Atlantic Salmon Conservation March 2018

I’ve been asked by several followers of this blog to post any new information about the CAST Program.  CAST stands for the Collaboration for Atlantic Salmon Tomorrow, and the collaboration is one of private industry, namely Irving and Cook Aquaculture, the University of New Brunswick, and various not for profit organizations including the Miramichi Salmon Association.

CAST has done a number of things such as installing special cameras to count the number of migrating salmon in the Miramichi, but it is best known for a plan called Smolt to Adult Supplementation or SAS.  Under this plan wild smolts are gathered from the river and reared in a hatchery until they are ready to spawn.  Once the spawning time approaches the smolts – now grown to adult salmon – are released into the river from which they came as smolts, and they will assumedly continue up the river to spawn naturally along with the wild fish that are present.

This concept is already in use to try and restore salmon and steelhead in rivers where the runs are in imminent danger of extinction, but it has not been done in a river like the Miramichi where runs have been greatly reduced from historic levels, but are not in immediate danger of extinction.  There are people who want to use this program to bring back historically large runs, and there are others who just want to do enough to make sure the runs remain viable in the future.  There are detractors of the program who are simply against stocking in any way.  These people feel that since there is nothing really wrong with the Miramichi, and that it doesn’t need supplementation, instead we need to figure out why returns from the sea are at significantly lower percentages than they historically were.

PEER Review – the opposition to the SAS program has been waiting for the completion of a peer review by a panel of scientific experts from various backgrounds.  While there is no formal agreement on this point, assumedly a positive peer review would open up the path for this project.

This peer review panel met for two days on January 22-23 2018 to discuss the proposed program.  The process has resulted in a March 2018 Science Advisory report.  As a director of the Miramichi Salmon Association I was given an advance copy of this report which you can read here.

The Potential Benefits – Overall I think the DFO likes the idea of the program, but perhaps for slightly different reasons than one might suspect.  DFO did not address increasing runs of salmon to please anglers.  On page 3 of the report they do list four benefits that are of interest to them.  These more or less boil down to just seeing how effective the SAS technique can be applied to the current situation in the Miramichi which is one of still viable but greatly reduced runs.  No one really knows how well this will work, but DFO sees value in finding out.

The Risk and Reward – there are identified risks, and the panel came up with 5 of them, also listed on pages 2 and 3.  These 5 really boil down to 2 which are the risk of transferring disease from the hatchery to the wild, and risk of reducing the percentage of fish in the population which are 100% certifiably wild.  Hatchery techniques have been used on the Miramichi for more than 100 years, so the river is not without some hatchery influence, if in fact there is any difference between the hatchery fish and the 100% certifiably wild fish.  I’m going to try and not editorialize this report too much, but this is one area where it seems to me that some folks go a little overboard.  I read recently about natural selection beginning with the fish mating with other salmon of their own choosing, and picking just the right spot on the gravel bar to be at the lowest possible risk of being wiped out by an ice flow.  It just seems very far-fetched to me that there would not be a very high percentage of pure serendipity in both these processes.  We know that female salmon eggs are often fertilized by several male fish including parr.  We also know that nothing is less predictable than where or when a tumbling piece of ice will contact the bottom of the river.  The picking of a spawning site has to be instinctual.  When could the fish every have learned where to build a redd?  Most of them only spawn once in their life, and none of them get to see how their redds faired come spring.  The fish in the SAS program are starting out as completely wild smolts from the river of their birth.  It would certainly seem reasonable that whether raised in a hatchery or at sea that their choice of the location to build a redd would not be altered by where they did their feeding previous to returning to the river to spawn.

I’ll probably take some shots for that one, but I’m confident that some of the fishery scientists will agree with my thinking.  I am, also sure that no one knows these things for certain.  We do know that by having only completely wild fish spawning that we do everything possible to eliminate all risks, but on the other hand we have seen great success with hatchery stock enhancement including self-sustaining reintroductions in several rivers.  How low do we let a population get before we turn proactive?  Hopefully not so low that it is too late.

Mitigation Measures – The report listed a number of suggested mitigations measures.  Again these really boiled down to two basic areas: the first were steps to reduce the chances of disease being transferred to the wild, and the second was to make sure that the stocked fish didn’t become such a large percentage of the production in the river as to outnumber the wild fish.  On the surface all the few things that they listed seemed entirely doable.

