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Diavik fish and diamonds

Thorunn Howatt
Northern News Services

Rae (Aug 19/02) - Fish were swimming over an area where diamonds will soon sparkle until Rae fishers moved the last little creature to safe haven last week.

"The group that got this year's fish-out was the Jacques Whitford-Rae Band joint venture. There are 10 fishers from the Rae Band and biologists and assistants from Jacques Whitford," said Diavik Diamond mine's environmental manager, Erik Madsen.

A dike was built into the waters of Lac de Gras earlier this year. Then the water was drained from the area.

Once everything is dry, diamonds will be dug out of the ground there. That's where the Diavik diamond mine will be.

But in the meantime, before the water was all gone, the fish that swam there were moved to a new home.

Rae Band fishers set nets for an hour at a time, catching white fish, cisco and lake trout, as well as a few burbot and grayling.

The fish are measured, sexed and moved into a special tank where they can recuperate. They are then transferred to the other side of the dike into the main waters of Lac de Gras.

The fish are a bit stunned when they are caught in the net, so they are put in the tank to get oxygen flowing through their gills.

"And then when they're fine and dandy they release them," said Madsen.

So there are no fish feasts.

Not all of the fish make it, though. About 40 per cent will die.

"They are put in bags and put in a freezer and then the people of Rae, the Rae Band, take them back and use them for dog food," said Madsen.

The Dogrib Rae band was contracted to study the aquatic life in the pool then capture and release fish back into Lac de Gras. The clean water from the pool was sent to the rest of Lac de Gras.

This is the third fish-out that Diavik has tendered out. There are three inland lakes that had to also be fished out before this year's diked-area project. Aboriginal groups bid on the projects along with environmental consulting companies.

4,000 fish in six weeks

The fishers made about $300 a day, working in two shifts of three weeks each -- about $6,000 each. There were 10 people on each shift.

The amount of the complete contract wasn't disclosed.

A lot of people thought the fishers would be catching big ones, but that wasn't the case.

"There are some very large lake trout in Lac de Gras," said Madsen, adding that when the barrier was built a lot of the fish escaped to the main lake. "It wasn't as if it closed off overnight. It took many months before it closed off."

The fish had plenty of time to leave the area. Lac de Gras has a lot of 20- or 30-pounders but during the fish salvage the largest lake trout caught was six pounds.

"It makes sense. The majority of the larger fish got out of the dike before it closed," said Madsen explaining that lake trout like clear water. When the water was muddied with work on the dike, they took off into the clear water in the rest of the lake.

About 4,000 fish were caught during the six-week exercise. Fishing the lake area before it is drained with an on-site biologist is part of Diavik's water licence requirement.

Diavik supplied the nets and the boats, Jacques Whitford supplied the professional biologist and technicians, and the Rae Band supplied the traditional knowledge. The cost of the project was between $250,000 and $300,000 -- making each little fish worth about $75 each.