Salmon Being Killed on Petitcodiac River

Times & Transcript

Salmon killed on Petitcodiac River

By James Foster
24 Apr 2013 09:57AM

Through ignorance, maliciousness or willful blindness, some fishermen are catching Atlantic salmon in the Petitcodiac River system and taking them home for supper.

There are two problems with this, according to those working to restore the Petitcodiac River system: There is no season for salmon fishing here, and those taking the fish are in fact robbing future generations of precious and rare specimens of a unique strain of salmon that has been listed as endangered and which has been extirpated from the entire watershed.

“These people, they weren’t treating the fish very well,” says John Bagnall, president of the New Brunswick Salmon Council, citing reports from other fishermen.

“They were killing them and taking them home.”

The Petitcodiac River and some of its tributaries once upon a time enjoyed a sizeable annual run of Atlantic salmon, enough that a small sports fishery thrived for the king of sportsfish in the Salisbury area. That all ended shortly after a causeway was built between Moncton and Riverview in the late 1960s, and slowly the fish’s numbers dwindled to zero. This was a double disaster because the loss of any species is a terrible thing, and the Inner Bay of Fundy strain of salmon is unique in the salmon world.

Luckily, some fish from this strain are being held in a gene bank with the aim of restoring the fish to the river, and restoration efforts picked up after the causeway gates were opened permanently in 2010.

Several adult salmon from this very specific strain of the species were put into the river last fall for that very purpose. But now, after spending the winter upriver under the ice, those fish face a phalanx of hooks and, apparently, crooks on their way back out to the sea. While it is very possible to accidentally hook a salmon while fishing for other legal species on the river, fishermen are supposed to quickly bring the fish to hand, gently take the hook(s) out of its mouth and set it free. Actually targeting salmon while angling on any river entering the Bay of Fundy is illegal because there is no season for salmon on any of those rivers.

Some of the errant fishermen are claiming ignorance, saying they thought they had a big brown trout on their hands, but some observers who have complained about what’s going on have expressed doubts about those claims, as it would be rare at best to find brown trout on the Petitcodiac or its tributaries.

Bagnall fears the fishermen don’t appreciate that those fish were likely the very same salmon that were put into the system last fall and that every one of them removed this spring could mean the loss of many more salmon that would be born if only those fish had the opportunity to return to spawn in the fall.

Worse, this year’s spring smelt run up the Petitcodiac River has been abundant, so those salmon would have had plenty to eat on their migration out to the Bay of Fundy, giving them a more robust chance of survival.

“Those fish should stand a good chance,” Bagnall said Tuesday.

The rarity of the specific Inner Bay of Fundy strain of salmon makes the loss of even one of the fish particularly bad, he noted, because unlike most other adult salmon that return to spawn after two years at sea, this strain comes back to spawn every year.

“So these rivers, they count on these fish spawning more than once.”

Fishermen are urged not to target salmon because there is no open season on that species of fish. And if a fisherman should happen to catch one while fishing for another species, they are asked to gently set it free.

Salmon returns are believed to have numbered up to 9,000 in the Petitcodiac River during peak years, with 2,000 to 3,000 salmon returning annually in the years just prior to the causeway’s construction.

The structure was supposed to have a fish ladder built into it to accommodate the salmon, but it never worked properly.

In just a few years after the causeway was built, commercial salmon landings dropped by two-thirds, and then that season was shut down.

Angling harvest averaged 171 bright and 263 black (spring) salmon per year in 1960-1967 and then declined to 25 bright and 66 black salmon per year between 1968 and 1978.

The only salmon in the river now are believed to be those put there from the gene bank and other sources in an attempt to bring the species back to healthy levels.