Summary – given this report and its constructive list of mitigation measures – most of which I think the CAST team had already contemplated – it is hard to see how the program will not be given the green light to proceed as planned.

17 Comments on “Atlantic Salmon Conservation March 2018

  1. BE sure and rid the hatchery of disease years gone by we received fry to raise in tanks when they arrived they were already on medicated feed to fight some kind of disease and that didn’t turn out very well

    • Glen – there is some discussion on how to handle the disease issue on page 3. I’m sure that the hatchery staff will be very diligent on this issue. I would point out that the hatchery has been releasing fingerlings and now fry into the river for years, and I’m not aware of any incidents of disease from these activities. Brad

  2. Thanks Brad. Anyone can correct me if I’m wrong but I believe this exact approach is being used on the Tobique River in an attempt to maintain that genetically distinct population of salmon until some dam mitigation is hopefully put in place down the road. That population is, unlike that of the Miramichi, clinging to its existence it seems. My last canoe trip down the Tobique I did see a wild 10-12 pound salmon in a pool which was pretty exciting for a camp owner on that river! I think this approach is also being used to supplement the Margaree salmon run which seems to be reasonably healthy despite lots of challenges.

    • Terry – I don’t know anything about what DFO is doing to try and keep the Tobique population going. The best thing they could have done there was to have removed Mactaquac, but that is a whole other subject. My take of the Margaree situation is much like yours – reasonably healthy despite lots of challenges. I did not even know that they were supplementing the Margaree. I do know that the SAS approach is exactly what they are doing in the Park to try and revive the Salmon River run. I understand that the fish they stocked by helicopter are spawning there now.

      I think the big difference here is that the Miramichi is still doing quite well compared to many salmon rivers. Even in the recent bad years the run is in area of 30,000 fish. That is a big number by wild Atlantic salmon standards. The Miramichi is, though, endowed with much more good spawning habitat than needed to produce 30,000 fish. Recent years the NW Miramichi especially has far below the number of salmon needed to fully seed the beds.

      • There is a holding fence across a large pool on the Right Hand Branch of the Tobique just above the Forks. There are three smolt wheel capture devices about 25 miles downstream on the main stem Tobique River. The smolts captured are grown to adult salmon in a hatchery and transferred to this holding pool by truck during the summer and held (with security cameras, etc!) along with any truly wild salmon that have been lifted above Mactaquac and then journeyed up the Saint John and Tobique Rivers. The fence is removed in October and the salmon head upstream to spawn in the Serpentine and Right Hand Branch Rivers. Spawning seems to be successful in that it is hard to keep the parr off your trout flies in the upper parts of these rivers in places. The number of spawning salmon is likely a few hundred I think. The disaster is in the losses of the migrating smolt that are killed in the journey to the Atlantic, mostly ground up in the turbines of the Tobique Narrows, Beechwood and Mactaquac dams. I’m not sure if they re-capture the spawned adults or they also take their chances heading for the ocean. Like I said, a once great population is clinging to existence.

  3. Brad, One of Peter Gray’s concerns in his book, Swimming Against the Tide, is using salmon that have not survived the rigors of the ocean journey as a source of the eggs or sperm. Does the hatchery force the growing salmon to swim against high flows or test their ability to leap etc. before releasing them? Or is that really not a concern because the genes are the important factors to be transferred. – ie. Darwin’s vs Lamarck’s concepts. William [Jack] Babson MD

    • Jack – you undoubtedly are more qualified than me to talk about genetics. I thought the Peter Gray’s concept of “little atheletes” was so that the parr themselves that were being released would have some hope of surviving the ocean trip to return to spawn. I believe that the idea here is that the adult salmon that CAST intends to stock were originally wild smolts. I understand that in the concepts of epigenetics even genetically pure fish can be altered through life experiences – or lack of them. This, though, is a very hypothetical and unknown area of study. There is every reason to believe that the stocked salmon will spawn successfully, and that the resulting fry will go on to become wild smolts.
      The problem is that even totally wild smolts are not surviving to return to spawn in the numbers that are needed. Nobody seems to really understand why. The SAS approach removes the mortality of an ocean voyage so that 1000 smolts could produce 850 adult spawners in a hatchery. Currently it could take as many as 85,000 smolts to do that in the wild. If the spawning of the SAS stocked salmon is successful all of the resulting smolts will have grown up 100% wild. It certainly is a terrific concept.

