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Salmon officials aim to eradicate Miramichi smallmouth bass

NATHAN DELONG Jan 10, 2020

Salmon conservationists say quick action is needed on their proposal to use a plant-based pesticide to eradicate an invasive fish species from the Miramichi River watershed.

Neville Crabbe, spokesperson for the Atlantic Salmon Federation, said he hopes officials get moving on his working group’s proposal to remove smallmouth bass from the Miramichi River watershed using Rotenone.

He said the working group is finalizing an application to Fisheries and Oceans Canada to use the plant-based pesticide in Miramichi Lake and part of the Southwest Miramichi River.

“We’re really looking for a positive decision … on the application to eradicate in just the next few months in order for this to be done in 2020,” Crabbe said Wednesday.

“Time is truly of the essence.”

Smallmouth bass were spotted in the Southwest Miramichi on Aug. 22 near the mouth of McKiel Brook by Allen Curry, a researcher at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.

The salmon federation, which is based in Saint Andrews, and other conservationists immediately sounded alarm bells about the invasive species’ potential impacts on the river’s dwindling wild Atlantic salmon runs.

The smallmouths were illegally introduced in 2008 to Miramichi Lake -which forms part of the Southwest Miramichi River’s headwaters.

Nathan Wilbur, the salmon federation’s New Brunswick program director, reeled in three bass in August at the McKiel Pond pool on the Southwest Miramichi, 2.4 kilometres upstream from where a smallmouth was photographed at Tent Pool.

The pools aren’t far from the river’s headwaters at Miramichi Lake, where the fish were being held by a barrier before escaping via Lake Brook -a narrow stream connecting the lake to the main river.

Smallmouth bass -like their cousins, the striped bass, which are native to the Miramichi -are known for their fierce appetite and their ability to adapt to new aquatic 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, recreational anglers and bass enthusiasts.

If smallmouth bass can establish a population in the Miramichi system, Crabbe said, containing them will be much harder. They would also create another obstacle to salmon-protection efforts.

“Smallmouths are prolific,” said Crabbe.

After smallmouth bass were discovered in Miramichi Lake in 2008, DFO did a science review … and concluded that smallmouth bass present a definite threat to native species like trout and salmon, through direct predation and competition for habitat and displacement of juvenile salmon.”

Mark Hambrook, Miramichi Salmon Association president, said the official counts from Fisheries and Oceans Canada haven’t been released yet, but 2019 could have been the worst year on record for salmon returns to the Miramichi system.

“That has people worried deeply about the future of Atlantic salmon, especially people who make their living at it,” said Hambrook.

“Now to find out that smallmouth bass have escaped from Miramichi Lake and are in the river, what impact will that have? It seems like, every time you turn around, there’s another threat coming at the salmon.”

Crabbe’s working group includes his federation, the Miramichi Salmon Association, Maliseet Nation Conservation Council, the Miramichi Watershed Management Committee, New Brunswick Salmon Council, New Brunswick Wildlife Federation and North Shore Micmac District Council.

Crabbe said the smallmouths found in the Southwest Miramichi most likely overcame the barrier containing them at Miramichi Lake.

He said officials from his working group and DFO did field work late last year on the Southwest Miramichi along a 10-kilometre stretch downstream from the mouth of Lake Brook to capture smallmouths and determine how many were in the river.

More than 36 bass of different ages were caught, Crabbe said, with no indication to date of any spawning activity since the smallmouths turned up in the main river in August.

“I think it’s fair to say the population either is not established or not well­ established and has likely resulted from multiple escapes from the lake at different times, hence seeing multiple age classes of fish,” said Crabbe.

Crabbe said his working group plans to submit to DFO a full proposal by the end of January for Rotenone, which takes time to prepare.

He hopes the Miramichi smallmouth population can be eradicated by fall 2020, meaning the next few months are critical.

“We need to act swiftly if we’re going to keep the Miramichi in any semblance of its former self and safeguard it for generations to come,” said Crabbe.