Conservationists seek better fish management
Fisheries and Oceans defends current practices as necessary
Several longtime conservationists say there are many unanswered questions about fish management in the Miramichi River system.
That was a common theme at a rally calling for better management of dwindling Atlantic salmon populations and rapidly increasing striped bass stocks Sunday at Strawberry Marsh in Miramichi.
Better bass oversight and communication were also suggested before a small crowd at Sunday’s demonstration.
“People still want the same answers they’ve sought for years,” said Tom Pettigrew, Coalition for Better Atlantic Salmon Management chair.
Wild Atlantic salmon populations have seen sharp downward trends in recent years, with an estimated 26,900 spawning salmon plying the Miramichi system last year.
There were reportedly 994,000 bass spawners in the watershed in 2017, with several at Sunday’s rally saying that’s a conservative figure.
With stripers being known for their large appetites and tendency to eat salmon smolts, many in salmon circles say commercial fishing – like what’s being sought by Natoaganeg (Eel Ground) First Nation – is needed to get bass numbers under control.
Bass enthusiasts, however, worry commercial bass harvesting would decimate the species and the recreational fishery’s economic benefits.
Jeff Wilson, Miramichi Striper Cup tournament co-promoter, and Trevor Avery, a biologist at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., have both said depleting bass to save salmon is a “knee-jerk reaction.”
Ashley Hallihan, a Miramichi Valley High School teacher and concerned angler, said he’s not opposed to either species but balance is needed.
“What’s the carrying capacity for striped bass in the Miramichi watershed?” said Hallihan, who also co-ordinates the school’s fly fishing club.
“That’s a question I still haven’t had answered.”
From Monday to Friday, the primary Northwest Miramichi River bass spawning ground is closed to angling. That includes a 6.5-kilometre stretch from the Red Bank bridge to Williamstown Road.
That closure follows a tripling of bass spawner numbers from the 2016 figures, Hallihan said.
Fisheries and Oceans said the closure is necessary to balance this year’s increased daily bag limit of three fish and the need to protect the bass.
But Hallihan said it’s unclear why fishing must be shut down to save a species whose population is booming.
The feds also say the closed section is the only confirmed successful striper spawning ground in the whole southern Gulf of St.Lawrence.
Hallihan said spawning action is being seen in other places,however.
Those include the mouths of the Barnaby River and Renous River on the Southwest Miramichi and beyond the Red Bank bridge on the Nor’west, but Hallihan said it could be in other tributaries as well.
“Why is this not alarming for those who manage the species?” said Hallihan, a longtime guide.
As well, Fisheries and Oceans has said existing hook-and-release rules in all New Brunswick salmon rivers are needed because salmon returns haven’t reached critical spawning targets consistently.
“The Southwest Miramichi River met or exceeded the minimum number of returns in only three of the last 10 years, while the Northwest Miramichi River only achieved it only one year during that same period,” a notice from the department said.
Salmon anglers likely hope that trend is reversed soon.
Debbie Norton, Miramichi Watershed Management Committee president, said all fish species should be managed in equilibrium, or with what they need to survive.
“That means one species shouldn’t have an advantage over others,”said Norton, a business owner and retired teacher.
Norton said management decisions should be based on science, and conservation models must include maximum numbers fish need to be self-sustaining.
She said that system is used for crab and lobster,but not for bass and salmon.
Fisheries and Oceans must set a desired number and manage around it, Norton said.
Norton also said bass spawning bed closures aren’t necessary, as other harvests - like moose and deer hunting - happen during mating seasons.
“It’s foolish to say we can’t do the same for fish,”said Norton.“We want a healthy, vibrant fishery for every species,”
Pat Finnigan, federal Miramichi-Grand Lake MP,said he understands the demonstrators’points of view.
He said a maximum bass level is crucial, and closing the spawning area to retention angling is absurd.
“Between 2000 and 2005, when bass numbers were down, we weren’t closing the river,”said Finnigan.
“Everybody knows the population is a lot higher than it should be.”
Finnigan said he’s been sharing fish-related concerns with his federal colleagues. He pledged to continue to do so.