  4. Great work and commitment from all who are working on this project! Every step towards a healthier and more bountiful river is a step in the right direction. May we always see salmon swimming in our rivers!

  5. Brad, Thank you for your educated reply. After I wrote my reply yesterday I read the interesting article in the spring 2018 issue of the Atlantic Salmon Journal. The information from Corey Clarke, the Fundy National Park’s salmon recovery team leader shows how a smolt to salmon rearing program is working in the inner Bay of Fundy. Counts of returning salmon in the Upper Salmon River are improving whereas the counts in the control river – the Point Wulf river – show no returns.
    I do not think that efforts to improve the athleticism of the smolts in the hatchery will amount to much unless the adult salmon are released in a river with huge flows and falls, which is not the case in the Miramichi. Lamarck thought that what an individual does can affect its genes. I dont think that our current understanding supports that. Jack

  6. Thanks for the updates Bradd and everyone else for the interesting discussion. Here’s what bothers me the most about how the events are unfolding. First is that it is clear there is a slow but steady decline of ATS returns WW and there are many factors leading that. Let’s be honest none of us are going to see things the way they were. But the Miramichi appears to be declining faster than many other Gulf Region rivers. Everyone seems fixated on the SAS program as some kind if miracle waiting to happen. I’m a skeptic of SAS and reading reports like this one on the Upper Salmon River http://www.fundysalmonrecovery.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Conservation-and-Restoration-Overview.pdf surely aren’t changing my mind. But whether it is good or bad is irrelevant in view of what is going on with the Striped Bass explosion in the Gulf. The latest data, published on March 29th (http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/csas-sccs/Publications/ScR-RS/2018/2018_016-eng.pdf), estimates that the 2017 spawning population of Stripers in the river more than doubled from 375,000 in 2016 to (995,000) in 2017! Smolt survival data from the ASF/MSA studies already has shown smolt survival was half of other Gulf rivers in 2014/15/16 when the bass population was just beginning to explode. In my mind DFO’s priorities are all screwed up. DFO should be driving hard for a complete understanding of the Stripers impact on smolts. Let’s face it the only data we have comes from 2 conservation organizations funded by angler donations (and we can’t thank them enough for doing it). On the other hand DFO hasn’t spent a nickel trying to understand the peril to the fishery. Just last year they were publicly claiming that stripers don’t eat smolts. The MSA studies 2000-2010 showed the river put out 1.5-2M smolts per year. Since then the striper population has exploded and with the measured increase in mortality that number could have been decreased by 750-500,000/year! There is no proven hatchery program that can compensate for that kind of loss but there are many available measures to quickly reduce the Bass population. Priorities need to be refocused to come to a definitive consensus whether the coincidental population explosion of stripers is the cause of the high smolt mortalities on the river before it’s to late.

    • Thank you for your detailed comment Bill. When you comment in the future it will be automatically approved on post without waiting for me. The board is set up that way for everyone. I just have to approve the first one.

      No one I know sees the CAST program as a long term answer. It may be a way of buffering somewhat against further downturns. Yes, let us hope that DFO allows for a much more robust harvest of striped bass.

  7. Hi Brad.
    Great job on that canoe.
    Put me down for at least two of your new book Brad.
    And keep me abreast of your Cains explorations….perhaps I can help out some time this summer.
    The big problem, I see is the decreased fitness of the progeny of WILD fish crossed with stocked fish. Perhaps no animal on earth relies on instinct more than Atlantic Salmon. That instinct is reduced with every generation that does not live as wild salmon. If your stocked parent did not know how to migrate, feed, etc….than the offspring will have a reduced instinct(s) necessary to survival. They have proven this on the west coast. In six generations, previously wild salmon (not atlantic of course) penned, squeezed, raised in a box, no longer have the instinctual abilities to maintain their populations. This CAST program, will therefore, I believe, cause harm to our wild populations. The first rule here should be To Do No Harm. Unless we are positive of that than it should not be done.
    Furthermore, the scientific benefits concerning smolt survival will not be realized due to the scant and fragmented data on smolt mortality. Efforts and funds would be betteer spent on smolt mortality. Kevin

    • Kevin – thanks for your comments. Let’s hope for a good year in 2018! A cool summer and a little rain would sure be nice. Your camp looked good when I went by it last week. Brad

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