Miramichi Leader

Commercial Striped Bass Fishery Renewed for First Nation

Nathan DeLong

May 30, 2019
An Indigenous community outside Miramichi has been granted approval to commercially harvest thousands of striped bass again this year.

Natoaganeg First Nation's application to renew the pilot commercial bass fishery on the Northwest Miramichi River which flows past the community -for another season was renewed, Fisheries and Oceans Canada spokesman Steve Hachey said.

Natoaganeg Chief George Ginnish said there weren't many stripers caught during the fall harvest last year due to the early arrival of winter and the community's licence not arriving in time for a spring fishery.

He said he's optimistic about this year's permit, however.

"We want to do better this year," Ginnish said in a recent interview. "Part of the bass fishery is food for our community."

This is the second year an enterprise striper harvest has been set up at Natoaganeg, a Mi'kmaq community that's also known as Eel Ground. Roughly 600 people live on the main reserve.

Ginnish said an estimated 8,000 fish were reeled in over a week and a half last fall.

A quota of 50,000 fish was set this year and in 2018 by Fisheries and Oceans -or DFO.

"We had an early ice cover last year, which caused us some problems," said Ginnish.

"We advised DFO that we would prefer to do the bulk of the fishing in the spring versus the late fall."

For several years, Ginnish called for a commercial bass fishery for Natoaganeg as a way to help control rapidly fluctuating bass populations, provide meals for his residents and stimulate the community's economy.

In a presentation April 1 to the parliamentary standing committee on fisheries and oceans in Ottawa, Ginnish said the striper booms and busts in recent years and declines in wild Atlantic salmon -a traditional Mi'kmaq food source -have had a profound impact on Natoaganeg residents.

Ginnish and many salmon conservationists have raised concerns about bass posing a major threat to the species, which supports a recreational fishery that's long been an economic lifeblood for the Miramichi region.

Stripers are known for their ferocious appetites and for gobbling up many young salmon smolts, but the extent of their impact on salmon remains a debate among fish enthusiasts and researchers.

Some say the rate of bass eating smolts, or two-year-old salmon, could range from two to 18 per cent.

Both species are native to the Miramichi system.

There were just 27,400 salmon spawners that plied the Miramichi system last year. DFO has said salmon populations in the river peaked at 116,000 in 1974.

After climbing in recent years and reaching 994,000 spawners in 2017, stripers reportedly plummeted to an estimated 333,000 in 2018.

DFO has said Indigenous communities in the department's Gulf Region have long had access to stripers for food, social and ceremonial purposes.

Hachey said Natoaganeg's fishing licence was issued on May 4.

He said the community is only allowed to retain striped bass.

''All catches will be reported to DFO on a weekly basis," said Hachey.

"[Natoaganeg] First Nation will also be collecting valuable data on the size distribution of striped bass, which will be used in consideration of future conservation measures for both the commercial and recreational fisheries."

Not everyone is on board with the commercial bass harvest.

Jeff Wilson, co-promoter of the annual Miramichi Striper Cup angling derby, said he understands the importance of First Nations' access to stripers and other species, but he's worried about the enterprise fishery's potential impact on bass populations.

Wilson said that risk is greater iftoo many stripers are retained during or shortly before their spawning period from late May to mid-June.

A section ofthe Northwest Miramichi just upstream from Natoaganeg is the only striped bass spawning ground recognized by DFO in the southern Gulf Region.

Wilson said further drops in bass stocks like the one seen last year could jeopardize Striper Cup, an increasingly popular hook-and-release tournament that's put Miramichi back on the world sportfishing map in recent years.

"How many are we going to lose this year?" said Wilson. ''Are we anticipating another two-thirds loss?"

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