Petitcodiac Bridge Huge Step But Salmon Need More


Petitcodiac River bridge called a huge step but salmon need more

'The population today still remains at critically low numbers:' recovery program manager

By Mackenzie Scrimshaw, CBC News Posted: Dec 20, 2016 9:09 PM AT

A group in southeastern New Brunswick focused for years on reviving the Petitcodiac River's shrinking salmon stocks has just marked a significant milestone.

The manager of the Fort Folly Habitat Recovery program said the replacement of the river's causeway with a bridge is a "critically important benchmark" in the lengthy effort to increase the number of endangered inner Bay of Fundy Atlantic salmon in the river.

"Having a barrier-free Petitcodiac is very important for the long-term goal of re-establishing salmon back to that river," said Tim Robinson in an interview after the announcement last week.

The  fish if their numbers increase will be able to return to their spawning grounds without running up against the causeway, he said.

The bridge will be built between Moncton and Riverview in the river's estuary, replacing the causeway.

The causeway, which was built in 1968, has been a point of contention among area residents and pitted environmental groups against homeowners on the river's headpond, known as Lake Petitcodiac.

Environmental activists complained that the causeway reduced the flow of sediment in the tidal river required for a functioning ecosystem and that its gates obstructed migrating fish.

The homeowners, however, wanted the causeway left in place and worried the loss of Lake Petitcodiac would hurt property values.

A restoration project began in 2008 under former premier Shawn Graham's government, which opened the causeway's gates so the water and fish could move on both sides of the causeway.

Six years later, Premier Brian Gallant and federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced a $61.6 million bridge would be built across the Petitcodiac. Construction beginning in the spring would constitute the final phases of the river's restoration.

While the bridge construction is significant, Robinson said it alone won't restore salmon stocks.

"The population today still remains at critically low numbers and there are steps that have to be taken to build those numbers back up," he said.

Other aquatic life was also damaged when the causeway went up in 1968, he said.

"It was murder to a number of fish species," he said. "But the fact still remains that today, in 2016, the inner bay population is still listed as endangered."

In decades past, when the regional salmon population was healthy, close to 40,000 adult salmon returned to spawn in the many rivers of the upper Bay of Fundy.

Juvenile fish started to die

Between 5,000 and 7,000 of them returned to the Petitcodiac.

Over time, however, the numbers fell as juvenile fish started to die at a higher rate, for reasons still unknown, after they migrated from their rearing grounds into the Bay of Fundy. As a result, fewer adults returned to the rivers to spawn.

By 2003, it was believed fewer than 200 adult fish returned, which landed the species in the federal Species at Risk Act.

Following the listing, Fisheries and Oceans established a recovery team, whose members included the Fort Folly Habitat Recovery program. Focusing on three New Brunswick rivers excluding the Petitcodiac, with its fish-blocking causeway the team worked to conserve the remaining salmon population.

The federal department launched gene-banking programs at its Atlantic biodiversity labs, where it breeds select adult salmon before releasing their offspring into the rivers.

By doing so, Robinson said, the recovery team has prevented the species' extinction.

"What we haven't been able to do is to begin to recover the species."

Fort Folly leads restocking efforts

With the experience it gained on the conservation team, Fort Folly was "well positioned" after the 2010 lifting of the gates to lead the joint effort to restore the Petitcodiac's salmon population, Robinson said.

During the decades that followed the causeway's construction, the fish simply couldn't swim through the causeway's gates to reach their spawning grounds in the river's headwaters.

Groups involved in the Fundy salmon recovery project believe that to recover the species, the Petitcodiac has to be re-established as a spawning site.

Among its recent successes, the habitat recovery program has, as part of the larger project, released into the Petitcodiac's waters between 400,000 and 500,000 juvenile salmon from Fisheries and Ocean's living gene banks.

It has also collected two- and three-year-old salmon during their first migration to the Bay of Fundy to be reared at a living gene bank. A few thousand of these fish, as adults, have been released back into the rivers.

Looking ahead

The hope, Robinson said, is that this will create large generations of salmon, which will form schools and survive in the Bay of Fundy. Eventually, adults would return on their own to spawn in the inner bay rivers.

Robinson said the Fort Folly group will meet with Fisheries Minister LeBlanc and some department officials in the new year to try to get more help from the department in recovery efforts.