Bass population takes a jump to the chagrin of salmon fishermen
AARON BESWICK, TRURO BUREAU
Published October 28, 2014 - 7:06pm
CAPE GEORGE — Thirty years ago, a strange fish showed up on an Antigonish County wharf.
It had a long, flat body, with stripes running its length and two dorsal fins, one of which was spiny.
“Buddy MacEachern from Cape George had a gaspereau trap,” Stuart Beaton said Tuesday.
“So the boys come back from the trap and had about a dozen of these fish. No one, not even senior fishermen like Kimball Falkenham, knew what they were.”
But Beaton, now 68, knew. When he was growing up near Boston, everyone was mad for angling striped bass.
Then the fish started showing up a bit around the mouths of the Antigonish and Pomquet harbours before disappearing about 15 years ago.
Then, three years ago, they came back. Now they’re everywhere, and no one is sure why.
Salmon anglers are worried the voracious predators are affecting already small salmon runs. Others are more interested in catching the powerful predator.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada estimates a stock of about 200,000 striped bass in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
“We’ve even had reports of a couple angled all the way up in Lake Ainslie,” Lewis Hinks said of the fish’s ability to make it all the way to the headwaters of the Margaree River.
“Striped bass have coexisted with Atlantic salmon forever, but the problem is we don’t know if they’ve ever coexisted in these numbers. Also, we have an already impacted salmon population.”
Hinks, the Nova Scotia program director for the Atlantic Salmon Federation, wants to know more about striped bass.
The federation has begun tagging young striped bass and salmon with sonic tags to see if the two species show up in the same places at the same times.
Meanwhile, Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientists are into the second year of a three-year study of the stomach contents of striped bass.
“Although salmon and striped bass coexist in the same waters, they occupy different habitats and only overlap during limited time periods in spring,” said department spokesman Steve Hachey on Monday.
“Primary analysis of stomach contents after one year of data shows that about two-thirds of the striped bass stomachs collected during the spawning period were empty. For those that were not empty, the large majority contained smelts and gaspereau, and the remainder had other fish species and a few salmon smolts.”
So why are there so many striped bass now? Those in the know point to two reasons.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada moved to protect the small and shrinking spawning population in the northwest Miramichi River estuary during the 1990s, making it illegal to angle or commercially fish the species.
“The stock has been rebuilding ever since,” said Mark Hambrook, president of the Miramichi Salmon Association, on Tuesday.
Hambrook, who worked for Fisheries and Oceans Canada for 18 years, now works at a salmon hatchery on the Miramichi. He has been monitoring striped bass for most of his adult life.
Beyond protection from human predation, he said that warming waters favour the striped bass.
“They are warm-water fish, and this is the very northern range of the species,” said Hambrook.
“So as the waters warm, they do well.”
Global warming doesn’t look primed to reverse its trajectory, so the striped bass may hold its place as a prominent predator in the evolving food chain of the Northumberland Strait and Gulf of St. Lawrence.
While questions remain about what that will mean for other species, for anglers it could mean re-gearing.
“They are probably the most popular sport fish on the northeast coast of the United States,” said Paul Stephenson, president of Nova Scotia’s Striped Bass Association.
“Striped bass sport fishing is a huge industry down there in New England and Chesapeake Bay.”
It’s also popular on the Stewiacke and Shubenacadie rivers, where anglers have long chased the Bay of Fundy population.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada has loosened restrictions on anglers catching striped bass in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Northumberland Strait over the last two years. This year’s May 1-Sept. 30 fishery saw anglers trying to figure out the best way to hook a “striper.”
Reaching back in time — before his long career as a Northumberland Strait commercial lobster fisherman to growing up near Boston — Beaton recalled the best bait to be a small live eel.
“Oh yes. They’ll give you a good fight.”