Striped bass have come back with a vengeance in the Miramichi

Population Explosion - Out of Balance

By Karen Pinchin - Photography: Darren Calabrese

Jan 29, 2019
Striped bass have come back with a vengeance in the Miramichi and the river’s world famous Atlantic salmon are on the menu.
Striped bass have come back with a vengeance in the Miramichi and the river’s world famous Atlantic salmon are on the menu.

The Northwest Miramichi River is boiling. On all sides of Nathan Wilbur’s green cedar-ribbed canoe, churning balls of silver and black striped bass roil at the surface. The air smells like wet fish, dank and algal, as thousands of humped dorsal fins slice the dark water.

“Isn’t it something?” asks Wilbur, ASF’s New Brunswick program director, a note of wonder in his voice.  

This section of river near Red Bank, in central New Brunswick, is unique to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The conditions are perfect for striped bass spawning: salinity, tidal flow, and ideal hatching conditions. Every year, as they have for thousands of years, these fish wait until late May or early June to congregate and reproduce, and I’m here to see it firsthand.

Beneath a vivid blue spring sky, dozens of people cast (mostly) spinning rods, some from flashy fishing boats or pontoons, some from shore. With a cheer, a husband-and-wife duo scoop two huge, dripping fish with a single bulging net. Downstream, a blonde preteen strains against his rod, fighting a bass as his parents watch proudly. People smile in amazement at one another. The sound of thousands of fish breaching the surface is a deep, gurgling roar: like standing beneath a waterfall.
“Time is running out,” says Nathan Wilbur, to give salmon and other smaller species like gaspereau and smelt a fighting chance against the ravenous appetites of striped bass.
Wilbur dips his paddle in the water, emulating a bass at the surface. Within seconds, dozens of massive fish writhe against it in a frenzy of roiling bubbles and slick flesh. They thump their bodies against the boat’s side while some attempt spawning against our outboard motor. Tiny pearl-white eggs, surrounded by milt, float by the billions in the agitated water. Striped bass on this river hit a near-catastrophic low in the early 1990s. Now, with a population estimated at around a million spawners, possibly higher, anglers, outfitters, and environmentalists are split. Some claim this remarkable recovery threatens that of Atlantic salmon—the species responsible for making this river famous for sport-fishing—which has been in precipitous decline since the 1970s. Others insist striped bass are a scapegoat, and that the two species co-evolved and have lived in harmony for millennia. Don’t kill bass, they say, to save salmon. As scientists and fisheries managers race to answer questions about stock health and what the future of striped bass looks like, Wilbur says time is running out to give salmon and other smaller species like gaspereau and smelt a fighting chance against the ravenous appetites of these so-called stripers.

“It’s a phenomenal recovery,” he says.

“And it’s a good news story [for striped bass]. But what if it’s at the expense of other fish in the ecosystem?” 

In Canadian waters, there are three known populations of striped bass, Morone saxatilis: one in Quebec’s St. Lawrence River (it was wiped out in the 1960s and recently reintroduced), another along the Bay of Fundy, and a third central population in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, including in the Miramichi. The Red Bank section of river is the only known spawning location for this latter population.
Outfitters and First Nations feel that a WELL-MANAGED First Nations commercial fishery, paired with increased recreational catch limits, will help. Outfitters Debbie Norton (left), Byron Coughlan (middle bottom) and Keith Wilson (right) all agree that striped bass are surging beyond what’s sustainable. Eel Ground First Nation fisheries consultant, Jason Keoughan (middle top), will now get his chance to prove a First Nations commercial striped bass fishery can help bring the Miramichi River ecosystem back into balance.
Like salmon, striped bass are anadromous. They spawn in brackish water with juveniles heading to saltwater to feed and mature before returning to spawn.  For at least three thousand years, Mi’kmaq, including people from Metepenagiag and Eel Ground First Nation, have caught, preserved, and eaten striped bass on this river, alongside other important staples like salmon and eel. 

Records of a commercial fishery date back to the pre-1900s, both as a bycatch fishery from nets set for gaspereau and smelt, and as a winter fishery, with striped bass hoop-netted through holes cut in the ice of Miramichi Bay and the Richibucto River, where the fish overwinter. 

Striped bass has long been a boom-and-bust commercial fishery. In 1917, nearly 61 tonnes were landed as bycatch, with no landings registered between 1935 and 1968. Then fishermen landed nearly 50 tonnes in 1981. 

In 1993, the population of adult spawning striped bass fell to a perilously low 5,500, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) closed the commercial fishery in 1996.

By 1998, DFO concluded there were only around 3,400 spawning-aged striped bass in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. The recreational and First Nations fisheries closed two years later. By 2016, it seemed the aggressive closures had worked—the spawning population hit more than 300,000.

