Salmon swim is a game of numbers

Chronicle Herald

FROM THE HIGHLANDS: Salmon swim is a game of numbers

Published November 26, 2017 - 12:00pm

Truck doors slam, the gear is unloaded and food is dragged into the camp. It is time . . . time for the annual swim-through salmon counts on some of the island’s rivers. North, Middle and Baddeck garner most of the attention.

Since about 1989, the DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) has been diving and floating and walking these small rivers, trying to estimate the number of adult salmon returning to spawn and perpetuate the species.

There is always an initial enthusiasm as these serious and dedicated scientists are released from their offices and spend upwards of a week prowling the beautiful late autumn Cape Breton rivers; kind of like school kids at day’s end.

It is a grand time and soon, very soon, these same folks will be office bound, poring over a season’s worth of data collected on the many rivers they monitor. (Full disclosure: Although not a scientist, I worked for the DFO for more than 32 years.)

The effort to improve and understand conditions is a collaborative one now, as the DFO has been joined by UINR (Unamaki Institute of Natural Resources), the Nova Scotia Department of Inland Fisheries and concerned anglers, to name just a few. It’s all hands on deck if the Atlantic salmon is to be saved from extirpation, the fancy term for “so long, it’s been good to know you.”

Anyone with the slightest interest or knowledge of salmon knows the species is in trouble across most of its range, from the Northeast United States to Labrador and points in between. The reasons are varied and complex but most information indicates something is very wrong in the ocean environment: too warm, too cold, reduced feed, it’s still mostly a pig in a poke to find the real cause.

The inner Bay of Fundy rivers are emptier than a watched rat hole and the southern upland rivers are faring only slightly better. The once-prolific Atlantic coast rivers now only have remnant populations. The news is disturbing at best, depressing at the least. Fingers point in all direction, blame abounds, but still the salmon decline. Overfishing, poaching, aquaculture, habitat degradation are but a few of the reasons given for this precarious position.

There is a sense of urgency as the divers gather this year. The news has not been good all summer for the salmon. The first flag raised was Newfoundland, where the fish failed to appear as expected. A long dry summer did not improve things in Atlantic Canada. Now it was down to a select group of Cape Breton rivers to see what the outcome would be at home. Like the rest of Atlantic Canada, Cape Breton has had low water levels and the unspoken fear among the anglers was the rivers might be closed if the numbers were poor enough. I did not want to ponder on that one too long, as my autumns are all about the fishing and the friends it brings. I can’t remember when it wasn’t so.

As the team assembled for instructions, I couldn’t decide if this looked like a scientific expedition or a navy Seals exercise as everyone gathered in dry suits, snorkels and masks before heading out. The work itself is not easy: High water means a lot of scrapping and banging on the cobble river bottom as they float along, and low water means more walking than floating down the rivers. 2017 ensured a lot of walking, sore feet, sweaty suits and long days.

Regardless, the teams headed out each day looking for and counting the fish in the rivers. The fading fall light, short days and leaf-filled waters added to the difficulty. Teams of two or three divers float a pool, gather at the tail, and compare counts of fish seen. Any disagreement means another swim-through until they all agree on the number. There is no rounding off in this world. “Close enough” gets no air time.

By the end of day four, the early enthusiasm had been replaced by a gritty determination to “get it done.”

Predictably, the going had been tough and they were tired. There was a quiet sense of satisfaction that all goals had been achieved in adverse conditions. For this year, they had done all they could do. The rest was out of their hands.

Like a kid waiting to open his Christmas present, I couldn’t stand it any longer and had to ask how my little river, the Middle, had fared. “Better than last year; good, not bad” was all I could get in response. Lesson learned: Never ask a biologist for a direct answer to a partially finished question. But my ears did pick up when one answer was “better,” better, when the rest of Atlantic Canada was in decline.

When I asked senior advisor Greg Stevens, resource management, DFO, why the Baddeck and Middle rivers seemed to be bucking the tide, he could offer no clear answer. “At this time we are unable to explain why some rivers are doing better than others.”

In a world where numbers matter, the numbers were better. It’s always about the numbers.