Chain pickerel wreaking havoc on N.S. fish stocks
Published June 18, 2017
Chain pickerel is not the sort of fish you’d care to meet in a dark alley. With its sharp bill and prominent teeth and an appetite for smolt, this come-from-away species is stealing into freshwater river systems and wreaking havoc on Nova Scotia’s Atlantic salmon and trout populations.
“We now have a predator in our waters that is big enough to eat (smolt) . . . another species taking a bite out of the survival system of our salmon,” said Carroll Randall, a fishing guide and past-president of the LaHave River Salmon Association.
The returns on adult salmon have been so poor of late, with just 100 going through the counters on the LaHave, that salmon fishing is no longer allowed.
“Chain pickerel can’t eat the adult fish that are coming back. However, the salmon are laying tens of thousands of eggs in the tributaries of the LaHave, but we’re only getting hundreds back,” Randall said.
It’s a marked difference from just a couple decades ago, when a LHRSA survey done with the help of a Department of Fisheries and Oceans helicopter on a Saturday counted 500 anglers on the water.
“Five hundred people eat a lot of dinners and stay at a lot of hotels — now there’s none of that,” Randall said.
The downturn is being attributed for the most part to the my-what-big-teeth-you-have chain pickerel. Kin to a northern pike, chain pickerel quickly ascend to the top of the freshwater food chain in Nova Scotia wherever they are introduced into the watershed — one of the biggest reasons it’s now illegal to transport live fish without a permit.
“They’ll eat anything that comes along — trout, salmon, all the perches. Anything they can eat, they’ll eat, but they’re also very territorial,” Randall said.
“With the introduction of chain pickerel, that’s going to add another nail in the coffin for the chance of salmon ever coming back on this river.”
THE MYSTERY OF THE CHAIN PICKEREL
So who brought chain pickerel to Nova Scotia? And when, how and why?
“They’re an invasive species. They’re not native to our province. Somebody from another province or state had to bring them to Nova Scotia,” Carroll Randall said.
Someone imported them and illegally planted them in a Nova Scotia water system, said Jason LeBlanc with Inland Fisheries.
Chain pickerel were first found in Digby County in 1945. Until the late 1970s, they were restricted to the southwestern part of Nova Scotia, mainly Digby and Yarmouth.
“They were initially illegally introduced. One could speculate the individuals wanted to develop fisheries for a species we did not have,” LeBlanc said.
“Currently we have (chain pickerel) in about a third of our primary watershelds. There are 46 primary watersheds. That is concerning. They’re established in some areas of high value for native species, and brook trout and Atlantic salmon are already struggling. Chain pickerel now threaten our globally endangered Atlantic whitefish in Petit Riviere. And in the Jordan watershed, the very vibrant speckled trout fishery has been eliminated,” he said.
“They’re being moved around by people. If they’re introduced into one lake in a watershed, they continue to populate others in that watershed,” LeBlanc said.
Something of a scrappy bully, ranging in size from 3-30 pounds and with distinctive dark chain markings on its greenish sides, the energetic “Esox niger” is known elsewhere in North America by names like “gunfish” or Southern pike. Chain pickerel had to have been romanticized at some point by some sport fisherman.
“One of the reasons chain pickerel were introduced is that they’re fun to catch. They’re very aggressive and they fight very hard when they’re caught,” Carroll Randall said. “If I had my druthers, I’d rather not have access to them.”
At the Bluenose Coastal Action Foundation, project co-ordinator Shawn Feener works on “scientific angling” towards invasive species removal with the LaHave River Invasive Species Project.
Techniques include eel traps modified to catch invasive species that have turned up where they shouldn’t — like small-mouth bass in New Germany Lake.
Photos from Wencels Lake, where the north and main branches of the LaHave meet, show salmon smolt in various stages of decay, pulled from the bellies of chain pickerel and, to a lesser extent, small-mouth bass which was introduced illegally into the LaHave in the mid-1990s, Le Blanc said.
From April 25-May 25, 2017, at the peak of smolt migration, project findings concluded a quarter of the chain pickerel had fish in their stomachs. Of those, 40 per cent of the fish in their bellies were smolt, typically gulped down whole.
So how to deal with chain pickerel?
There is currently a liberal bag limit of 25 on E. niger.
One of the ideas up for grabs: An extirpative (extinction) festival celebrating recipes for an invasive predator with lean and flaky white flesh.
“A lot of people catch them and throw them back, but in actuality, they’re good eating . . . they get quite big, so you can get a nice filet off them,” Carroll Randall said.
In the meantime, the goal is to keep the habitat strong for Atlantic salmon and for trout, so when they come back to the LaHave in force, the habitat is in good shape, Randall said.
“We’re trying to convince both levels of government we should start a hatchery and/or stocking program on the LaHave,” he said.