MONCTON TIMES & TRANSCRIPT
By James Foster
Times & Transcript Staff
15 May 2013 10:13AM
Today’s New Brunswick fishermen don’t think twice about putting back large salmon to spawn again and, hopefully, several more times.
But one of the conservation innovators who pushed for the release of large salmon decades ago can recall how fishermen thought he was off his rocker when the idea was first proposed.
“It was unheard of in those days,” Fred Wheaton of Moncton says.
“There was all kinds of opposition to it.”
That’s just one of the ideas for conserving the king of sportfish that landed Wheaton waders-deep in hot water at the time, but his idea has now proven to be ahead of its time. It’s why Wheaton spent Tuesday at Government House, the official residence of Lt.-Gov. Graydon Nicholas, for a spot of tea, some stirring conversation with His Honour, and to receive the Atlantic Salmon Council’s highest conservation award for his decades-long efforts of doing exactly that.
“I just couldn’t believe they would have selected me for that,” said Wheaton, the current fisheries chairman for the New Brunswick Wildlife Federation, among other positions he holds with other pro-conservation organizations both nationally and provincially.
“I was just flabbergasted.”
Joining Wheaton were dozens of salmon fans, from casual fishermen to renown experts in the field, all of whom came to celebrate a lifetime of forward thinking.
“I couldn’t believe the number of people who drove long distances for this,” Wheaton said.
The push to release spawning salmon was considered heresy by some back in the 1970s, about the time Wheaton became one of the charter members of the council. But Wheaton and others thought it only made sense to allow fishermen to retain smaller salmon but to compel them to allow the big spawners to continue upstream to deposit millions of eggs. There was little science to back up the professional construction contractor’s theories; in fact, there was precious little salmon science at all back then.
“But we knew it would be a good thing,” Wheaton recalled.
So select members of the council had the onerous task of travelling the province, speaking to skeptical fishermen about the benefits of such a move. With more large salmon than small ones on most rivers, and with the big fish producing 10 times or more eggs than the smaller grilse, which are mostly male anyway, flipping long-held salmon-fishing practices upside down by releasing trophy fish just seemed logical to Wheaton.
The measure became law in the 1980s, and the doubters became believers to the point where now anyone who would dare kill a large salmon risks the scorn of an entire fishing community, not to mention the law.
“I knew it would work, but I didn’t know how good it would work. I never knew it could possibly be as successful as it has been.”
In the 1980s, angling a 20-pound salmon was a rare treat because fish of that size were quite unusual thanks to the catch-and-kill mindset of the day. Now these big fish are far more plentiful, to the point where anglers might still marvel at such a specimen, but it’s not like it is the biggest salmon they will ever catch in their lifetimes. Chances are, another one or even a much larger fish could be along at any time, waiting to be quickly brought to hand and then gently released to produce more salmon.
“So maybe our efforts helped a little bit,” Wheaton says.
But that’s just one example of how Wheaton, who gained his fish wisdom from doing his own research — including streamside with fly rod in hand — came to push for a “fish first” mentality that has spread through the province’s expansive salmon fishing and conservation community, efforts for which he has been previously honoured locally, provincially and nationally.
Charles LeBlanc of Riverview, president of the New Brunswick Wildlife Federation, said the award was richly deserved, and he paid tribute to Wheaton’s more than 50 years of service to the fishing and conservation communities — and to the salmon themselves.
If he had one wish, Wheaton would like to see more research done into what is happening to salmon when they return to the sea from their natal rivers, too often never to be seen again. It’s an enduring mystery that has stumped salmon and ocean scientists for more than a decade.
“If we could get some funding, it would give us some more information on what’s going on,” Wheaton says, though he suspects the ocean is changing in ominous ways that will prove challenging to overcome.
“So I suppose that even if we did have that information, it wouldn’t change what is going on in our oceans.”