The next year DFO estimated there were nearly a million spawning striped bass, and this year’s numbers have yet to be calculated.
No safe haven: Atlantic salmon anglers have been surprised to find salmon pools far upriver filled with striped bass. An even bigger shock has been sightings of Miramichi-tagged striped bass on the north shore of Quebec and in southern Labrador, far outside of their known range in the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Byron Coughlan sits at the kitchen table of his Country Haven Lodge, wearing a ballcap and tortoiseshell glasses around his neck. His son Tyler leans on the counter, arms folded. Seven years ago, the Blackville, N.B. lodge owner and outfitter took a group of Americans out for Atlantic salmon. Instead, one angler caught a striped bass. “Your river is done, they said,” he recalls, shaking his head.

At the time, that struck Coughlan as far-fetched. Then, one night last October, he and some friends caught four salmon in a single pool. Excited, the next night they returned, but were devastated by what they found. “We got about twenty-something bass,” he says. “We just had to quit fishing that pool, because literally, there were hundreds. Three fishermen, and we were all catching three-foot-long bass.”

Unlike any time in living memory, more striped bass are remaining in the river year-round instead of heading back towards the ocean after spawning, says Wilbur. Reports of the fish being caught in salmon pools 100 kilometers upriver are increasingly common, and many anglers worry that bass are feeding on salmon parr throughout the summer.

In 2018, ASF and DFO published a joint study in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences that showed up to 18 per cent of smolt leaving the Northwest Miramichi River were eaten by striped bass in some years. Salmon advocates reacted with dismay, but DFO was quick to point out that only one to five per cent of the smolt would make it back as adult salmon anyway. In other words, if bass don’t kill them, something else will.

“Striped bass and salmon have coexisted since the last ice age,” says DFO biologist Paul Chamberland, arguing that the science doesn’t yet support the belief that stripers can be blamed for sliding salmon populations in the Miramichi.

That suggestion is outrageous says Wilbur. Five years ago, around 70 per cent of the smolt leaving the Miramichi River would survive through the estuary into the open Gulf of St. Lawrence. That number today has fallen to less than 30 per cent says Wilbur, meaning three-out-of-four smolt “are dead before even exiting the estuary.” He points out the 18 per cent striped bass predation found in the ASF and

DFO study is likely a low number.

For seventh-generation outfitter and lodge owner Keith Wilson, it was DFO that landed Atlantic salmon in its current predicament. By allowing a commercial salmon net fishery in the Miramichi until 1996, and not forcefully objecting to mixed stock netting off Labrador and Green­land, Wilson says the feds doomed the salmon. “They’ve completely mismanaged the Atlantic salmon fishery to the point that all of a sudden, when the stripers show up, they can’t compete. Two hundred years ago, they probably did.”

As the striped bass recovered, people like Coughlan and Wilson pushed for the reopening of a commercial fishery, and anglers were keen to see longer seasons and larger bag limits for the feisty fish. In 2012 DFO reopened the First Nations food, social, and ceremonial fishery for striped bass and a recreational fishery opened the next spring. Season length and catch restrictions for anglers have been steadily loosened, including in 2018 when the seasoned was lengthened and the daily bag limit tripled over the year before.

This fall, for the first time in more than 20 years, there will be a commercial fishery for 25,000 striped bass led by Eel Ground First Nation. Beginning in 2019, the commercial nets will be able to take in 50,000 fish per year, half in the spring and half later in the fall.

In 2015, Jeff Wilson (no relation to Keith Wilson) helped start the Miramichi Striper Cup, a catch-and-release tournament held over a weekend in May. Nearly 900 people from across North America signed up, and one estimate ballparked local spending at just under $1 million. Three years later, he says, 2,000 people registered, and the tournament spans three weeks, which means millions more to the community and local businesses. By comparison, one study from 2010 shows that activity around the river’s Atlantic salmon fishery contributes $16 million to Canada’s GDP and supports 637 full-time equivalent jobs.

“You could say that salmon fishing is a rich sport, and striper fishing is almost the opposite,” says electrician Paul Cormier, who is now semi-retired. Still, he insists he’s no bass apologist: Atlantic salmon was his first angling love. He started fishing 40 years ago with his father and it took him four years to catch his first one. “For me, I’d rather be on a nice salmon pool, hooking just one salmon, than catching 50 stripers. If you’re in a pool, and you see a salmon roll, and you hook him up, that’s…,” his voice trails off. “That’s the ultimate.”

Still, anyone who says striped bass should be killed to help save salmon, says Cormier, doesn’t understand this river. He’s also strongly against reopening the commercial fishery, even to local First Nations. He doesn’t trust politicians and DFO to properly manage the resource, which he says is a family-friendly boon to the region’s economy. “This is unbelievable,” he says. “Can you imagine how many cities or communities would love to have this river in their backyard?”

