LOOKING BACK – My Life & the “Odour of Life” in Passamaquoddy Bay

Many years ago, I worked with the New Brunswick Conservation Council in publishing a book “A Quoddy Region Case Study: Two hundred years of change in the ecosystem and food web”. In addition to doing the graphics and layout, I wrote the forward. It was a time when pollution from commercial and domestic sources had changed the Bay and it is important to remember the past … as I did then. But what about today?
The Lois & Isabel – Our Guptill family’s boat from Grand Manan
Some people remember their lives as a series of mental “snapshots” or “video clips”, small visual memories of people, events, and places. I have those … the spectacular light show created by thousands of herring, squid, and mackerel as they streaked into the dark void ahead of our cruising boat, the breaching Right whale with a tail broader than our skiff was long, the gigantic great white shark hanging from a block and tackle on the Richardson Ville wharf, and much more. But the really powerful memories are certain sounds and smells from the Bay of Fundy; memories so sharp that they called me back from my wanderings to this special place, shaped my adult existence, and my very soul.

As a young child, I remember the muffled drone of the boat’s engine, the distant voices of my uncles and parents, and especially the secure, cozy feeling I felt bundled into the upper bunk of the “Lois and Isabel” as it plowed its way from St. Andrews to Grand Manan. I remember the cacophony of sea birds on the outer islands. I remember the moan of Green Point Light as it guided us to safety through the fog, the thundering roar of surf, the shrill whine of hurricane force winds, and the gentle mewing of a petrel chick.

But most particularly, I remember the smell of life that was everywhere when the schools of fish were in the Bay. Composed, I suppose, of the smell of the seawater itself, living fish oils, fecal matter from the teaming fish and birds, and drifting seaweeds. One would expect such an odour to be objectionable … but it was not. In fact, this sweet smell was so special that one would inhale deeply in the hopes of assimilating some of its vibrancy and goodness. The Bay was alive.

But things began to gradually change.

It was the early sixties when we really began to notice the difference. Fish began to disappear from the western Bay. The local handline fleet vanished. The weir poles stood unadorned by twine. The mudflats at St. Stephen literally bubbled at low tide. The familiar smells were replaced by odours less compelling. The Bay was changing, we were losing, and no one seemed to notice.

It was apparent that Passamaquoddy Bay and the surrounding marine area was in decline. But what are the real loses, what caused them, and how should they be measured? The mirror to the past was broken and there was no comprehensive and authoritative answer. This document changes that.

A Quoddy Region Case Study: Two hundred years of change in the ecosystem and food web, brings together an amazing body of information, analyses it, and provides some important and essential answers. To date, it is the definitive publication about the historical dynamics of the Quoddy Area. The authors lament the gaps and the lack of scientific data. But they should not. The shards of the broken mirror have been brought closer together by them and we can now see the past. This knowledge points the way to the future and, as a result, I expect that some dark night a few years from now, I will sniff the Quoddy air and once again inhale la odeur de vie!

Today I am happy to say that conditions in the Bay have improved somewhat, but still have a long way to go.

Art MacKay


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