INTRODUCTION

Atlantic salmon are an important species to the Miramichi region. They are a central component in Miramichi history, culture and character. For First Nation communities, Atlantic salmon provide an important food fishery; they also play an essential role in ceremonial traditions. For anglers, outfitters and a variety of other stakeholders, salmon play a key role in sustaining our socio-economic well-being. The recreational fishery in the Miramichi area generates a significant amount of revenue annually and provides much-needed employment opportunities within our community. Salmon are a part of the social fabric of our community, and for this reason, it has been particularly disheartening to witness the gradual decline of our salmon stocks. Although we have watched the abundant salmon returns of yesteryear significantly diminish over time, we have not lost this iconic species all together – not yet. With that in mind, there is still much that we can do to maximize our chances of increasing salmon returns to the Miramichi Watershed in the future.

The 2019 Department of Fisheries and Oceans estimate of adult Atlantic salmon returns to the Miramichi Watershed was the lowest recorded in history. To a certain degree, the precipitous decline in salmon runs in the Miramichi is attributable to a variety of factors occurring at sea – factors that remain a mystery, and for that reason, seem beyond our control. What we can control, however, are problems within our own watershed that we know are having a negative impact on salmon returns. At a local level, the MSA believes that declines in salmon stocks can be attributed to three main factors: predation, habitat degradation, and stock management issues. The following document is intended to highlight actions which the MSA believes will be essential to the recovery of wild salmon stocks in our watershed. This document is not all inclusive and further input from our conservation and First Nation partners are welcome, but governments will make the final decision as to which actions are permitted, as it is their constitutional responsibility to protect the species.

PREDATION

Striped Bass

Problem: Striped bass are a native species to the Miramichi River, and over time, their population was diminished to a point where striped bass were nominated to be placed on the endangered species list. As a result, in 2000, DFO put into place conservation measures designed to protect striped bass from overfishing. To say that their conservation efforts were successful, would be an understatement and striped bass were never listed as endangered. Striped bass populations in the Miramichi estuary exploded. Conservation initiatives such as the suspension of commercial and recreational fisheries and the reduction in bycatch of juvenile bass in smelt fishing gear made a significant difference. The results were dramatic; striped bass population in the Miramichi estuary rebounded from a population of approximately 5 thousand fish in 2000 to over 1M fish by 2017. The MSA recognises that the current “overabundance” of striped bass in the Miramichi River estuary is a significant threat to wild salmon populations. The challenge presented lies in the fact that striped bass occupy the Miramichi estuary at the same time that salmon smolt are migrating to the ocean. With this pronounced increase in striped bass populations, a directly proportional decrease in salmon smolt survival rates occurred. This fact has been documented in a joint study conducted by the MSA and ASF.

Solution:

The MSA is urging the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to ensure that the striped bass population remains in balance with the ecosystem. We suggest maintaining a population of 50k spawning adult striped bass, whereas the requirement is 32k. To accommodate both the First Nations and recreational angler harvests, just over 100K adult fish need to return to the Miramichi estuary to satisfy spawning, commercial and recreational fisheries. To put this in perspective, the returning population of striped bass in 2019 was 315k adult fish. This excessive number of striped bass returning to spawn greatly exceeds the spawning requirements - and greatly increases predation of juvenile salmon stocks.

The MSA is putting forth a recommendation to allow recreational anglers to keep three large fish per day (larger than 50cm with no upper limit) and in the river above the head of tide, we recommend a bag limit of three striped bass per day with no size restrictions.  In addition, we recommend that the spawning grounds for striped bass remain open to angling unless the population drops below the 50k spawning target. Eel Ground First Nation has an experimental commercial harvest license to fish for striped bass with an allowable quota of 50k fish. The MSA urges DFO to increase First Nations quota to bring the population of spawning striped bass down to 50k fish.

Grey Seals

Problem: The grey seal population in Canada has exploded in the past few decades and the population is closing in on 500,000 animals. In the Gulf of St Lawrence alone, the population has grown from 5,000 seals in the late 60’s to 44,000 today. An adult grey seal can eat approximately 40 pounds of fish per day. The increase in the seal population has resulted in a reduction of many species of fish. In 2012 the Canadian Senate called for a seal cull of 70,000 grey seals and in 2019, DFO declared that codfish are on the brink of extinction in the Gulf of St. Lawrence unless the grey seal population is controlled there.

Solution:To address this problem, the MSA is in support of a responsible and sustainable seal harvest by First Nations. This undertaking, both for and by First Nations communities, will require significant funding in order to invest in necessary infrastructure such as; boats, harvesting equipment and upgraded processing facilities. The MSA encourages the Government of Canada to act on their responsibility to help First Nation communities carry out this necessary experimental, yet sustainable, grey seal harvest in Miramichi Bay. The MSA is in favor of a commercial seal harvest because we believe that returning adult salmon, and other fish species, are being severely threatened by excessive predation by seal populations in Miramichi Bay and the rest of the Gulf of St Lawrence.

