by Lewis Hinks, ASF Director of Programs for Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Photos by Lewis Hinks/ASF
On a recent visit to the West River Sheet Harbour restoration project, one comment really caught my attention: “Individual salmon smolt have individual personalities.” Wait, what??!! Did I hear this right??
Apparently so. Dr. Christina Semeniuk of the University of Windsor in Ontario and her Laboratory Manager Kevyn Janisse were both at the West River Sheet Harbour site, studying the individual behavior of various wild smolt and trying to understand if it is affected by acidified water or by the liming treatments being used on that system to return the ecosystem to near neutral pH.
It is intriguing research, and a little bizarre to the uninformed.
West River Sheet Harbour Camp where Dr. Semeniuk is conducting experiments on Atlantic salmon smolt personality and the impact of acidified water.
Wild smolt are taken from the smolt wheel in the in the main West River which is being treated for acidification and from fyke nets in the untreated West Branch tributary and held in tanks next to the river.
Dr. Semeniuk works with the test setup for smolt personality research.
While waiting for the next test phase to begin, Dr. Semeniuk tells me about the five personality traits they are observing. Those are:
1. shy - bold: an individual’s response to a risky situation in a familiar or unfamiliar environment
2. exploration - avoidance: an individual’s response to a novel situation, such as an unfamiliar environment or object that is not easily confused with a potential threat
3. activity: the activity level of an individual in a non-risky and familiar environment
4. aggressiveness: an individual’s pugnacity towards conspecifics in a social setting
5. sociability: an individual’s non-aggressive tendency to seek or avoid members of the same species
The test tanks are identical, in that they all have the same features and are the same size. There is a cinder block in the center to provide cover, gravel covering the tank bottom and each tank has a GoPro camera mounted overhead, recording all phases of the testing.
Kevyn Janisse turns on a GoPro camera
The first phase of the testing is to observe how the fish respond to their new environment.
Dr. Semeniuk talks about how different fish display these character types. Some are very shy and hide in the cinder block, some slowly and deliberately explore their new surroundings, some just hunker down in the tank, some move quickly, almost darting around the tank as if trying to escape – and maybe they are. The fish are allowed to adjust to their new surroundings for a half hour.
Phase 2 of the research is the introduction of food and how they react. Fish may be under stress or upset by the new environment, but they still have to eat to survive. How they adjust to the new environment and feed is quite important to the testing. They food used is natural insects and worms found in the environment.
Phase 3, is really interesting. After allowing the fish to ‘relax’ for ten minutes after the food trial, the smolts now are threatened – the threat taking the form of ‘Cletus’, a cormorant decoy.
Dr. Semeniuk introduces "Cletus" to the smolt's environment.
How the fish react to a predator is key to their survival. Many years ago, I read a research document that described how salmon that were stressed by acidification had reduced ability to feed, adjust to salt water, migrate and avoid predators. This phase gets to that last point. Some smolts swim up to Cletus, but that is not a good survival tactic. Some scatter for the cinder block and some just take it in stride. All interesting responses.
Phase 4 is the introduction of food again after another 10-minute rest following the Cletis incident. Again, though scared and stressed, a fish still has to eat to survive. How they react can be a indication of the impacts of acidification.
After a 1-hour recovery from all the tests, the smolts are then put into salt water for 24 hours to see how they adjust to the marine environment. Blood samples and gill samples are then taken to be analyzed.
Dr. Eddie Halfyard, who is leading the major restoration work on the West River Sheet Harbour tells me the major crux of the project is really asking how acidification affects personality and physiology and how these interactions may ultimately impact marine survival. The link between freshwater and marine is important.
As Eddie explains, the blood samples are looking at blood osmolality; the balance between water and electrolytes (salts) in the blood. It's an indicator of a smolts ability to deal with saltwater.
The gill samples are looking at sodium-potassium ATPase, an enzyme responsible for regulating salt concentrations in cells by pumping sodium out of gill cells and potassium into gill cells. If it is doing its job, we expect that the bloodwork above would be 'normal' after a 24-hour saltwater challenge. Also, we sampled some smolts before the saltwater challenge looking for the amount of aluminum on the gills.
