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More than 1,000 dead fish found in Prince Edward Island's North River

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CHARLOTTETOWN - For the fourth time in four years, the Prince Edward Island government says it's investigating a significant fish kill in one of its waterways.

Wade MacKinnon, manager of enforcement with the province's Environment, Labour and Justice departments, said Monday the latest incident is disappointing for investigators.

"I'll be honest," he said in an interview. "It's getting disheartening year after year to continue returning to our Island rivers and seeing hundreds and thousands of dead fish."

By the end of the day Monday, volunteers from a local conservation group and staff from the province's Agriculture Department had collected about 1,150 brook trout, speckleback, rainbow trout and Atlantic salmon.

The dead fish were reported Saturday as they started to appear over a 3.8-kilometre stretch of the North River in central P.E.I.

Last year's fish kills were in western P.E.I. on the Trout and Mill Rivers. In July 2012, about 2,000 dead fish were scooped out of a three-kilometre stretch of Barclay Brook near Coleman, and there was a fish kill reported from the same area in 2011.

MacKinnon said there hasn't been a finding that pesticide runoff was the cause of the latest kill and further tests have to be done.

Investigators collected records from farms bordering the North River showing that pesticides were sprayed over the last two weeks, he said, adding a large downpour of rain fell during the middle of the week, with about 38 millimetres on Wednesday and Thursday.

Provincial land use regulations require a 15-metre buffer zone between streams and planted fields and there are also rules that prevent planting of row crops on slopes with a gradient of more than nine per cent.

MacKinnon said his department obtained between $14,000 and $17,000 in fines last year for violations of environmental and land-use laws relating to pesticides.

But he said heavier fines can be levied under a section of the federal Fisheries Act that prohibits depositing "deleterious substances" in waters inhabited by fish. The legislation allows for fines of between $15,000 and up to $1 million for an individual for a first offence, and between $500,000 and $6 million for a corporation.

MacKinnon said it's hard to prove the cases in court.

"It's extremely difficult to prove why the fish died, how they died and where (the pesticide) came from. We get tied up in court for years," he said.

NDP Leader Mike Redmond says the damage to tourism and the fishery is significant, but the province hasn't been firm enough in its approach.

Environment Department spokesman Wayne MacKinnon said there is a review of existing regulations on the use of pesticides.

He said a committee that includes the P.E.I. Potato Board, the farming industry and the provincial government is looking at measures to reduce pesticide runoffs.

"We've gone so far as to purchase one of the fields that was involved to take it out of production," he said, referring to last summer's incident in the Barclay Brook area.

— By Michael Tutton in Halifax.

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