Greenland salmon fishery threatens sustainability: Ashfield

By Kris McDavid

OTTAWA – Fisheries and Oceans Minister Keith Ashfield says the federal government has serious concerns over a recent escalation in Greenland’s harvesting of wild Atlantic salmon and is committed to helping broker a deal that would see the fishery scaled back.

Ashfield’s comments come days after conservation groups such as the Atlantic Salmon Federation and Miramichi Salmon Association expressed frustration over a lack of progress in recent talks aimed at illustrating the devastating effects Greenland’s salmon kill could have on the fish’s fragile North American population.

Greenlandic fishermen harvested roughly 36 tonnes of salmon in 2012. Each year, the salmon journey to the waters off Greenland to feed after spending the balance of the warmer months in North American river systems, including the Miramichi.

The North American Salmon Conservation Organization, an international watchdog group, has seen its efforts to put a cap on Greenland’s annual subsistence harvest and put a stop to factory sales have come up short.

There are now fears that Greenland’s three-month salmon harvest, which gets underway in August, could double in 2013.

Ashfield said the fishing activities in Greenland are an affront to what should be a common goal of supporting a sustainable fishery.

“Fisheries and Oceans Canada is very disappointed with reports that Greenland has changed its domestic policy on wild Atlantic salmon harvests, which could potentially exceed the internationally accepted limit by 35 tonnes,” the minister said in a statement released to the Miramichi Leader.

“The purpose of international organizations like the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization is to encourage cooperation, thereby ensuring fisheries sustainability. Greenland’s actions go against these objectives and the government of Canada urges it to adhere to internationally acceptable levels.”

The salmon federation is predicting as much as 75 tonnes of wild salmon could be caught this season, a figure that amounts to roughly 22,000 fish.

Federation president Bill Taylor noted earlier this week that representatives of Denmark – of which Greenland is a territorial holding – have so far been resistant to the demands of the North American contingent, noting that Canada’s annual salmon harvest is far greater.

He said the disconnect can be explained by the fact that Canadian anglers and First Nations communities reportedly collectively killed 135 tonnes of salmon in 2012, which is about the equivalent of 63,000 fish.

From 2002 to 2009 the salmon federation and the Iceland’s North Atlantic Salmon Fund reached a private sector agreement with Greenland’s fishermen that saw both organizations invest in alternative economic development opportunities in exchange for the voluntary suspension by the fishermen of their right to fish salmon commercially. The agreement allowed Greenlanders to conduct a modest subsistence salmon fishery that ranged between 10 to 25 tonnes (3000 to 7500 salmon) annually.

“Controlling the Greenland fishery is fundamental to conserving and restoring wild Atlantic salmon runs in North America,” Taylor said. 

“(We) are committed to doing everything reasonable and possible to negotiate an agreement for this season that conserves salmon, while respecting Greenland’s international rights.”

The latest threat to a species which is already listed as endangered in the United States comes just as the Department of Fisheries and Oceans released some troubling data concerning the number of salmon that returned to the Miramichi River watershed in 2012.

Neither of its Southwest or Northwest branches met their spawning requirements a year ago, with a historically low number of grilse – a salmon that returns to the river after one winter at sea – being recorded by biologists.

The activities taking place in Greenland is just one a number of different factors local conservationists are eyeing as contributing factors to the steep decrease in the salmon count.

The number of large salmon recorded at a series of monitoring stations along both of the Miramichi’s main branches in 2012 were down anywhere from 25 per cent to 59 per cent when compared with 2011, with small salmon down even more – about 75 per cent fewer recorded than in 2011.

The presence of a growing striped bass population in the Miramichi River, which prays on baby salmon, as well as the impact of a litany of predators at sea, including seals, or an unknown weather phenomenon are all scenarios that are being looked at.

Ashfield said the Harper government is committed to being a part of the dialogue moving forward.

“Canada will continue to work closely with Greenland and other members of the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization to identify best practices and ensure that all nations respect their obligations towards our common objective of ensuring sustainable fisheries,” he said.