Limited season for striped bass opens on Wednesday

Limited season for striped bass opens on Wednesday   

By Kris McDavid

MIRAMICHI – The shoreline near Strawberry Marsh is expected to be some of the most sought-after real estate in town this morning, with dozens of anglers expected to gather at the edge of the Miramichi River in hopes of reeling in and taking home a striped bass for the first time in over a decade.

A limited 15-day recreational striped bass fishery opens up on Wednesday morning, May 1, after the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced it would loosen restrictions over the next couple of weeks in an effort to evaluate and get a better handle on the divisive topic of striped bass stocks in the area.

“People can catch one bass per day, with a catch and release coming into play (after May 15), and if everything goes as planned there may be a continued fishing of bass,” said Conservative Miramichi member of Parliament Tilly O’Neill-Gordon.

“I’m really happy because I’ve had a lot of people writing and calling me about this – everybody did a good job of keeping on this, it’s a great summer activity and I hope everybody has a fun time fishing … I’m sure they’ll all be lined up on Wednesday.”

The conversation of what to do about the striped bass situation, especially on the Miramichi, has been an ongoing one for several years with different messages being expressed depending on who you ask.

The federal department has maintained its stance that the striper population in eastern New Brunswick is still one in recovery and in need of protection, while many anglers in the area have been calling for a permanent reopening of a recreational bass fishery, saying that the Miramichi is now inundated with a predatory species that poses a significant risk to the security of the ecosystem’s vital Atlantic salmon.

There has been mixed reaction in the wake of the apparent olive branch being extended by DFO to fishermen and conservationists.

Some are heralding the move as a common-sense one that represents a good starting point, while others, including avid angler and outdoorsmen Jim Laws, say it doesn’t nearly go far enough.

Laws, who owns Miramichi Hunting and Fishing Supplies Ltd., said he still believes federal officials are underestimating the havoc stripers are causing out on the water.

He said the future of Miramichi’s vital recreational salmon fishery hinges on swift action being taken to keep what he says is an out of control striped bass population in check.

A two week window where anglers are only allowed to retain one bass won’t even put a dent in the problem, he said.

“The other night there was a group of 14 fishing out by the old Acadia mill (in Nelson) and they hooked and released over 400 (bass).” Laws said.

“This is way out of control, and I believe our salmon will be listed as a species at risk as early as the fall. The only reason they opened this fishery is because we told them the Miramichi River is about to explode.”

Stripers hunker down for winter in the sheltered waters of estuaries up and down New Brunswick’s eastern shore.

This area is sacred ground for the province’s once-fledgling population of striped bass, as each spring the bass make their annual pilgrimage to up the Northwest Miramichi River to spawn.

During this spawning period, conservation groups such as the Miramichi Salmon Association say the stripers chow down, like many Miramichiers, on a virtual buffet of smelts who swim through these waters.

But come the end of May, with the smelts safely upriver doing a little spawning of their own, the only item on the menu for the hungry stripers are the vital baby salmon that are forced to swim through the treacherous striper territory on their way out to sea.

And where the salmon smolts once had a puncher’s chance of making it through the bass, Laws said the stripers form a virtual wall across the river, swallowing up a substantial amount of the smolts that try to swim through.

“The bass are the big predatory animal in this river and they are cleaning up on all the fish – I don’t understand why they are protecting this species,” Laws said.

“Our smelt fishery is down, our gaspereau fishery will be down, our shad fishery is down, our sea-run trout fishery is down and, as we know with the salmon, there were no grilse last summer – they didn’t come, and this bass also feeds on baby lobster as well.”

Laws said, contrary to popular belief, striped bass in the southern gulf region aren’t listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act as a protected species.

Indeed, the bass do not have any designation under that act, however the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada did designate the species as one of “special concern”, a label which is a step down from threatened on that group’s spectrum.

Still, Laws says he routinely hears stories in his shop and has experienced firsthand the staggering amount of striped bass who have taken up residence in the Miramichi River.

“When you’re going up the river in a boat and you hear ‘thump, thump, thump’, you’re hitting bass,” he said. “What other river in the world can you do that in?”

Laws also said details of how the fishery will operate have been sketchy so far. He said fishermen haven’t been given any guidance on things like size limits and gear restrictions DFO said would come into play.

Mark Hambrook, president of the Miramichi Salmon Association, meanwhile, said he was supportive of DFO’s move to open up a limited fishery, saying he’s confident the science will point to a justification that the bass fishery ought to be extended.

“I’m excited by it and I’m glad that finally the Department of Fisheries and Oceans did listen to our recommendations because we need this to protect the salmon,” he said on Monday.

Hambrook said that while the one-fish limit for anglers might not make that big of a difference in striped bass stocks, he’s encouraging as many people as possible to grab their rod and tackle box and try their hand between May 1-15.

“I guess it’s up to us to get more people out there fishing and for them to catch more. So that’s what we’ve got to do is to encourage everybody to go fishing,” he said.

Following a review of the data collected during the limited recreational retention fishery, DFO officials say there may be an additional retention period from August 2-11 with the possibility of an extension beyond that date.

The federal government has allocated $100,000 toward studying the impact of the recreational bass fishery.

The striped bass commercial fishery, which has been closed since 1996 for conservation purposes, will remain closed.

(With files from K. Bryannah James)