Miramichi Leader

First Nation Chief Ginnish worried about salmon declines

Nathan DeLong

Apr 11, 2019
The leader of an Indigenous community outside Miramichi says declining salmon stocks and fluctuating striped bass populations in the Miramichi River have had a profound impact on his citizens.

But the federal department responsible for fisheries management has said it's doing its part to reverse the downward trend of wild Atlantic salmon stocks.

While addressing the parliamentary standing committee on fisheries and oceans April 1 in Ottawa, Natoaganeg First Nation Chief George Ginnish said having fewer salmon in the Miramichi watershed now than before has greatly reduced his community's access to a traditional Indigenous food source.

"At Natoaganeg, we used to be able to count on salmon to help feed our people," said Ginnish, who also chairs the North Shore Micmac District Council.

"The few that we catch each year lately are shared with our elders, and we can barely catch 100 fish."

Salmon stocks in Fisheries and Oceans Canada's Gulf Region have been on a steady decline for several years as researchers and various stakeholders attempt to get a handle on what's been causing the drop.

For years, 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. Fisheries and Oceans - or 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.

Ginnish said there are agreements in place allowing his community's anglers to reel in more than 2,000 salmon, but now they're worried there aren't that many to catch.

“Our fishers voluntarily removed their gill nets from the Miramichi last year because the numbers were so poor," said Ginnish.

Last year, DFO authorized a commercial bass harvest for Natoaganeg on the Northwest Miramichi River, which flows past the community. The First Nation was licensed to hook 50,000 fish for the season.

DFO has said indigenous communities in the Gulf Region have long had access to stripers for food, social and ceremonial purposes. Ginnish has been calling for an enterprise harvest for a few years.

The only striped bass spawning ground recognized by DFO in the Gulf Region is on the Northwest Miramichi, just upstream from Natoaganeg.

Ginnish said a lack of access to salmon and other traditional foods has caused major health issues in his community.

He said his reserve took part in a nutrition study by the University of Ottawa two years ago that suggested his people get to consume one tablespoon per day of traditional meals.

Natoaganeg has high rates of diabetes, heart disease and other complications, Ginnish said.

Approximately 600 people live in the heart of the community and depend on the band council's programs, services and opportunities, the chief said.

On top of the health and cultural problems, Ginnish said, stripers have also wreaked havoc on Natoaganeg's economic prospects in both sportfishing and commercial harvesting.

In the 2012 census, he said, five of Canada's poorest postal codes were in Mi'kmaq areas in northern New Brunswick.

Natoaganeg's unemployment rate is 21 per cent, Ginnish said, and its median after-tax income is $25,000 - half the amount in nearby Miramichi.

“Why that does not factor into DFO’s decision-making process is beyond me," said Ginnish.

Ginnish said bass numbers hitting critically low levels in the 1990s didn't help his community either.

He said plans to build a wharf and fishing lodge and increase recreational angling were halted when measures to protect bass took effect.

“This impacts our lives," said Ginnish.

DFO spokesman Keegan Eatmon has said the department is investing in science and engaging with indigenous peoples, recreational anglers and other stakeholders to support the recovery of salmon stocks.

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