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Harvest of striped bass could be part of salmon solution

 

TELEGRAPH-JOURNAL - A8

Mon. Aug. 7, 2017

Possible harvest of striped bass could be part of salmon solution

JOHN CHILIBECK, LEGISLATURE BUREAU

An aggressive fish that anglers fear is devouring endangered juvenile salmon could be coming to a dinner plate near you.

Federal fisheries minister Dominic Le-Blanc says he’s looking into the idea of opening a commercial fishery for local indigenous groups that want to harvest striped bass.

An outspoken First Nations chief says it’s about time.

“We’ve been waiting to sit down with these characters for years to talk about this,”said Eel Ground chief George Ginnish of federal officials.“We’re ready to go.”

Sport anglers for the last several years have been warning that “stripers” have been exploding in population and moving farther up rivers than they ever have before.

Known for their huge appetite, the stripers have been the subject of intense debate in fishing camps across the province.Some anglers blame the stripers for eating little salmon before they can grow up to be spawners.

“The scientific advice is not conclusive that catching more striped bass is necessarily the most effective way to help the recovery of Atlantic salmon,” LeBlanc said during a press conference in Moncton last week. “It’s part of a solution. I have shown a willingness to increase the striped bass fishery well beyond what it was in previous years and I am looking to do more in terms of allowing more retention.”

LeBlanc said his department needed to talk to indigenous communities about a commercial striped bass fishery. He also said he wanted to wait to hear more options on striped bass management measures from his department’s experts.

“As soon as I do, I’ll be prepared to make whatever decisions are necessary. I am one who shares the view that an increased striped bass fishery, if it can be done sustainably from an ecological perspective, offers economic and recreational opportunities to a whole bunch of people, and we should be wide open to those.”

Ginnish, whose First Nation is inland from the estuary of the Miramichi River, said several Mik’maq nations had been asking for a commercial striped bass fishery for years. He said the striper population has exploded.

“You can’t miss them.You should come up here next May. When they first start spawning, it’s like a current in a river going in all different directions. The water just bubbles. You have to see it. And they’re voracious. They’ll practically eat anything that’s smaller than they are. And that’s salmon, trout, anything that’s in the water.”

The Coalition for Better Atlantic Salmon Management in New Brunswick has been pushing Ottawa to allow for a bigger striped bass catch. Spokesman Tom Pettigrew contributed an op/ed piece last month that said the Department of Fisheries and Oceans had been unacceptably slow to respond to its inquiries about stripers that were sent in April and May.

Meanwhile, in the latest issue of River Notes, a publication of the Atlantic Salmon Federation, a photo by Greg Dixon was submitted showing a striped bass caught in the Restigouche River,with its stomach open and three small salmon parr inside.

“There have been numerous reports of Striped Bass (Morone saxilitis) being observed and angled by people on wild Atlantic salmon rivers this summer,”the article states.“Landings are being reported from estuaries to pool far upstream. A Striped Bass was observed at the ‘13.5’mile pool on the Moisie River recently.”

The Moisie, which drains into the St. Lawrence River in eastern Quebec, is considered one of the most important spawning grounds of wild Atlantic salmon.

Chief Ginnish said the stripers were also penetrating deep into New Brunswick territory.

“In our case, where our options aren’t as plentiful as those bands along the coast, and the striped bass are right in our part of the river right in front of our home, displacing our primary source of food, the salmon, it would be a logical step to have not only a commercial but a recreational fishery that we’d play a big part of managing.”

The chief said his community’s fishery had little opportunity to grow because there’s so much pressure on endangered salmon. He said if Ottawa was serious about reconciliation with First Nations, it would be open to talks on striped bass.

The commercial season, he said, could go from late April right till early November, offering the opportunity for more employment in one of the poorest communities in the province. Eel Ground and two other nearby Mik’maq First Nations near the Miramichi have a combined population of 3,000.

“We’ve been promised by DFO to sit down to discuss it but it hasn’t happened yet,” Ginnish said. “The stripers are everywhere. The spawning ground used to be right off our community but there’s so damn many of them now the spawning ground goes from Eel Ground all the way up to Red Bank Bridge.”

Biologists in 2015 estimated striped bass counts in the Miramichi River system at around 300,000, with anglers reporting them as far upriver as the Boiestown area, 100 kilometres inland.

Back in 2011, the rough count stood at around 100,000, with observers with groups like the Miramichi Salmon Association already calling it a comeback of epic proportions for a species that only recorded between 3,000 and 5,000 fish in 1993.

Meanwhile, harvesting a salmon grilse has been banned on all New Brunswick rivers for three years straight, the first time in history.

But the question of whether stripers are eating all the salmon smolts is up for serious debate.

DFO conducted a science study of the stomach contents of stripers between 2013-15 that showed its diet was “very diverse and consisted of numerous saltwater and freshwater species,”according to the department’s website.

Although they occasionally ate salmon smolts, it did not appear to represent a significant part of its overall diet.