Kris McDavid/ Miramichi Leader/Aug 26 2019
Officials with Fisheries and Oceans Canada say they've been made aware of a confirmed sighting of an invasive fish species in the upper reaches of the Miramichi River watershed and will be reaching out to stakeholders to come up with a plan of action in order to ensure it doesn't establish a population in the fragile ecosystem.
Members of a team of scientists from the University of New Brunswick who are researching threatened Atlantic salmon in the Miramichi River system confirmed the discovery of at least one smallmouth bass near the mouth of McKiel Brook, not far from the headwaters of the watershed, on Aug. 22.
The situation has sparked immediate concern from conservationists and organizations such as the Miramichi Salmon Association, which had been pushing DFO for years to carry out a chemical eradication of a smallmouth bass population which had been introduced illegally to Miramichi Lake – connected to the mainstream river by a narrow brook – back in 2008.
Smallmouth bass – like their cousins, the striped bass, which are native to the Miramichi – are known for their fierce appetite and their ability to adapt to new aquatic environments.
And if the species is able to establish a population in the river system and infiltrate the ecosystem, experts say it would almost certainly represent yet another major obstacle for the long-term future of the region's dwindling run of wild Atlantic salmon.
In an emailed statement provided to the Miramichi Leader on Saturday, Steve Hachey, a spokesman with DFO's Gulf Region office, said the department is taking the matter seriously and are currently in the process of gathering more information.
"The department is working with its partners to evaluate the options, taking into account where the observations were made and the geography of the area," Hachey said. "Once options are selected with the partners, the department will task a response accordingly."
Some organizations DFO plans on reaching to include the Miramichi Salmon Association, the Atlantic Salmon Federation, the New Brunswick Department of Natural Resources and the University of New Brunswick.
Whether or not the smallmouth bass managed to find its way into the river by somehow breaching the fish barrier in place at Miramichi Lake, Hachey said it's too early for the department to tell.
He noted that years of activity at the lake designed to contain the problem and eliminate the population were believed to have been effective. Those measures included the use of gill nets, trap nets, electro-fishing and inviting anglers in to fish the lake at different intervals.
"It is not clear if the smallmouth bass recently discovered below the Miramichi Lake fish barriers is an escapee from the Lake, or a new introduction," he said.
"Ultimately humans are responsible for the introduction of this species in the Miramichi River system ... this situation serves as a stark reminder of the importance of respecting native species, such as Atlantic salmon, and obeying the laws and regulations regarding invasive species and illegal introduction of live fish."
A discussion paper prepared for the department by members of the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat back in 2009 noted that smallmouth bass tend to thrive wherever they are introduced.
Despite not being native to the Maritimes, smallmouth bass are believed to now inhabit 69 lakes and 34 rivers in New Brunswick alone.
The discussion paper warned a high likelihood "of widespread establishment of smallmouth bass in the Southwest Miramichi River and in the Gulf Region rivers in general."
Mark Hambrook, the president of the Miramichi Salmon Association, has said that officials with DFO should have acted far sooner, noting that the years of calling for the use of the chemical rotenone were done with the intention of avoiding this very situation.
He said last week the discovery of smallmouth bass in the main river was squarely on DFO's shoulders.