This is all pretty high-tech stuff and the West River project is on the cutting edge of salmon restoration for acidified rivers. It holds a lot of hope an promise.
So, the next time a salmon refuses your fly, don’t blame yourself, that fish might just not have the right personality.
Nathan Wilbur, ASF Director of New Brunswick Programs
Striped bass are appearing in the hundreds of thousands in the lower Miramichi River, creating a threat to the recovery of wild Atlantic salmon there - and elsewhere in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and beyond. Photo ASF
Instead of 1 or 2 striped bass per day, anglers in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence (N.B., N.S., P.E.) will be allowed to retain 3 fish per day for the entire season.
A spawning closure that lasted 9 days and covered 10km (6 miles) of the Northwest Miramichi last year will shrink to 5 days and cover 6.5km in 2018.
The changes are the result of both the meteoric rise of striped bass in the Gulf and perhaps new information on how other species are affected. It’s a fascinating story not witnessed before in living memory and poses serious questions for scientists and regulators. However, the population has been huge in the past. Records of fisheries from Miramichi show catches of hundreds of thousands of pounds in the 1870s.
From a few thousand to nearly 1 million
The phenomenal growth of the striped bass population has been headline news in recent years. According to DFO's latest assessment, the number of large, spawning striped bass has exploded from 318,000 in 2016 to a whopping 994,000 in 2017, a three-fold increase in just one year. All these fish come annually to the population's only known spawning grounds – the Northwest Miramichi River estuary.
The bass explosion is remarkable, especially considering the total numbers of stripers was estimated between 3,000 and 5,000 in the 1990s. It was low enough for the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) to assess the population as threatened in 2004. Now stripers are showing up in places where they’ve never been seen before.
On the left, a map shows the native range of striped bass in our region. The star covering the Northwest Miramichi estuary marks the only known successful spawning location of the southern Gulf of St-Lawrence population (courtesy of DFO). On the right, a map includes a sample of striped bass sightings that were reported to ASF in 2017, showing northern extension of range.
Conventional knowledge on striped bass says that after spawning in the spring, most head for the coast, cruising for food in the salt water. But there’s evidence now that some stripers are instead feeding in rivers for the summer. Anglers have been catching them regularly in salmon pools during the past couple fishing seasons, including more than 100 kilometres upstream in the Southwest Miramichi, on the Restigouche and rivers on the Gaspe peninsula.
Typically, that in the late fall the southern Gulf striped bass return to the Miramichi estuary to overwinter, but even that appears to be changing. ASF has seen photographic evidence of striped bass caught through the ice this past winter in Labrador, as well as large schools of striped bass hanging around the lower part of some Gaspe rivers.
The reasons for this remarkable recovery and growth may be attributable to fishery restrictions, combined with warmer temperatures and a more productive Gulf of St-Lawrence. There is also speculation that the closure of the mill in Miramichi, and the improvement of water quality where the bass usually overwinter, may have played a role.
An angler fishing through the ice near Cartwright, Labrador landed a striped bass in March 2018. (Facebook)
Managing the boom, worrying about a bust
DFO’s latest management changes for the recreational striped bass fishery are incremental. Striped bass are a native species in the southern Gulf and have co-evolved with other native species like Atlantic salmon. Their rebound is an epic success story on its own, and clearly DFO doesn’t want to repeat mistakes of the past, when overharvesting by commercial fisheries and as bycatch helped drive the population to the brink.
In the last decades of the 20th century, as landings crashed and the number of striped bass in the Miramichi was assessed at just a few thousand, DFO closed the commercial fishery in 1996. The recreational and aboriginal fisheries followed four years later.
This graph shows the rise of striped bass in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, from a few thousand individuals to 1 million large spawners in less than two decades. Numbers (at left edge) are in a logarithmic scale. (Courtesy of DFO)
After the closures, DFO set a recovery target of 21,600 spawners in 5 out of 6 years before they would reopen an aboriginal fishery. If numbers hit 31,200 fish in 3 out of 6 years they would consider reopening the recreational fishery. In 2011, both those targets were met and have been exceeded every year since.
