Miramichi Leader

COSEWIC Says Original St Lawrence Striped Bass Extinct

Nathan DeLong

Dec 9, 2019
The original St. Lawrence River striped bass population is believed to have gone extinct, but the impact of that assessment on future protection efforts for the species remains unclear.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada recently reassessed the native St. Lawrence stripers, one of three distinct stocks in Canada, and concluded the fish have likely fallen victim to overfishing and habitat loss.

John Reynolds, chair of the committee, said restocking the St. Lawrence River with stripers from the Miramichi River watershed between 2002 and 2015 is believed to have brought positive results.

"We have concluded that [the originals] are indeed gone," said Reynolds, a biological studies professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.

"My understanding is that there has been a successful restocking, or translocation, of live fish from the Miramichi River, which is probably why people are often catching striped bass now when they go fishing for other species in the St. Lawrence River."

The last native striper was hooked in the St. Lawrence in 1968.

The Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) website states that the complete disappearance of bass in the river's estuary dates back to the late-1960s, following sustained fishing, poaching and significant habitat changes.

The committee deemed the original St. Lawrence bass population as endangered in 2012, but later determined the introduced fish should not be considered part of the initial stock.

Reynolds said the river was re-examined after the fish were considered endangered or more at-risk than other bass populations further east, such as the Miramichi stripers -which have seen rapid fluctuations in recent years.

Striped bass, which are native to the Miramichi, are known for their fierce appetites and their ability to adapt to new environments.

Conservationists have long been calling for action from DFO to control fluctuations in striper stocks, as stripers have been found to gobble up young salmon smolts.

The full extent of the striper threat to salmon, and whether humans should intervene in controlling their populations, remains a source of debate among experts and recreational anglers.

After peaking at an estimated 994,000 spawners in 2017, the striper population in the Miramichi watershed reportedly fell to roughly 333,000 fish capable of reproducing last year.

The Miramichi striper population had previously made a remarkable comeback after hitting critical lows in the 1990s and being listed as endangered by DFO in the early 2000s.

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

Reynolds said the stripers currently swimming in the St. Lawrence are suspected to have originated from the Miramichi fish, but an exact connection hasn't been established yet.

"The original St. Lawrence striped bass were thought to have been genetically different [than those from the Miramichi]," he said.

Reynolds said his committee will reassess all striper stocks in Canada in 2022.

The St. Lawrence's true bass population status also remains to be determined, Reynolds said, pending a new status report.

The committee calls on experts to write status reports after contacting stakeholders with knowledge about the species being reviewed, Reynolds said.

Reynolds said the committee -an independent advisory panel to government -doesn't do field work unless it's analyzing a rare species.

He said data are compiled from the experts' reports assessing fish populations, changes each year and other factors.

A sub-committee and other agencies then review the experts' findings before the report is edited and brought before a table of 30 people who scrutinize it and vote anonymously to decide the status of a species.

Following the vote, Reynolds said, the report is sent to federal politicians who consult with government agencies on the conclusions, then decide on protection measures -if needed.

Reynolds said his committee wasn't as confident in 2012 as it is now that the original St. Lawrence bass population was gone, but the scientists came to understand the stripers' status better.

"It's hard to prove that something is extinct, especially if it's a fish," said Reynolds, whose background is in aquatic conservation.

"The precautionary approach would be that, if there's a chance any original fish are still there, you could consider them endangered. That way, you don't forget they ever existed, and the government might want to consider ways to protect the habitat."

The Miramichi Leader requested a comment from DFO about the St. Lawrence striper populations and how the committee's assessment could impact conservation measures, but did not receive a response before publication time.

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