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Dwindling Salmon is still king on Miramichi

Atlantic Salmon once teemed up the rivers of eastern Canada in staggering numbers to spawn in an annual ritual that put the biological richness of the region on full display

Shunpiking Magazine, Fall, 2007, Vol., 13, No. 49

THIS flow of fish has been reduced to a dribble in the face of habitat destruction, pollution, and over-harvesting. But the king of freshwater game fish still reigns supreme on the Miramichi River in the heavily-forested province of New Brunswick.

At Norrad's Clearwater Brook camp - nestled so deep in bear and moose country that it has no electricity - the gin-clear pools were alive with salmon during a recent warm summer week.

"I think the fishing is as good as it ever was here," said Clint Norrad, a burly old-timer who has been a registered guide for almost 60 years. "Of course it goes in cycles. You have some good years and some bad."

The Miramichi continues to produce good runs because of the sheer size of its watershed and the vast stretches of relatively undisturbed forest habitat that it passes through. But Atlantic salmon populations from Scotland to Maine are in sharp decline, and there are even concerns for the Miramichi's population.

According to one estimate, the number of wild Atlantic salmon returning to North American rivers fell from 1.5 million in 1975 to 350,000 in 2000. Other estimates are more dire. The Atlantic Salmon Federation says that between 1994 and 1999, the number of adult fish available to return to North American rivers is estimated to have dropped from around 200,000 to 80,000.

"Local threats include hydroelectric power generation, urbanization, and upland land use such as agriculture, mining, or forestry practices," said Peter Cronin, manager of the fisheries program at New Brunswick's Dept of Natural Resources. "The primary reason for the decline is still not known," he said.

Forestry practices such as clear-cutting reduce shade cover for feeder streams, which means water levels drop faster than usual - sometimes to dangerously low levels in hot summers, which rob salmon of crucial oxygen.

Other fisheries in the region are also in crisis, pointing to widespread and related problems. Eastern Canada's cod fishery collapsed over a decade ago.

Because of the pristine conditions they require for survival, the Atlantic salmon is regarded by biologists as an indicator species, meaning its abundance or scarcity can be a good indicator of an ecosystem's health. From that perspective, eastern Canada's rivers - with a few notable exceptions such as the Miramichi - are in trouble, giving the lie to Canada's global image as an oasis of unsullied northern wilderness.

Famed Fighters

The Atlantic salmon has become more of a poster species than cod because of its renowned fighting abilities. Britain's royal family are enthusiastic salmon anglers. Fly-fishing is the only legal way in these parts to take an Atlantic salmon.

"We've had great fishermen come here and catch nothing. A salmon has no respect for a person," said Miramichi guide Weaver Amos.

A big salmon can strip all the line from a reel in a matter of seconds while taking acrobatic leaps that can make even a seasoned angler's pulse race. Set this against a backdrop of towering pines, soaring eagles, and diving king fishers, and fishers may feel they have stepped back to an era when this region was virgin wilderness.

Conservation is key, and the salmon fishery is heavily regulated with no commercial harvest. For sports fishers, the rules are strict: flyfishing only with limits even placed on catch and release. Anglers are only allowed to land four fish a day, even if they release them all. This is because it is easy to mishandle a fish and some released salmon are believed to perish. Only one fish per day may be taken home to the dinner table and then only grilse, young salmon who cannot measure more than 63 centimetres long. This is because the bigger fish have more eggs.

Many of the best pools on the Miramichi are privately owned, thereby restricting access. This has obvious conservation benefits but does not sit well with everyone in a rural region with an egalitarian streak.

Most rivers in neighbouring Nova Scotia are closed to salmon fishing or are strictly hook and release. Only a few rivers in some of the remoter parts of Quebec and Newfoundland can compare to the Miramichi.

Anglers across the region hope the salmon comes back, which would be a good sign for the overall health of the region's environment.

*Ed Stoddard is a Reuters journalist with over 15 years' experience specialising in political, current and environmental affairs. He now works and lives in the US. A native of Dartmouth NS, Ed is a Masters' history graduate of Dalhousie University and an avid fisherman and birder. This article was written in August, 2004. His previous article on Shunpiking Online was "Nazis in Nova Scotia", http://www.shunpiking.org/ol0207/0207-ESTS-Naziinns.htm

Further reading

Profitering over wild salmon Shunpiking Online Vol 02 No 02
Minimal regard for the environment, wild creatures, First Nations and the health of workers and consumers. KIM PETERSEN

Class and clash in the Miramichi Shunpiking Online Vol 02 No 02
The best and worst of social life of the Miramichi unfold in Larry Lynch's first novel. CHARLES SPURR.

Serendipity: Walk in the Wood Shunpiking Online Vol 1 No 4
After that, I dropped down to the Miramichi River for two days of fishing on that mother of all salmon rivers, and for two nights of reveling with Keith ... CHARLES GAINES
http://www.shunpiking.org/ol0104/seren-maritimes.htm - 10k

Estimated returns and escapement to the Miramichi River
(Millbank 1971 - 1991: to Enclosure area 1992-2000)
% chance in 2000 relative to:

Year Small Salmon
Large Salmon
% change       % change
1999     39%     12%
1995 to 1999    -28% 35940    -20% 20304
1984 to 1999     -63% 69920     -33% 24070
1971 to 1983     -50% 51678    -43% 28571
Source: www.inmgroup.net/msa/ salmonnews/july2001.html

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