OTHER

Problem:The MSA realizes that grey seals and striped bass are not the only species capable of having an impact on Atlantic salmon populations. Predators such as mergansers, cormorants, kingfishers, osprey, eagles, herons, mink and otter, all rely on Atlantic salmon as a food source. Although none of these species are currently having a significant impact on salmon populations, we realize, based on the previously mentioned population explosions, that this may not always be the case.

Solution: It is our view that a balanced ecosystem is also a healthy ecosystem. The MSA is striving to ensure our watershed is a healthy and thriving ecosystem capable of supporting a vast array of species – including both predators and prey. The MSA supports conservation policies that are pragmatic, promote sustainability and are aligned to take into account the fragile balance that exists in nature.

 

 

HABITAT DEGRADATION

Warming Water

Problem:

Today’s climate is changing rapidly and we are faced with the reality of global warming. In light of this, cold water sanctuaries are becoming increasingly important to Atlantic salmon survival. In a general sense, water is cooler in the headwaters of the Miramichi watershed and warms slowly as it travels downstream toward the Miramichi estuary. Cold water influences in the lower portion of the river provide oxygen rich sanctuaries for Atlantic salmon to rest during warm weather events. These resting pools are important salmon habitat, but all too often become filled in by erosion and siltation. One way to improve this important habitat is to increase the depth of the resting areas, and further, to protect them from further erosion by strategically placing boulders in key areas. There are a number of challenges with improving cold water habitat including; identifying pools, getting equipment on site and funding engineering plans which are required to identify ideal boulder placement. All of these improvement projects require time, financial investment and expertise.

Solution: The MSA has been carrying out two cold water improvement projects each year beginning in 2014. We are committed to continuing to do so and are currently working in collaboration with the North Shore Micmac District Council under a new funding agreement.  Over $1M will be spent in the upcoming field seasons to identify, assess and enhance cold water refugia over the next four years.

Land and Water Management

Problem: With changing climate, we are seeing an increased frequency and duration of severe weather events.  Sustainable and responsible forestry practices are an essential aspect of maintaining the ecological health and balance of our watershed. Mature forests provide much needed shade and an expansive root system which serves to allow water to remain in the ground longer.

Solution: To promote a well-managed forest, we recommend that the Provincial Government re-examine forestry practices with a goal to reduce impacts to waterways. One way to help accomplish this is to reduce the size of clear-cuts and to increase the size of buffer zones along our tributaries. To address this issue, the Provincial Government has recently announced a planned increase in the size of Protected Natural Areas on Crown land from 4% to 10%.  The MSA is preparing a submission that will identify sensitive cold-water areas within the Miramichi Watershed and has also suggested increasing buffer zones to further protect cold water refugia and reduce sedimentation.

 

 

 

STOCK MANAGEMENT

Transformation Program

Problem: Currently, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is the primary regulatory agency for Atlantic salmon fisheries policy and management in the Miramichi watershed. The Government of New Brunswick, First Nations and a variety of capable and motivated stakeholder groups, including the MSA, are seeking greater input into fisheries management strategies, policy implementation and decision-making.

Solution:

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is currently undergoing a process of establishing a committee made up of representatives from Federal and Provincial government agencies, First Nations, and stakeholders for the purpose of having meaningful participation in management decisions concerning fisheries in the Miramichi. Our hope is that the formation of this new Miramichi Committee will allow meaningful participation in the decision-making process regarding fisheries in our watershed. We hope to be able to address many of the issues presented in this document such as; invasive species, habitat degradation and stock declines through this new committee. One of the many challenges we face with the current fisheries management paradigm lies in the amount of time it takes to receive licensing approval from DFO. We hope that this new inclusive management approach will serve to expedite the actions we aim to implement.

Incidental Catch

Problem:

Box trap nets have been a fixture of the Miramichi River for over 200 years for commercial salmon fishing and today, for the gasperaux commercial fishing industry. The dilemma is that fish of all sizes (including large salmon and striped bass) swim into the trap nets.  To remove the fish, the fishermen lift the net and crowd all the fish into one corner and dip them into the boat with mechanical dip nets. In the past the salmon were sorted out and returned to the water with varying amounts of scale loss. In recent years, with the exponential growth of the striped bass population, the large mass of fish in the traps have accounted for increased scale loss for salmon causing increased mortality.

