Conservationists are urging fisheries managers to take immediate action to reverse the declines of wild Atlantic salmon in the Miramichi River after adult returns plummeted by nearly two-thirds last year.
Mark Hambrook, Miramichi Salmon Association president, said Wednesday that adult salmon counts in the Miramichi watershed totalled 6,300 in 2019.
He said the Southwest Miramichi River saw 5,200 adults return to spawn, while 1,100 large salmon came back to the Northwest Miramichi River. That’s down from 14,700 in the Southwest and 3,900 adults in the Northwest in 2018, or a total of18,600.
Those figures are estimates provided by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), Hambrook said.
“It’s pretty devastating,” said Hambrook. “This is the worst return ever for egg deposition in the river, with large salmon contributing most ofthe eggs. We’re spiralling downward.”
The previous record low for the Miramichi was set in 2014, Hambrook said, when 10,270 adult salmon plied the river. That included 8,940 large salmon in the Southwest and 1,235 in the Northwest branch.
As the association monitored the DFO trapnet counts on both Miramichi branches throughout 2019, Hambrook said, it wasn’t expecting good news.
Hambrook said a plan needs to be developed to combat declining salmon stocks, with conservationists, First Nations, anglers, businesses along the river and the public working together to develop solutions.
He said the association believes the dwindling numbers are caused by predatory fish, habitat loss and stock management issues.
Hambrook said those issues include -but are not limited to -grey seals in Miramichi Bay, striped bass in the river and estuary, warming water temperatures, invasive species and poaching.
On the plus side, Hambrook said, Natoaganeg First Nation’s commercial striped bass fishery on the Northwest Miramichi River, initiatives to protect coldwater habitats and a proposal to eradicate smallmouth bass in Miramichi Lake are steps in the right direction.
He said a commercial seal harvest could also be a potential solution. DFO has said it’s studying the impact grey seals have on cod and other fish species in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
In addition, Hambrook said, his group is vying to have as many cold-water and sensitive areas in the Miramichi watershed protected for the future under the New Brunswick government’s plan to double the province’s protected natural areas before 2021.
“That’s especially important now that we seem to be having warmer water and warmer summers,” he said.
“We have to get our forestry practices changed too so that we can reduce sedimentation in sloped areas and other spots that are vulnerable, so we can keep the sediment levels down on the river. It’s about keeping it cold and keeping it clean, and salmon will take care of the rest.”
In the meantime, Hambrook said, a restocking effort may be necessary as a short-term effort to boost populations.
The Miramichi Leader requested a comment from DFO and is awaiting a response.