Striped bass were downgraded from threatened to a species of special concern, and in 2014, DFO established a 2-year plan for the recreational fishery. They have been loosening the rules consistently since then, based on an adaptive management approach.
Stripers eat wild Atlantic salmon
For years, the underlying question around striped bass has been, ‘What does this mean for salmon?’ The Miramichi valley is salmon country. People spend more than $16 million on salmon related activities there every year, creating over 600 full-time jobs. There are important First Nations food fisheries for salmon as well. It’s no wonder a wild Atlantic salmon wears a crown atop New Brunswick’s coat of arms.
N.B.’s coat of arms symbolizes the connection of residents to the natural resources of the province. (Government of New Brunswick)
Everyone has suspected striped bass are eating or injuring salmon smolt headed downriver to begin their first ocean migration and ASF’s long-term tracking has provided circumstantial evidence. In the last five years, the number of tagged smolt that reach an array of receivers stretched across outer Miramichi Bay has decreased from around 70 per cent to about 25-30 per cent.
In other words, almost three out of every four smolt leaving the Miramichi are dead before they reach the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and the beginning of their ocean migration to distant feeding grounds.
In response to these concerns DFO conducted a stomach contents analysis of striped bass which showed smolt were a very small portion of their diet. There was a lot of skepticism about the results, and last year ASF and DFO teamed up to take a second look with a different approach.
This 2017 picture from the Restigouche River shows that striped bass are preying on juvenile salmon in rivers aside from the Miramichi as well. Courtesy Greg Dixon
As a result, in January 2018 a new study was published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. By comparing the movement of tagged smolt and tagged bass, ASF biologists were able to determine that when a tagged smolt started behaving exactly like a striped bass it was sitting in the stomach of the predator.
The study found annual predation rates are typically between 10 and 18 per cent for smolt leaving the Southwest and Northwest Miramichi systems, but these number are conservative. For example, bass need to retain the smolt, and its acoustic tag, in their stomach for about 4 days to register enough pings for the researchers to make a determination. The bass may not even swallow the smolt, but an attack could cause lethal harm or serious injury.
Also, the study was based on data from 2013 through to 2015, when the number of spawning striped bass was between 250,000 and 301,000. Now that the spawning population has tripled to nearly 1 million, logic would suggest that the predation rate on smolt has also increased. More research and fine tuning of the models is needed to determine with certainty how much of the 40 per cent point drop in smolt survival drop is truly caused by striped bass.
For comparison, on ASF’s other Gulf of St. Lawrence study rivers, the Restigouche and Cascapedia, smolt survival rates haven’t changed much in the last five years compared with previous years when the bass population was lower. These salmon don’t encounter the iron curtain of predators on their way to sea because the bass are concentrated in their spawning area on the Northwest Miramichi at this time.
Can we restore balance?
DFO’s gradual loosening of recreational angling rules, and the few thousand fish allocated for First Nations’ food, social, and ceremonial purposes will likely cause negligible reduction in bass numbers – but we cannot say for certain because DFO does not yet document catch or effort in the recreational fishery .
The only attempt to document catch and effort was conducted by the Miramichi Watershed Management Committee, which determined recreational harvest during the spring on the Miramichi to be about 2000 bass. Only by running ASF’s predation models over several years could we say for sure whether there is a reduction in smolt predation. This highlights the importance of maintaining ASF’s long term smolt tracking program.
In the face of this incredible abundance, we should be positive and recognize the opportunities available. That’s why ASF has been encouraging the development of a small, well-managed commercial fishery led by First Nations. Ideally, such an enterprise would provide economic opportunities to the entire region, help strike a balance in the ecosystem, and avoid the overfishing that occurred in the past.
