures, our agricultural practices tend to be focused on certain livestock, based on what we deem to be acceptable to eat. “According to the National Corn Growers Association, about 80% of all corn grown in the U.S. is consumed by domestic and overseas livestock” (10). Human history is rife with instances of environmental sustainability taking a backseat to cultural bias. For example, raising cattle was inappropriate for the early Europeans who settled in Greenland and they conservatively refused to ‘eat local’. The environmentally stressful hay production coincided with an unexpected change in climate, eventually leading to the colony’s collapse (1).
Given the past and present agricultural practices of heavily fertilized crops such as corn and hay, the topography of the area, the numerous tributaries of the Missisquoi Bay/Pike Basin as seen in the map below (7), and the relatively shallow depth of the bay, the problem in Missisquoi Bay is not surprising. However the previous year was more severe due to a combination of the aforementioned cumulative effects and extensive regional flooding.

Originating in Vermont and New York states (3) water levels rose and retreatted, inundating fertilized farmland and then bringing back phosphorous and nitrogen to the lake. The flooding also caused increased sediment loads, as well as increased opportunity for invasive species. “Flooding and other changes in the physical and chemical environment put highly adaptive invasive species at an advantage over native species”(5i).
Flooding with its associated surface runoff is not the only extreme weather event which could be problematic. Drought tends to cause excessive fertilizer buildup on the soil, which can poison animals (4). Fertilizers and pesticides also contaminate ground water (10).

Video: The Emmy award winning documentary Bloom – the Plight of Lake Champlain explains the relationship between cattle farming, corn, urban development, storm water and the health of Lake Champlain. Although there are political, regulatory, economic and social hurdles, it offers some innovative and hopeful solutions (12).

A great deal of time, money and effort has been spent on the water quality of Missisqoui Bay and Lake Champlain on the part of governments, scientists, environmental assessors, farmers and community groups. Frequent monitoring (5iii), countless studies spanning decades, public participation and education, voluntary farmer mitigation measures (5iv), respect of established thresholds of nutrient loading, shared responsibility through the International Joint Commission (5ii) and having Lake Champlain designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve (8) are all very positive steps in assessment and monitoring processes. Unfortunately they were not enough to prevent the collision of cumulative effects and natural disaster. Furthermore, simply reducing nutrient inputs does not seem to have a linear effect on eutrophication given the multiple causes and complex mechanisms involved (11).
This event brings up several important considerations for Environmental Impact Assessment. Firstly, predicted climate change and natural disasters should be considered when planning and managing not only our watersheds, but all aspects of the environment. For example, the recent seismic activity around Haida Gwaii in British Columbia will hopefully be considered as the debate over the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline continues.
Another consideration for EIAs is the conflict of interest through self-assessment, having the proponent or industry be responsible for the assessment. Financial responsibility should remain on the part of proponents but should assessment responsibility be left to proponents in ‘good faith’? In the documentary Bloom (12), it suggests we cannot assume industry practices such as self-regualtion, self-assessment or self-inspection are sufficient. One person described this as allowing ‘the fox to guard the henhouse’. Regulation, assessment, inspection and enforcement should be as objective as possible, therefore independent of an industry’s or proponent’s agenda.
This leads to the third concern. When the proponent of a project is responsible for the EIA, it seems unlikely that they will be inclined to explore in depth any issues that they would deem to be ‘not their fault’ or could hamper their agenda, yet Environmental Impact Assessments should ideally address the compounding effects of multiple projects or practices as well as historic factors and contributions.
The fourth concern is how realistic and feasible is it to expect EIAs to be as broad and all-encompassing as is necessary to meaningfully predict nature’s complexity as seen in cumulative effects and nature’s uncertainty as witnessed in natural disasters. They simply cannot but that should not prohibit the effort to do the most comprehensive assessment possible.


(1) Diamond, J. M. 2005. Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed. New York: Penguin Books. Page 266. ISBN 0-14-30.3655-6.

(2) The Gazette. August 18 2012. Blue-green algae kills thousands of fish in Missisquoi Bay (with video). http://www.montrealgazette.com/technology/Blue+green+algae+kills+thousands+fish+Missisquoi+with+video/7112246/story.html#ixzz298clGshp (accessed 09/10/12)

(3) The Gazette. May 26 2011. Storms in U.S. root of record flooding.
http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/Storms+root+record+flooding/4760268/story.html (accessed 10/10/12)

(4) Hall, J. B. 2002. Nitrate Levels Could Be Unsafe In Heavily Fertilized Fields and Pastures-Livestock Update, Virginia Cooperative Extension.
http://www.sites.ext.vt.edu/newsletter-archive/livestock/aps-02_09/aps-137.html (accessed 09/10/12)

(5) Lake Champlain Basin Program.http://www.lcbp.org (accessed 06/10/12)

(5i) http://sol.lcbp.org/climate-change_affect-lake-champlain.html (accessed 30/10/12)

(5ii) http://www.lcbp.org/ijc.htm (accessed 06/10/12)

(5iii) http://www.lcbp.org/monitor.htm (accessed 06/10/12)

(5iv) http://www.lcbp.org/PDFs/2009-LCBP-annual-report.pdf (accessed 06/10/12)

(6) Mississquoi Water Quality: A summary of the Lower Missisquoi Water Quality Project in Franklin County, Vermont.  Factsheet, 1990-1997.
http://pss.uvm.edu/vtcrops/LMWQ/Lmwq1.pdf (accessed 12/10/12)

(7) Mississquoi Bay/Pike Basin Map.
http://www.lcbp.org/Atlas/PDFmaps/nat_miss.pdf (accessed 10/10/12)

(8) United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, MAB
Biosphere Reserve Directory.
http://www.unesco.org/mabdb/br/brdir/directory/biores.asp?code=USA+45&mode=all (accessed 10/10/12)

(9) United Nations Environment Programme. Planning and Management of Lakes and Reservoirs:
An Integrated Approach to Eutrophication.
http://www.unep.or.jp/ietc/Publications/techpublications/TechPub-11/1-2-2.asp (accessed 10/10/12)

(10) U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
http://www.epa.gov/oecaagct/ag101/printcrop.html (accessed 12/10/12)

(11) World Health Organization- Eutrophication and Health.
http://ec.europa.eu/environment/water/water nitrates/pdf/eutrophication.pdf  (accessed 10/10/12)

(12) Guadagno, V.A. and Bright Blue EcoMedia. Bloom:The Plight of Lake Champlain http://bloomthemovie.org/bloomwatchthe4-p.html


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