Saving the Atlantic Salmon in the Miramichi Requires Immediate Action
Submitted by Mark Hambrook, President, Miramichi Salmon Association
Appeared in Telegraph Journal, March 14th, 2020
Atlantic salmon are much more than 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 help sustain 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 communities. Salmon are a part of the region’s social fabric, 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.
To address these problems, MSA has developed a Wild Atlantic Salmon Recovery Strategy (miramichisalmon.ca/recovery2020/). This plan outlines the actions MSA recommends be taken to recover the Miramichi watershed’s salmon stock, including some measures that are already taking place. This plan isn’t all inclusive and other ideas and suggestions are welcomed and encouraged, but as biologists we believe putting a comprehensive plan in place is a critical starting point. Here are our main recommendations:
We need to reduce the striped bass population to a level that meets required spawning, with a surplus to maintain a First Nations commercial harvest as well as an angler harvest. We suggest a 50,000 fish per year spawning level, and a 60,000 per year surplus for harvest will still provide an economic benefit to First Nations and world-class fishing for anglers. Another significant salmon predator is the grey seal population which has been growing unchecked for decades and which is now driving cod fish to the point of extinction in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. A sustainable seal harvest by First Nations is our recommendation to the federal government to help bring the seal population under control. There are many other salmon predators, and everyone wants to see a healthy ecosystem, but we must always remember to keep all factors in balance.
We are seeing the effects of climate change on water temperatures and volume. Rains have been more intense, and these storms are followed by spring floods and droughts. Improved land-management practices are required to protect cold-water inputs and reduce sedimentation all along the Miramichi. We are preparing a plan to submit to the provincial government that is designed to protect critical cold-water sources by placing them into Protected Natural Areas. The MSA has also partnered with the North Shore Micmac District Council and the Atlantic Salmon Federation on a four-year program to enhance cold-water salmon holding areas. There is wide-spread agreement that these actions can achieve positive results in the near term.
There are many matters related to Stock Management issues that need to be quickly addressed. These include reducing incidental salmon mortality rates in commercial trap nets by placing barriers to stop adult salmon from entering; reducing illegal removals (poaching) by protecting fish where they congregate in cold-water pools; eradicating smallmouth bass which is an invasive species in Miramichi Lake and a section of the SW Miramichi River; encouraging recreational anglers to adopt “best practices” when salmon fishing; and executing a world-class supplementation program by capturing wild salmon smolts, growing them to adults, and releasing them to spawn naturally in their natal rivers to provide more juvenile salmon.
We sincerely believe the above actions will improve the number of adult salmon returning to the Miramichi, but these are not actions that the MSA can undertake on its own. Many require a partnership with our local First Nation communities and other conservation groups. And of course, all activities are conducted under permits issued by the federal and/or provincial governments. If they are not full partners in this process, then success will not be achieved.
Salmon conservation is at a critical juncture. Stocks are still high enough to be turned around, but if immediate action is not taken, they will enter an extinction vortex with some experts predicting the population will be virtually extinct in just 17 years. We need action now. If you would like to help, contact your Member of Parliament and your local Member of the Legislative Assembly to express your concerns. Working together, we can all save the Atlantic Salmon in the Miramichi.