Jeff Wilson believes reopening the commercial fishery will benefit only a few people at the expense of many others. “When the bass fishing slows down after one or two years of commercial harvest, the economic benefits for the city will be lost,” he predicts.

“I think they think we’re going to fish it all away,” says Eel Ground First Nation fisheries consultant Jason Keoughan, who has worked for years to get the commercial fishery back. Not taking more bass than the river can support while building a reliable income source for Eel Ground is their goal, although he knows there’s skepticism within the striped bass fishing community.

Paul Cormier scoffs at the idea striped bass are less important to the local economy than salmon.

“If you talk to a guide who only fishes salmon, or someone who owns a lodge, they’ll say that stripers are destroying the salmon, but salmon has been on the decline forever,” he says. “We are very lucky that we can fish both, but don’t destroy one to keep one.”

Debbie Norton leans over a pad of paper, sketching a chart of what a well-managed striped bass population could look like. The lodge owner, outfitter, and ASF (Canada) board member caters to both Atlantic salmon and striped bass anglers, in addition to hunters and hikers. Her family has been on this river for generations. She blames the near-collapse of salmon on the “unmitigated greed of mankind,” and has no desire to see another species wiped out on her watch.
To avoid another striped bass collapse, Norton says DFO needs to figure out the minimum number of striped bass the river needs to sustain the population, and also the point where it’s OK for people, as she puts it, to “fill your boots.”

“It’s a biomass that has to be fed, and they’re eating anything that they can find to eat,” she says. “The ecosystem is all tied together, and right now, it’s out of balance. It needs to be restored.” It’s common sense, she says, that a ravenous population of omnivorous fish will consume whatever it can, including salmon smolt and also, possibly, its own kind.

DFO wants to avoid another striped bass population crash, so is introducing changes to both recreational and commercial fisheries gradually. “We don’t want to see [striped bass] back in the emergency room,” says Chamberland.

Norton doesn’t either. A sustainably managed First Nations commercial fishery paired with increased recreational catch limits, will help, she believes, bring the river back into balance. “Some [people] will favour salmon. Some will favour lobster. Some will favour striped bass. But whatever you favour doesn’t really matter. We want a river in equilibrium. Whether I like them or whether I don’t like them, I shouldn’t say what lives and what dies.”

Back on the Miramichi, as the sun drops beyond the horizon, its dying light glints off the backs of thousands of ceaselessly churning fish. It’s like travelling back in time, before human intervention changed the face of this mighty river, a time when, as Alexandre Dumas wrote, one could nearly “walk across the Atlantic dry shod on the backs of cod.” In a split-screen moment, I glimpse this river as if through the eyes of this country’s first people, of newcomers like John Cabot, of colonial Lords of Industry who saw this spectacle as a natural resource ripe for exploitation.

For now, there’s no consensus on how to reach the equilibrium Norton yearns for, or whether that’s even possible. The newly approved First Nation commercial fishery and increased recreational limits will start to have an effect. But how quickly, and at what cost? As striped bass fill the Miramichi and Atlantic salmon struggle for survival, that’s the million-dollar question.

Karen Pinchin is an award-winning freelance writer based in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, National Geographic, Maclean’s Magazine, and Modern Farmer.

Striped Bass: Once threatened, now a threat to Atlantic salmon?

1800 • High abundance of striped bass.

1
917 • Approx. 65 ton bycatch in commercial fishery.

1935 to 1968
• No recorded commercial landings.

1981
• Approximately 50 tons landings recorded in commercial fishery.

1993
  • Mark-recapture method (DFO), estimates 5,500 spawners.

1996
 • Commercial fishery closed.

1998
• Spawner abundance at 3,400.

2000
• First Nations food, social, ceremonial (FSC) fishery and recreational fishery closed.

2004
• Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence population of striped bass designated threatened.

2012
• Stocks recover sufficiently to re-instate modest First Nations FSC fishery.

2013
• FSC allocations increased, recreational fishery re-opened with 1 fish per day limit for certain periods. • ASF/DFO joint smolt predation study begins.

2016
• Stock exceeds 300,000 spawners; recreational fishery expanded.
          • ASF study shows only 25% of tagged smolt survive through Miramichi estuary.*

2017
• Recreational harvest expanded, but further rest­ric­tions added in spawning zone
          • Spawning striper numbers hit 994,000

2018
• Published ASF/DFO smolt predation study reveals that a minimum of 2 – 18% of the smolt run is being consumed by striped bass.
          • Eel Ground First Nation to establish commercial fishery with 50,000 quota. ASF works with Eel Ground on product distribution.
         • Recrea­tional bag limit increases to 3 fish/day for entire season