DFO rolls out new plan to bring back 'wild' Atlantic salmon stocks

Connell Smith

May 28, 2019
Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans has rolled out a new three-year plan to conserve and bring back wild Atlantic salmon.

The wild Atlantic salmon conservation policy implementation plan, emphasizes transparency and collaboration with conservation, Indigenous groups and provincial governments.

It will focus on areas that include research, habitat protection, the monitoring and tracking of fish, and the control of invasive species.

Salmon numbers have declined in recent years. There were about 27,000 returns to the Miramichi River in 2018, well below conservation levels.

But the new policy also emphasizes caution when faced with potential genetic risks, a development that could sink a high-profile plan to stock as many as 13,000 adult salmon in the Miramichi River system.

That program — dubbed SAS, or smolt to adult supplementation — saw three-year-old salmon captured from the Miramichi River and raised to adults over the next three years at the Miramichi Salmon Association hatchery in South Esk, a small community just south of Miramichi in Northumbderland County.

The plan has been to return fish to the river in the same place they were captured to allow them to spawn.

A controversial plan

SAS is backed by CAST, which stands for Collaboration for Atlantic Salmon Tomorrow. It's a New Brunswick registered non-profit company with James Irving, co-CEO of J.D. Irving Ltd., Glenn Cooke of Cooke Aquaculture, and businessman Brian Moore listed as directors.

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The stocking project is controversial. It has been stalled since the fall of 2017 after complaints from Miramich-area First Nations about lack of consultation and concerns within DFO about the science behind it.

The SAS fish have been spared a dangerous two-year ocean journey normally undertaken by wild salmon, and from which very few return to spawn.

Opponents fear the partial hatchery raised fish — untested by natural selection at sea — will weaken the overall population when it breeds in.

The new DFO policy puts a tight definition on what is considered a "wild" salmon, something that could exclude SAS fish.

Bill Taylor, is the president of the Atlantic Salmon Federation, a conservation group that has raised concerns about the SAS stocking program.

He says the new definition could "very well" have bearing on it.

"Wild salmon is defined in this policy as an Atlantic salmon that has spent its entire life history in the wild and whose parents have spent their entire life history in the wild," said Taylor.

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"So the populations where there is a lot of enhancement or hatchery influences would not be considered a wild Atlantic salmon. So this policy would certainly have ramifications."

Mark Hambrook is president of the Miramichi Salmon Association, another conservation group and SAS partner.

He praised the DFO plan as an important "path forward" and said he does not expect it to make a difference to the adult stocking plan.

"We're optimistic that we will come to an understanding on a cooperative way of proceeding forward," said Hambrook.

More projects in the works

Having said that, Hambrook said CAST is no longer collecting young wild salmon for the program and is awaiting "clear direction" on whether the stocking of existing adult fish can go ahead.

Charlottetown MP Sean Casey released the wild Atlantic salmon implementation policy at a press conference Monday in South Esk.

As part of the work, he also announced four new salmon conservation research projects that will be done by the University of New Brunswick, Dalhousie University and Acadia University. They will be studying the impact of climate change in connection with the survival of wild salmon. They will also take part in a tracking program put on by the Atlantic Salmon Federation.

Costs to the federal government were not revealed at the press conference.


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