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Critical Miramichi data lost to pandemic last year say conservationists


Conservationists say the fish counting devices in the Miramichi watershed not being tracked throughout 2020 could hinder future Atlantic salmon protection measures.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) did not fish its trapnets at Millerton, on the Southwest Miramichi River, or Cassilis, on the Northwest Miramichi River, for most of last year due to concerns about COVID-19.

Miramichi Salmon Association president Robyn Mccallum said that’s concerning, especially after the river saw its lowest recorded adult salmon returns in 2019.

“The consequence of those catchnets not being fished is that we don’t know what the 2020 runs were like,” she said. anecdotally, we heard the runs were good, but we don’t have any data to support that.”

Statistics through the end of the year from 2006 to 2019 are posted on DFO’s website for salmon and grilse counts at the Cassilis and Millerton trapnets, in the lower estuaries of the Miramichi’s main branches. Another trapnet is located on the Southwest Miramichi near Juniper, while the salmon association manages protection barriers on the Northwest Miramichi and the Dungarvon River -a Renous River tributary.

Numbers from this year as of June 30 at Millerton and Cassilis are also available online.

Plans based on data

Mccallum said the 2021 salmon management plan looks to have been based on 2019 data, and having details from last year could have changed that. For example, she said decreasing daily salmon hook-and-release limits from four fish to two has “serious implications” for anglers and the region’s economy, and she doesn’t believe the move was based on science.

“To have that missing year of data is critical, and we don’t want that to happen again,” said McCallum. “We’re a science-based organization.

“When anglers and their eyes and boots are on the water, poaching goes down, and we need a reason for people to be on the water, connecting with the river and supporting conservation programs.”

A ‘wake-up call’

Neville Crabbe, Atlantic Salmon Federation spokesperson, said the lack of2020 data isn’t ideal. He said he hopes the disruptions to caused by the pandemic are “a wake-up call” about the need for contingency plans allowing ecological research to proceed as usual.

Crabbe said the information collected is “valid and valuable” because it has been gathered in similar fashions over a long time, allowing clear population trends to be identified. However, more data from more rivers is needed to get a better informed picture of what’s happening.

“We need to find ways to be out in the field and gathering data,” said Crabbe. “Other jurisdictions certainly did that, as Quebec and Maine kept monitoring their rivers, and the salmon federation and [Miramichi] association kept working on smolt and kelt tracking.

“Everyone who has a role in gathering this critical data informing management decisions needs to find a way to work through hardships and disruptions. Hopefully that’s the lesson of 2020.”

COVID restrictions delayed trapnets

DFO spokesperson Steve Hachey confirmed the Millerton and Cassilis trapnets were fished less frequently last year than usual. He said they’re normally operated daily from April or May to October to obtain data for Atlantic salmon population assessments.

Trapnet installation was delayed until July last year, Hachey said, and work was suspended in early October.

“In addition, the particular situation in 2020 limited trapnet operations to four days a week,” he said in an emailed statement to the Miramichi Leader.

Hachey said salmon data collection was also limited last year on other New Brunswick rivers, such as the Restigouche River. He said there was insufficient data on the Restigouche for annual updates on salmon returns, which normally use anglers’ catches and details recorded by fishing lodges.

Other activities affected by the pandemic were the spawning-age striped bass bycatch monitoring during the commercial gaspereau fishery in the Miramichi estuary, Hachey said. Bycatch monitoring involves DFO staff and commercial harvesters working closely together.

Hachey said all DFO trapnets have been installed on the Miramichi this year and, so far, are operating on their typical schedule.