Even without taking more bass, there are other ways to get closer to an equilibrium. For example, if smelt and gaspereau stocks were more abundant, they would provide a greater variety of prey for striped bass and act as cover for smolt leaving the system by overwhelming the bass. The last time striped bass were at high abundance in the 1870s, so too were smelt, with annual landings around 2-3 million pounds. With more forage fish around, the entire ecosystem would be healthier. Measures to increase these stocks are worth investigating. The first option within DFO’s immediate control would be to reduce the take in commercial fisheries, or buy out commercial licenses for the greater good. After all, our perspective should be broad, focused on the entire ecosystem, not narrowed down to making a choice between two native species.
Don Ivany, ASF Director of Programs for Newfoundland and Labrador
The roiling debate about the state of salmon and the 2018 recreational fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador is nearing its end.
The angling season opens on June 1, so DFO will soon need to make a final decision on whether any tags are issued with salmon licenses this year. Arguments have been heated, there’s a wide variety of opinion, but underlining everything is a single set of facts. This graph says it all:
Data courtesy ICES (1992-2016) and DFO/ASF (2017).ASF estimate based on DFO published information.
As DFO’s Geoff Veinott said in March, “ We’ve never seen anything like this.” True, things have not been this bad - almost every monitored river in Newfoundland and Labrador had runs decrease by at least 30 per cent in 2017 – but there was an indication of things to come.
In 2016, more than half the province’s monitored rivers showed declines of 30 per cent year over year. It was enough at the time for DFO to call for an extraordinary meeting of the Newfoundland Salmonid Advisory Committee leading up to the 2017 salmon angling season. The advice from participants was that DFO should be extra cautious. Unfortunately, it was ignored and DFO made no changes to recreational fishing rules. Anglers were once again allowed to keep up to six grilse.
In August last year it was obvious that 2016 wasn’t a blip. 2017 was shaping up to be even worse. As a result, DFO closed retention fishing for Atlantic salmon in favour of mandatory live release for the rest of the season. ASF supported this decision for conservation and stewardship reasons, but not everyone agreed.
That decision by DFO has snowballed into the present quarrel over rules for 2018. Whether to continue with live release has pitted the province against the federal government and angler against angler. The St. John’s Telegram letter page has been filled with people writing in on the subject. Public meetings have been used to whip up resentment and harangue perceived opponents.
It’s an unfortunate situation that turns off the general public, distracts from the real issue of conservation, and hurts Canada’s position when it comes to pushing for sustainable salmon fisheries elsewhere.
Yet despite all the noise, the normal process involving Newfoundland Salmonid Advisory Committee has been unfolding. Following a final meeting on March 27th, everyone’s cards are now on the table for DFO to consider.
Here are a few examples with links to submissions where available:
Atlantic Salmon Federation: For the first time, based on the state of the resource, ASF is recommending that the angling season open as live release only for the island of Newfoundland and southern Labrador. At the mid-way point of the season, we’re asking DFO to conduct a review of returns, and if conservation requirements are being met we support reinstating two grilse tags for the remainder of the season.
Salmon Preservation Association for the Waters of Newfoundland: SPAWN, a long-standing conservation organization with offices in Corner Brook, western Newfoundland, is recommending 3 tags for the season; 1 valid in each month between June and August. If a mid-season review is positive, they want the option of returning to six tags.
Citizens Outdoor Rights Alliance:This group of vocal ‘retention anglers’ has taken the position that regardless of returns, there should be no change to the number of tags in 2018. They’ve been able to capitalize on support from provincial Fisheries Minister Gerry Byrne who has attended their public meetings as a featured speaker. CORA as they’re known argue people have a God-given right to kill what they catch. This group argues if you can’t keep fish there should be no salmon angling at all, including live release.
Government of Newfoundland and Labrador: The province was the last group to take an official position. They’re largely parroting the Citizen’s Outdoor Rights Alliance, pushing for the issuance of six tags per license and calling for a total closure of the recreational fishery if retention angling is not possible. Newfoundland officials have only recently become engaged in recreational fishery issues after going several years without sending anyone to advisory committee meetings and severely cutting back on research and enforcement.
