Muddy Boots is our internal blog where our staff members share experiences getting their boots muddy with on-the-ground conservation research! You can find our contributions to external blogs and Op Eds here.
Written by Ocean Skye Phillips, Moose Cree Youth.
Ocean Skye Phillips in the field. Photo: WCS Canada
My name is Ocean Phillips. I’m a 20-year-old Moose Cree youth, living in Kapuskasing Ontario. In 2019, I had a chance to join Wildlife Conservation Society Canada (WCSC) scientists and staff from the Moose Cree First Nation Resource Protection Unit (MCFN) to study lake sturgeon in the Moose River watershed in the far north of Ontario.
But then COVID happened and that changed everything for me. During COVID I ended up developing severe anxiety and struggled with being around other people. COVID also meant we could not go back out on the river the following year and the river was a place I could relax and be happy. Fortunately, the leaders of the Learning from Lake Sturgeon program from WCSC and MCFN worked hard to keep youth engaged in other ways during the field research shutdown.
Ocean Skye Phillips on-site back in 2019 . Photo: WCS Canada
When I first joined the project, my friend Denika and I stayed out in the bush for two days with WCS staff. During those two days, we helped the team and learned how to use the equipment, such as temperature loggers that track the water temperature throughout the year. We also got to use a small remote-controlled submarine to try and find one of the underwater receivers that had been lost due to extreme water and sediment changes caused by hydroelectric development on the rivers.
Ocean and Justin netting in 2022 Photo: WCS Canada
The receivers collect signals from sturgeon that have been implanted with special tags so the scientists can track their movements. When I finally got back on the river with the team last spring, I got a chance to watch them implant a tracker into a fish, which I also got to release back into the water later that day with Dr. Connie O’Connor and Jacob Seguin from WCS. It started with me holding the sturgeon with some special gloves that send electricity through the fish and make it go to sleep. This does not hurt the fish in any way and is actually safer than using anesthetic. This was probably one of the coolest things I have ever done in my life!
(L-R) Jacob, Ocean and Justin preparing nets. Photo: WCS Canada
(L-R) Connie helping put e-gloves on Ocean. Photo: WCS Canada
I also got to set up nets with WCS scientist Claire Farrell and Justin Simard – another Moose Cree youth. Some of the nets ended up breaking so the team and I spent a good two hours tying knots to fix the nets so we could go back out on the river and set them again. That’s how it goes when you are working on nature’s rivers.
Nets that Ocean helped set up for field work. Photo: WCS Canada.
It takes a lot for me to go away from home and do these trips to the bush to help with the project. But once I actually get out there, all my anxiety goes away and I just focus on the beautiful landscape of the southern part of the Moose River. The only thing that sort of clouds this experience is seeing the changes the hydroelectric generating stations are making to the environment around them. Often, we are working right below the Kipling hydro dam and it’s crazy to see how a dam can affect so many things around it. The one thing I noticed at Kipling is how fast the water level changes because of the station. The water levels get so low that you can walk across to an island that is in the middle of the river, and so high that you can’t even walk on the shore.
The Learning from Lake Sturgeon team in 2022. Photo: WCS Canada
Ocean and Denika. Photo: WCS Canada
Ocean and Jennifer, Moose Cree First Nation LFLS lead. Photo: WCS Canada
This project has also offered me some other great experiences, including going out with some other Moose Cree youth in the early spring on the Kapuskasing River to do some water quality testing. In August last year, I got to go on a trip to Sudbury and Oshawa with Claire Farrell and Annie-Marie LeBlanc and a group of five other youth. During this trip we went to Laurentian University in Sudbury to look at their environmental facilities and do some activities with insects that live in the water that you can’t really see unless you look closely. We also learned from some of the university students doing different types of research.
After that, we traveled down to Oshawa, where we got to meet some really incredible people: Keisha Deoraj and Nina Simmons from the Aquatic Omics Lab at Ontario Tech University. Keisha and Nina took us on a tour of the Ontario Tech University and Durham College. We got to sample mucus from small fish and used microscopes to look at fish eggs up close. After we did the science part of the trip, we headed to a bowling alley and huge arcade and spent time getting to know one another.
Ocean releasing a lake sturgeon. Photo: WCS Canada
Getting to do this type of work makes me feel so good and happy inside -- I have never felt so passionate about something. I love all the opportunities that the different experiences come with. I'm so grateful to Claire Farrell and Jennifer Simard for inviting me to be part of this project back in 2019. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t think I would have found my life passion. I’m looking forward to doing more in the future and once I get my degree to be an environmental technician, I hope to come back to work for my band, hopefully WCS, and most importantly for these amazing rivers.
Ocean (third from the left) at water sampling youth program event. Photo: WCS Canada
Photo credits: Banner | Lila Tauzer © WCS Canada