Salmon lodge owners eye bass numbers


Nathan DeLong

27 July 2018

Salmon lodge owners eye bass numbers

Declining wild Atlantic salmon stocks in the Miramichi River watershed may be taking a toll on salmon lodge owners.

Last Friday, the Miramichi Salmon Association posted a few videos on YouTube and issued a news release outlining cottage owners’ concerns about booming striped bass populations affecting endangered salmon and, ultimately, their livelihoods.

“We’re quite worried,” said Shawn Betts, manager of Sutter Salmon Club in Doaktown.

Seventeen camp owners wrote a letter calling on Fisheries and Oceans Minister Jonathan Wilkinson to do more to protect salmon and control bass stocks.

Last year, an estimated 994,000 bass spawners plied the river. There were just 26,900 salmon in 2017.

Both species are native to the Miramichi watershed.

The 2018 numbers won’t be known for another few months.

The camp owners wrote that they employ hundreds, if not thousands, of people across the region. They worry that will disappear if salmon keep falling.

To make matters worse, Betts said, 26 cold-water salmon pools were closed to angling for all species on July 5 due to high water temperatures and low levels.

Fishing hours were  reduced to the morning on Tuesday due to warm water. Recreational hooking in several spots is limited to 6 to 11 a.m. until further notice.

Those moves have  Betts scrambling for other entertainment for guests. He had anglers arriving late Wednesday afternoon from Britain.

“I want to bring them downriver and hopefully do some bass or mackerel fishing,” said Betts.

Debbie Norton, who co-owns Upper Oxbow Outdoor Adventures in Red Bank, said she isn’t feeling that  crunch.

She is worried about bass - who have large appetites -  eating more salmon smolts as their population grows, however.

“The bass numbers have greatly exceeded the upper reference limit, or what’s required for a  sustainable population,” said Norton.

“We need to harvest more so this population is more in equilibrium with other species.”

Norton said there likely aren’t many salmon in the river now due to low water and high temperatures, as they’re cold-blooded.

Norton’s venture also operates year-round and has other offerings besides angling. She recently took visitors from Florida and New York on an off-road vehicle tour.

“They were totally blown away by the beauty of our wilderness,” said Norton.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada increased daily bass bag limits and retention limits to three fish for the whole 2018 season.

The federal government dropped the spawn period closure from nine days to five this year and cut the shuttered Northwest Miramichi River section from 9.8 kilometres to 6.5, as well.

In their letter to the feds, the camp owners called for a season from April 15 to Oct. 15 in non-tidal water and until Oct. 31 in tidal water.

They also said the daily retention limit should go up to six, with a two-day possession cap and a slot size restriction to anything exceeding 50 centimetres.

The letter recommended working with First Nations to allow an unlimited commercial striped bass harvest and sales, plus no maximum size for bass kept from fresh water.

Jeff Wilson, Miramichi Striper Cup tournament co-promoter, said an unlimited commercial harvest could plummet striper numbers and harm the recreational fishery’s economic benefits.

But Norton said salmon conservationists don’t want bass wiped out.

“We  have a serious concern that the population is out of control,” she said.  “It needs to be better managed.”

Mark Hambrook, Miramichi Salmon Association president, said predatory bass have gone from 50,000 fish 10 years ago to almost 1 million today.

Twelve years ago, he said, transmitters on young salmon smolts reported 70 per cent of them went from sea to the Miramichi River. Preliminary data this year suggest less than 25 per cent are reaching sea.

Hambrook said some guides who have spent 50 to 60 years on the water have never seen bass as far upstream as Doaktown and beyond.

“Although striped bass fishing has become very popular, it’s has consequences,” said Hambrook.“Our salmon population may drop so low it may never recover again.”