DFO Consults on Striped Bass

DFO consults on fishing striped bass on Miramichi

By James Foster

Times & Transcript Staff
15 Apr 2013 10:15AM

Fishing season opens in the southern half of New Brunswick Monday, and for thousands of recreational anglers the hot topic is a fishing season that doesn’t exist.

The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans is consulting user groups and conservation organizations on reopening a season for striped bass on the east coast of the province, and while pretty much everyone agrees there are now more stripers in rivers that empty into the Northumberland Strait than almost anyone can remember, not everyone agrees on the proper response.

Most recreational fishermen believe that stripers, which can grow larger by far than any other sportfish on the province’s east coast, urgently need to have their numbers cut back before they do severe harm to the noble Atlantic salmon.

“No one has ever seen this number of striped bass in living memory,” says Mark Hambrook, president of the Miramichi Salmon Association.

Stripers spawn in the Northwest Miramichi River at exactly the time that baby salmon are returning to the sea and most river groups and fishing organizations are convinced the big stripers prey on the migrating salmon. Salmon fishing is by far the most valuable fishery in the region which generates millions of dollars in revenue each salmon season, and salmon fishermen and conservationists argue that protecting stripers comes at the expense of the salmon. They also believe the stripers are gobbling up smelts by the millions, smelts being the main springtime food for larger salmon.

Striped bass fishing for sport was outlawed in 2000 when their numbers plummeted and now their population is believed be in the hundreds of thousands. Hambrook puts it this way: if there are 200,000 stripers in the Northwest Miramichi, and they eat only 10 smelts each per day, the mathematics are not hard to figure out. Those are smelts that are then no longer available for salmon to forage upon. And given the number of smolts that the river produces annually, if each bass ate just one baby salmon, it could slash smolt numbers by half at a time when smolt survival rates are critically low already. The salmon stocks are so precarious that consideration is being given to put the king of sportfish on the endangered species list.

The New Brunswick Wildlife Federation last year released the findings of a study where they talked to fishermen — from those who fish for fun with a rod and reel to professionals who use nets to make a living. The universal response was that there are an unprecedented number of stripers on New Brunswick’s east coast, with a skyrocketing number of incidental catches of bass as fishermen pursue legal species.

The DFO have many options at their disposal. Certainly fishermen are itching for a striped bass season, but the department also has to consider the welfare of the species. One option would be a season with restrictions such as only allowing fishermen to take a single fish per day, and possibly closing a very large stretch of the Miramichi well beyond the location where the stripers spawn, during the one month of the year during which they spawn.

Salmon fishermen understand the need to ensure any possible striped bass fishery is sustainable, and fish fans such as Hambrook are all in favour of protecting spawning fish no matter the species, but many salmon fishermen believe closing such a long stretch of the river to fishing while the stripers are spawning is overkill. At a meeting in Miramichi between fishermen and DFO last week, almost 300 anglers showed up, such is their strong feelings.

The proposed closure would reach from Newcastle many miles upstream to Red Bank for a month to protect a fish whose populations are exploding, to the detriment of the fish that is the anchor of the entire region’s tourism industry, the Atlantic salmon, anglers and conservationists argued at the meeting. They understand closing the actual part of the river where the stripers spawn, but once the fish leave that specific area, they are no longer spawning and should be fair game, they contend.

The DFO is considering opening a trial season of 10 to 14 days, likely in August, but that would do little to help those concerned about salmon in the Northwest Miramichi, since it is the springtime when the stripers and smolts clash on the stripers’ spawning grounds. Any trial season will likely allow fishermen to take just one fish home as well, prompting calls from some for a more liberal retention limit.

A decision could come within weeks.

While today is the opening of recreational fishing season in the southern half of the province, that pertains to streams and rivers only. Lakes open on May 1 in the southern half of New Brunswick.

In the northern half, rivers and streams are open to fishing on May 1, while lakes open on May 15. Some exceptions apply so fishermen are urged to read their rule booklet carefully.