Potential Solution: The MSA supports an innovative approach to solving this problem. We propose small bars be put in place at the narrow opening of the trap entrance (beard) with gaps of 2 ½ -3 inches between them. This change in method will allow the smaller gasperaux to enter the trap net, but will prevent larger fish form doing so. This small change will restrict bycatch in the nets and decrease the amount of labour for gasperaux fisherman to sort fish – win/win. The MSA believes there needs to be a trial run for this type of innovation supported by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and it could save hundreds of salmon.

Illegal removals

Problem: When fish congregate in cold-water pools during warm water events, they are at increased risk of being illegally captured by poachers. Poachers can easily and successfully ‘sweep’ these pools with nets because fish are congregated in locally well-known resting areas.

Proposed Solutions: The MSA supports an increased presence of fisheries officers on the river during times of increased risk. We also suggest an increase in the use of technology to aid in the apprehension of illegal fishers. As an additional solution, the MSA would like to be permitted to place temporary obstructions in salmon pools that would hinder a poacher’s ability to sweep it. Items such as floating trees anchored to the bottom of the river for this purpose might be effective. As an added bonus, these trees would also provide additional shade and cover for fish while in these cold-water sanctuaries.

Invasive Species

Problem: Invasive species are a worldwide concern and the Miramichi Watershed now has an invasive species: smallmouth bass. Since smallmouth bass w was discovered in Miramichi Lake in 2008, the MSA and other organizations have lobbied for its eradication. This past year, smallmouth bass have been confirmed in the Southwest Miramichi River. The smallmouth bass are voracious predators with the potential to alter the food webs of freshwater ecosystems and need to be eradicated immediately from both the river and Miramichi Lake.

Proposed Solution:The MSA, along with other conservation partners and led by the Northshore Micmac District Council, have applied for permits to use rotenone in an attempt to eliminate smallmouth bass from Miramichi Lake and a portion of the upper SW Miramichi River. Despite minor opposition to this plan, we feel it is imperative that smallmouth bass be eradicated from the river before they spread throughout the entire watershed, as has happened in the Saint John River.

Best Angling Practices

Problem: As the number of adult salmon returning to the Miramichi River declines, the first target of the government has usually been to reduce angling effort. This has resulted in a catch and release only for anglers and we have to be careful that further restrictions do not occur.

Solution: As the number of adult salmon returning to the Miramichi River declines, the first conservation initiative set in place by DFO is usually to restrict angling effort. This has resulted in the implementation of a catch and release fishery for the Miramichi. To reduce the likelihood of further angling restriction, the MSA urges anglers to use caution and care when playing and handling salmon.

Stock supplementation

Problem: With adult salmon returns falling below the recently updated DFO Limit Reference Point (LRP) we are now faced with the possibility of jeopardising the genetic integrity of our Atlantic salmon populations, particularly on the Northwest Miramichi River. Genetic loss occurs when too few salmon return to a particular river to maintain the population’s genetic diversity. Ultimately, the most effective and preferable solution to mitigate this problem is an increase in wild salmon returns to reseed the river. When salmon returns diminish to a point where natural reseeding of the river is unlikely, the MSA feels that stocking as an alternative method to reseed the river and should be seriously considered.

Interim Solution: To mitigate the risk of losing genetic integrity of the Miramichi salmon stocks, the MSA supports the immediate implementation of a smolt-to-adult supplementation program for the Northwest Miramichi River. We propose collecting wild smolt on their way out to sea, prior to being subjected to striped bass predation. We know that survival rates for salmon smolt are very low - about 2% or less return to the river as adults. Our plan involves collecting smolt and bringing them to our upgraded hatchery facilities in South Esk. From there we can grow them to sexually mature adults with the ability to produce eggs or sperm. At this stage we are presented with two options. We can either release the adults back to the river to spawn naturally, or as an alternative, we can spawn them manually at our hatchery and stock the river with the resulting fry. It is the perspective of the MSA that the best way to proceed is to let the fish spawn naturally by returning them to the river as mature adults. Currently, we have 3,400 large adult salmon ready for release in the NW Miramichi – almost three times as many fish as returned to the Northwest Miramichi in 2019.

CONCLUSION

We have confidence that the implementation of our 2020 recovery plan will significantly improve the number of adult salmon returning to the Miramichi watershed each year to spawn, but these are not actions that the MSA can undertake on our own.  Many items require a partnership with our local First Nation communities, other conservation groups and the federal and provincial governments. Governments issue the permits for all activities regarding fish and habitat work and if they are not partners in the process, then success will not be achievable.

We are at a critical time in salmon conservation.  Stocks are still high enough to be turned around, but if no action is taken, they are on an extinction vortex and some experts predict that the population will be near extinction in 17 years.  We need action now.