Miramichi Leader

Federal report calls for inclusive approach to get a handle on striped bass numbers

Kris McDavid

Jun 3, 2019
A report issued by the federal standing committee on Fisheries and Oceans earlier this week is calling on the government to commit to working more collaboratively with Indigenous stakeholders in order to better manage striped bass populations in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence region.

The objective of the report is right there in the title - Striking a Delicate Balance.

In this case, the balance the committee feels needs to be struck is figuring out a way to maintain stable, healthy striped bass populations in fragile ecosystems such as the Miramichi River watershed, without further compromising the ecosystem's dwindling run of wild Atlantic salmon.

The committee, headed up by Liberal MP for Avalon Ken McDonald, compiled its report following months' worth of hearings involving a number of different experts in the field who were invited to Parliament Hill to appear as witnesses and provide input into the process.

In the end, the report came back with 12 recommendations being presented for DFO's consideration in an effort to get an ecosystem many in the fish science community feel is out of alignment back into a more balanced state.

McDonald noted in his conclusion that despite the committee having heard from so many different witnesses representing various interests and viewpoints, a common thread did end up emerging.

He said everyone was in agreement that the overall health of the ecosystem needs to come first, and that in order to achieve that balance, all stakeholders need to be communicating with one another and pulling in the same direction.

And, McDonald noted, it's up to Fisheries and Oceans Canada to set the tone.

"The committee heard that DFO should engage affected communities to develop approaches that recognize the socio-economic importance of balancing a healthy striped bass population and the recovery of the iconic Atlantic salmon," the report concludes.

"Working with conservation groups, commercial and recreational fishers and the Eel Ground First Nation represents a unique opportunity for DFO to promote economic development and tourism, rebuild native fish species and advance reconciliation."

At the heart of the issue is the question of whether there are too many bass in the river system right now, and the role that humans should play in intervening.

After being placed under the protection of the Species at Risk Act after its numbers plummeted to just a few thousand fish in the 1990s, striped bass have rebounded at an almost surreal rate over the course of the last decade or so.

Estimates for the summer of 2017 pegged the overall bass count at roughly one million spawners, against just 27,000 or so salmon attempting to share the same space.

The findings of a 2018 report published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences by a team of researchers representing DFO, as well as organizations like the Atlantic Salmon Federation, weighed heavily into the standing committee's decision-making.

One of the key revelations from that study estimated that as little as eight per cent of all salmon smolts in the Miramichi River were surviving the perilous journey out to sea, survival rates which are far lower than other salmon rivers such as the Restigouche and Cascapedia.

The only known spawning location for stripers in the entire Gulf of St. Lawrence region takes place below the head of tide along the lower portions of the Northwest Miramichi.

The study notes all of that spawning activity overlaps with the out-migration of salmon smolts that would need to swim through a gauntlet of thousands of spawning bass in order to make their way out to sea.

With that, the FOPO committee is recommending that DFO implement upper and lower reference limits on stripers which can be adjusted based on the latest science, removing maximum fork length as a restriction to the recreational fishery while also establishing a First Nation commercial, food, social and ceremonial fishery, as well as public food catches with set limits.

Several of the report's recommendations call for greater inclusion and input from Indigenous stakeholders, particularly those with the Natoaganeg First Nation.

In particular, the committee is calling for First Nations fisheries to be made a priority when developing bass management plans, and for DFO to place more of an emphasis on incorporating traditional Indigenous knowledge into how it makes decisions, as well as that of other local stakeholders and river stewards.

It's also recommending that a "full annual allotment" of bass be approved for the Indigenous commercial fishery at Natoaganeg (Eel Ground) First Nation prior to the start of the season in the spring, while ensuring that all the proper licensing to the community has been provided in advance.

Natoaganeg Chief George Ginnish was one of the witnesses called to appear before the committee earlier this year, and said it was necessary for First Nations to be central in any future discussions, noting his people have sacrificed for too long.

For his community, he says the stakes are much higher since the bass and the salmon have, for many generations, served as a traditional, accessible and nutritious food source in a place where the median household income is about $25,000, with an unemployment rate of about 21 per cent.

"We have agreements that allow us to catch up to 2,000 salmon. There aren't 2,000 to catch," he said. "We have been telling DFO for years that they need a better process. They need to consult with the people on the river. This impacts our lives."

Bill Taylor, the president of the Atlantic Salmon Federation, meanwhile, testified before the committee in April that predation from striped bass was "by far the biggest threat" to the Miramichi's Atlantic salmon population.

He said that while some of the measures instituted by DFO on the bass file, including extending daily bag limits for the recreational fishery and approving a commercial fishery for the Natoaganeg (Eel Ground) First Nation, have been promising, he added they also don't nearly go far enough.

Even though bass numbers reportedly dipped dramatically in 2018 down from a high of a million spawners to roughly 330,000, Taylor said that's still 10-times higher than the initial recovery target set by DFO back when numbers were way down.

The committee, for its part, is also calling for DFO to invest more resources in order to obtain better data about the striped bass's life cycle, and that it also commit to "transparent and timely publication of all research and data related to striped bass," as well as the rationale behind any decisions made in relation to the species' management.

It's final recommendation, meanwhile, also urged the department to look into more effective management of some of the salmon's other known predators, including the grey seal population and the invasive smallmouth bass population introduced into Miramichi Lake near the watershed's source.

The committee is calling for a "sustainable" seal harvest, as well as the eradication of the smallmouth bass from the lake using the pesticide rotenone, something that has been discussed for a number of years.

The report can be read in its entirety by accessing the Fisheries and Oceans standing committee's Parliamentary web portal.

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