What’s actually sustainable? Who has the most at risk?
In this CBC News piece from March it was stated that live release would reduce mortality by 80 per cent (the 20 per cent loss includes poaching and a small mortality associated with live release). At the last Salmonid Advisory Committee Meeting, DFO scientists once again confirmed a zero retention fishery this only sustainable option.
It’s ironic then that the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador claims to “recognize the primacy of conservation.” No one denies that there is a small mortality associated with live release. Recent studies peg it at around 4 per cent for salmon angled on a fly. On top of that, everyone in the debate agrees there’s value in having anglers on the water so it’s nonsense for the provincial government to call for total closure instead of live release if necessary.
In the back and forth over this issue it’s easy to lose sight of the people who actually have livelihoods at stake – the province’s outfitting community. These businesses sprinkled throughout rural and remote Newfoundland and Labrador bring in millions of dollars every year. Live release might be a slight disruption, but shutting angling down entirely could ruin their short season and have long-term implications.
At the end of the day, DFO has a tough decision to make. If we want to give Atlantic salmon a chance to rebound, we must keep people engaged and caring without causing unnecessary harm to populations. Issuing six tags will do nothing for conservation.
By Nathan Wilbur, ASF Director of New Brunswick Programs
The next step in the proposed Sisson Mine project is upon us.
The planned Tungsten/Molybdenum open pit mine is located in the headwaters of the Nashwaak River. Its massive tailings pond, required for storage of the acid-generating rock waste, will be 3+ km long by 2.5+ km wide and higher than Mactaquac dam.
The tailings pond for Sisson Mine is massive, and large enough to show clearly from space. How will it hold up to 50 or 100 years of storms?
The project has undergone both provincial EIA and federal EA evaluations and been given permission if several conditions are met.
One of these conditions was the proponent providing a Financial Securities Plan (FSP) within six months of the EIA to New Brunswick’s Department of Environment and Local Government.
Not surprisingly, the proponent failed to meet this requirement, making it impossible for government, stakeholders, First Nations and the public to assess whether the company has the financial resources in place to ensure appropriate environmental bonding.
A large Atlantic salmon returning to the Nashwaak River. Many have raised concerns about the impacts of the mine on the river. Photo Nathan Wilbur/ASF
Because the mine WILL destroy fish habitat, the proponent legally needs to compensate for that loss with a “Fisheries Productivity Offsetting Plan”, required by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). In order to proceed, the streams the mine will impact need to be classified within the Metal Mining Effluent Regulations. But for that to happen, ECCC and DFO first require the proponent to demonstrate a rigorous assessment of alternatives for the tailings storage, and offer up an adequate compensation plan.
To come up with a compensation plan, the mine folks and government first needed to know how much habitat will be impacted. The process began several years ago with a habitat impact assessment, which turned out to encompass a limited area, principally the footprint of the mine and tailings pond, and some short distance beyond.
What it does not encompass are the downstream impacts and threats to fish and aquatic habitat resulting from mine operations; release of treated effluent; and seepage of untreated effluent through the unlined tailings pond berm. Although we care about the direct loss of Atlantic salmon habitat in these small headwater streams, our primary concern is the threat to the entire downstream Nashwaak River, Saint John River and even the Bay of Fundy.
ASF's Nathan Wilbur addresses the panel on the shortcomings of the proposed compensation for lost fish habitat. Photo Gary Moore/CBC
The assessment does not incorporate risks of downstream impacts and, therefore, it significantly underestimates the impacts the mine will have.
On Thursday evening, March 25, ECCC and DFO held a public consultation session in Stanley, NB to present the numbers for habitat loss, the accompanying compensation plan, as well as the assessment of alternatives for tailings storage.
The meeting attracted a full hall, with about 280 people of diverse backgrounds – the blue collared, white collared, the old and the young, rural and city dwellers, NGOs, students, and Maliseet indigenous people.
There was not a whisper of support for the mine.
The take-home message was that jobs would be welcomed in the region, but not at the expense of the river, which people expect will be impacted.
