DFO reports historically low salmon stocks
By Kris McDavid
11 Jun 2013 05:46PM
MIRAMICHI – A new Department of Fisheries and Oceans report on the health of the Atlantic salmon population within the Miramichi River watershed shows that neither of its main branches met their respective spawning requirements in 2012, with evidence suggesting a major nosedive in the number of fish returning to the area.
The department’s most recent snapshot of Miramichi River salmon stocks is highlighted by an alarming dip in the number of returning large and small-sized salmon to the ecosystem in 2012.
According to the report, an estimated 13,600 large salmon, with a minimum fork length of 63 centimetres, and about 8,000 of the smaller grilse returned to their Miramichi spawning grounds.
“When I look at those numbers, it’s the worst run of grilse the Miramichi has ever had since we’ve starting counting the numbers,” said Mark Hambrook, president of the Miramichi Salmon Association.
“But the situation is that the grilse runs were terrible everywhere in eastern North America last year, and the further south you were the worse the returns wore – in the Bay of Fundy down to Maine they were terrible, and our numbers were bad.”
The number of large salmon recorded at a series of monitoring stations along both of the Miramichi’s main branches in 2012 were down anywhere from 25 per cent to 59 per cent when compared with 2011, with small salmon down even more – about 75 per cent fewer recorded than a year ago.
The sudden reduction comes on the heels of a strong return in 2011, which followed a couple of years of mediocre numbers.
“Returns of small salmon to the Miramichi River in 2012 were low and followed on the near record-high returns observed in 2011,” the department’s report reads. “Returns of large salmon in 2012 also decreased relative to 2011 but much less than for those of small salmon. Conservation requirements for the Miramichi River were not attained in 2012.”
Large salmon returns, estimated at just over 1,600, along the Northwest Miramichi River watershed were down roughly 50 per cent, with small salmon, at roughly 2,500, plummeting by 80 per cent over 2011 and by 70 per cent when painted against figures from the last five years.
On the Southwest Miramichi, large salmon (10,700) were down by 58 per cent this year, with small salmon (5,300) down 83 per cent, or, 73 per cent below the average of returns recorded over the last five years.
While being able to get an accurate reading of precisely how many salmon are returning to the region each year isn’t an exact science, Fisheries and Oceans says it’s marking and recapturing research helps it to at least get a solid grasp on population trends.
There have been a handful of theories explored as to what, exactly, is behind plummeting Atlantic salmon stocks within the Miramichi River watershed and other estuaries in eastern North America.
Everything from the impact of an exploding population of predatory striped bass might be having on baby salmon to some sort of unknown phenomenon taking place during the salmon’s annual journey out to sea have been cited by conservationists as potential reasons why the Miramichi’s salmon run is becoming ever more fragile.
Hambrook said, clearly, something “catastrophic” happened to the salmon last year.
Theorizing, Hambrook noted the correlation between good and bad salmon years with the measurement of water pressure differential between Greenland and the Azores in the Atlantic.
“The winter of 2011-2012 was the highest differential recorded since the 1800s,” he said. “Again, this is just an index and when you start talking to people about what it means, we can’t definitively relate it to what’s happening out there, but it’s definitely a pretty good index.”
Meanwhile, organizations such as the Atlantic Salmon Federation have been taking a long, critical look at some of the activities taking place high above the Arctic Circle in the Danish territory of Greenland.
Greenland’s economic activity is fuelled by the commercial fishery, of which the harvesting of wild Atlantic salmon makes up a growing component.
“This will be devastating to endangered populations in North America, which in most years comprise about 80 per cent of the Greenland harvest,” said the federation’s president, Bill Taylor, in a statement.
“And a terrible blow to all populations of wild Atlantic salmon in Canada, the U.S., and southern Europe, driving more populations towards threatened and endangered status.”
Ongoing talks between the international community about placing sanctions on Greenland’s ability to operate a factory salmon fishery stalled during a recent meeting in Ireland, raising further concerns among conservation groups like the salmon federation about stability on the North American salmon population due to overfishing.
Roughly 36 tonnes of Atlantic salmon, all of which originate from North American river systems like the Miramichi, were harvested in Greenland in 2012, according to the federation.
Salmon from North America and southern Europe migrate to Greenland each year to feed.
Taylor said that number could double this year with talk that Greenland’s salmon fishery could include an unlimited cap on the island’s subsistence quota for residents, when the fishing season opens up in August.
Part of the problem plaguing the North American argument, Taylor said, is the view from Danish officials that its case isn’t credible given fishing activities in jurisdictions like Canada.
During the Irish meeting, a Danish representative reminded the Canadian group that its annual salmon harvest is roughly six-times greater than that of Greenland.
“It’s easy to understand Greenland’s position because in Canada, anglers and First Nations killed 135 tonnes of salmon last year, which is equivalent to 63,000 fish,” said Taylor. “The Greenlanders are unwilling to continue to bear the burden and sacrifice of conserving salmon while other countries like Canada allow the killing of several times more salmon than they do.”
Hambrook said, to a certain extent, he can understand Greenland’s stance on the issue. He notes that there are active Atlantic salmon fisheries in Quebec and Labrador that greatly contribute to Canada’s annual salmon kill.
The difference between what Canada’s approach and Greenland’s, he said, is that in Quebec, for instance, salmon can be harvested from a specific river if there is a population surplus. In Greenland, there is no way of knowing where the salmon being caught originate from.
“It could be a Penobscot salmon which is critically (endangered), it could be one of our Miramichi salmon, because when you’re fishing in a mixed fishery, you don’t know what you’re killing.”