Swimming upstream: Source of Nova Scotia salmon decline elusive
AARON BESWICK TRURO BUREAU
Published October 13, 2014 - 7:51pm
Numbers down across Maritimes; experts trying to find out why
Ronald Beaumont could name names.
But he won’t.
“There’s been a lot of people set nets in her and they used to get them all full,” Beaumont, about to turn 74, said of salmon poaching on River Philip.
“They’re all dead now anyway, but it wouldn’t be good putting names in the paper.”
What matters is that there used to be plenty of salmon on the river whose tributaries start above Collingwood Corner, in the Cobequid Mountains. Enough that for over 100 years it supported a human population who would net the river all the way from its tributaries, down past Oxford, through Cumberland County and into the Northumberland Strait.
But on Monday, as he sat in his kitchen in Kolbec near Oxford, he looked down at River Philip and couldn’t see a single ripple. He hasn’t seen a salmon in the pool all year.
The poaching largely died out with stiffer enforcement and a growing concern for the environment.
What’s odd to Beaumont is that it was after the decline of salmon poaching about 20 years ago that the population started to drop.
Something else, he said, is killing the salmon now.
And it’s doing more harm than a few nets in the river.
In fact, salmon runs have declined across much of North America’s eastern seaboard.
“The problem is that something is affecting survival out in the ocean and it’s hard to figure out what it is or what are the multitude of problems affecting survival,” Lewis Hinks said Monday.
As the Nova Scotia program director for the Atlantic Salmon Federation, Hinks is as obsessed with watching salmon as Beaumont.
Hinks has been touring around the province checking in on rivers, including a visit to River Philip last week.
“The numbers are down across the Maritimes,” Hinks said of anecdotal reports on this year’s salmon runs.
“For a few years (around 2010), we had hopes of a modest recovery … but for the last two years, numbers are down. We don’t know if this is a cyclical thing or if it’s symptomatic of larger changes.”
The fate of Atlantic salmon has been a conundrum for scientists, anglers and former poachers.
At-sea commercial salmon fishing peaked during the 1970s, with some 12,000 tonnes being caught annually around the North Atlantic (significantly more than by poachers). According to the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization, those catches have been down to about 1,500 tonnes annually in recent years. Over the same time frame, environmental regulations in Canada and the United States have decreased the amount of pollutants flowing into most rivers.
So there’s a lot less fishing, less poaching and less pollution and yet there appears to be fewer salmon than for the century when those factors were at their worst.
In 2012, scientists gathered in France for a summit titled Salmon at Sea: Scientific Advances and their Implications for Management. The event brought together researchers of North American and European Atlantic salmon stocks from around the world in an effort to combine previously siloed data and theories.
The report that came out of the summit points to the “multitude” of reasons mentioned by Hinks. One is the complex effects of global warming on the ecosystems we see under the sea. The report points to declines in high-protein traditional prey and increases in less-filling alternatives.
The rivers in which salmon hatch and begin growing before making their way to the sea for a long migration north toward Labrador and the coast of Greenland have seen changes, too.
One of those relates to acid rain and geology. The soil along the rivers of our rocky coast has lost its ability to filter out the pollutants in acid rain that changes the pH levels of river water.
One of the few bright spots for salmon runs has been along the Northumberland Strait and in Cape Breton. The Cheticamp and Margaree rivers host relatively strong salmon populations compared with those on the Atlantic coast.
River Philip, along with the Waughs and Wallace rivers, still hosts healthier salmon runs than the Eastern Shore, partly due to the ability of the soil along their banks to moderate the acidity of the waters trickling into them.
Warmer air temperatures and lower rainfalls in the fall also cause problems for salmon running up the rivers.
Meanwhile, the mystery of what is happening at sea continues.
Hinks’s group has teamed up with the Ocean Tracking Network to tag salmon and gain insights into where they are going and perhaps what is killing them.
Anglers across the province are required to fill out logbooks that they turn into Fisheries and Oceans Canada recording salmon caught and released, location and fishing effort. That information will be tabulated this fall and dissected along with a host of other data and go toward estimates of stock runs that won’t be released until after Christmas.
While Beaumont blames run-off from blueberry farms along River Philip for declines in stock runs, there aren’t blueberry farms along all the other declining rivers in Nova Scotia.
“I’d say they’re done,” Beaumont said of salmon in River Philip. “I’ve been watching salmon in the river so long and it’s sad to say, but I’d say they’re gone.”