The proposed compensation plan is to remove an old flow control structure at the outlet of Nashwaak Lake and replace it with a small bridge so that alewives and other fish species can gain access to the lake and its tributaries. This will open access to a habitat area that is more than 5 times larger than the assessed fish habitat area damaged by the mine (i.e., the footprint of the mine and slightly beyond).
The proponent's proposed compensation was to improve this passage for alewives - that no one knows whether or not it is actually an impediment to them.
When DFO noted at the public meeting that this would cost the proponent a grand total of $185,000, laughter and ridicule generated immediately from the crowd. There is no question, an improved alewife run would benefit the Nashwaak River, including its Atlantic salmon, by bringing in valuable marine-derived nutrients. However, it severely undercompensates for the damage this mine will cause to the river. The flow control structure may not even be a barrier to fish passage, the proponent has no study to demonstrate this. Even if it is a barrier, in my informed opinion, fixing passage at this site is something a group like the Nashwaak Watershed Association could accomplish in an afternoon with $5,000.
Given the limited assessment of habitat impact, and the resulting inadequate compensation proposal, ASF’s recommendation to ECCC and DFO at the consultation meeting was to deny the permit and send the proponent back to the drawing board. It would be an embarrassment to the federal government regulators to accept such an insufficient compensation plan for a mine of this magnitude in the headwaters of a salmon river facing an Endangered listing.
By Scott Roloson, President, Prince Edward Island Salmon Council
Last fall anglers on scheduled salmon rivers in Prince Edward Island enjoyed some of the strongest returns in years, with several reporting days where multiple salmon were caught and released.
Much of this can be accredited to a very successful stocking program run by the Abegweit Conservation Society and the provincial government. In this program, wild broodstock are collected in the fall, spawned and returned to the wild. After hatching in captivity, the salmon fry are stocked back into rivers to grow in a wild setting.
This method circumvents the low hatching success that is believed to limit juvenile production in many rivers. The program has experienced several years of success and anglers are looking forward to the coming years when many of these salmon will return to PEI rivers.
Another exciting salmon conservation success is unfolding in PEI rivers in the province’s very northeast corner.
Following a recent genetic study, it was suggested that some unstocked rivers may still retain the original genetic signature found prior to human colonization. This speculation has been the impetus for a new research project investigating the genetic composition of all PEI salmon rivers and the life history of salmon found in these unstocked rivers.
The research project included a fall salmon trap in North Lake Creek, accompanied by an adult tagging program to investigate movement patterns during spawning.
Employees from Souris Area Branch of PEI Wildlife Federation, Abegweit Conservation Society and Carissa Grove, MSc Candidate CRI-UPEI (holding fish).
Adult salmon were tagged under the skin with a small PIT tag and movements were monitored by network of detection stations. In addition to looking at movements within North Lake Creek, arrays were set up in neighboring rivers. In an era of widespread declines of salmon populations, there is a theory that geographic regions function as interconnected populations and that these clusters are an important source of resiliency.
Gaining a better understanding of the movement of individuals and genetic structure of these salmon populations will enhance the information available for future management and regulatory decisions.
Salmon conservation success on PEI would not be possible without the unwavering commitment people working in grassroots watershed restoration.
Fundraising Reception Coming Up
On Wednesday March 28th, the PEI Council of the ASF is hosting its annual fundraising reception.
This event is a celebration of Atlantic salmon on PEI and a chance for everyone to show their support for those involved in salmon conservation on PEI. Funds raised at the event will help the ASF support important research and conservation priorities in PEI salmon rivers.
Important contributions to the aforementioned salmon successes have been made the following groups: Abegweit Biodiversity Enhancement Hatchery, Communities Land and Environment (Gov’t of PEI), Canadian Rivers Institute (UPEI), Abegweit Consevation Society, Souris and Area Branch of PEI Wildlife Federation, Morell River Management Cooperative, Atlantic Salmon Conservation Foundation, Atlantic Salmon Federation, PEI Wildlife Conservation Fund, and Aboriginal Fund For Species At Risk (DFO).