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As the leaves started to change last fall, divers with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans slipped into the clear waters of the Restigouche River in northern New Brunswick, their eyes on the river bottom, looking for salmon.
Since 1999, the Restigouche snorkel count has been tallying the adult Atlantic salmon spotted during spawning season.
But last year, divers counted about 10,500, more than twice as many as they counted the year before.
In 2019, the total count was about 4,200 large salmon, and since 1999, the highest tally of any year was 8,000.
Last year’s increase wasn’t limited to the Restigouche River. Biologists are reporting greater salmon populations throughout the region.
According to the Atlantic Salmon Federation, a recent population report showed returns of adult salmon from the ocean were up around 70 per cent in Labrador last year, 27 per cent in Quebec and 20 per cent in Maine.
“All year, we were hearing from anglers that they were seeing more fish, they were seeing bigger fish,” said Neville Crabbe, spokesperson for the Atlantic Salmon Federation.
COVID-19 kept the Maritime provinces from collecting the data they typically would. Some rivers did hold counts, but other major systems, including the Miramichi, did not, leaving data sets incomplete.
But Crabbe said tallies such as the Restigouche snorkel count suggest a similar upward trend of salmon numbers is happening in the Maritimes overall.
The increases in returning salmon were published in a report released this month by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. Also known as ICES, the collective is made up of scientists and researchers from 20 member countries, including Canada, focusing on marine and ocean studies.
The ICES report points out that in the Maritimes, “population-monitoring activities were limited, and the status of some stocks could not be reported to ICES.”
And the numbers the group did tally are still a far cry from the salmon numbers of a few decades ago.
“In the late 1970s it was estimated there were 1.9 million returning adult salmon to all of the rivers in North America,” said Crabbe. “And for the last year of which we have data, that number was 435,000. That’s a very steep drop.”
In the Miramichi River alone, adult salmon numbers decreased from 112,000 in 1992 to 15,300 in 2019, according to federation numbers.
Still, having the population numbers go up even a bit, instead of plummeting, is enough to give some biologists a small bit of cautious optimism.
Lyndsay Jay-Keating grew up on the Miramichi River. Despite hearing her grandparents tell story after story about the mighty salmon of the Miramichi, she’d never seen one in the wild.
Only when she took the job as a biologist working with the Miramichi Salmon Association did she get to encounter a wild salmon in the river she was raised on.
“Seeing the numbers decline over the years is very sad,” said Jay-Keating. “Seeing the numbers rise is a glimpse of hope.”
This spring, Jay-Keating has been working to tag smolt, juvenile salmon working their way to the open ocean. Every day she and a team of students check their spinning traps on the Miramichi to get an idea of how many young salmon are in the river.
Growing up along the Miramichi River, she said, she learned that when the salmon don’t return, people don’t either, leading to shrinking rural communities. But she says a boost in the fish population could change that.
“I believe that if the salmon come back, the people will come back,” said Jay-Keating.
But it will take several years of increasing numbers before the region sees population numbers close to those of the 1970s and 1980s.
“Some of the populations are at, or near, some of the lowest levels on record,” said Crabbe. “But any year where there is more fish coming back than the year before, and in some cases more fish than the five-to-10-year average, that’s definitely encouraging.”