Atlantic Salmon Numbers Update 8/15/17

It won’t be long now! I know some of you have seen this before, but it is a goody, and captures that late season beauty both flora and fauna. Taken on the Cains River October 14, 2016.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has updated the fish counts in the trapnets used to estimate the salmon run into the Miramichi River as of 8/15/2017.  The numbers are poor, but given the wretched conditions of the summer I’m frankly a little surprised that they aren’t worse.

Note that the numbers below are the trap catches and only represent a small percentage of the actual number of fish in the run. Similarly the efficiency of the Millerton trap is not the same as the one at Cassilis, so you cannot directly compare their numbers with each other.  The important comparison is for the same trap one year to the next or better still the trend.

In the Main Southwest Miramichi the Millerton trap net salmon count was 216 and the grilse number was 432. These statistics compare to 185, 421, 437 respectively during 2014, 2015, 2016 for salmon, and 283, 1139, 638 for grilse.

In the Northwest Branch the Cassilis trap net salmon count was 219 and the grilse number was 397.

These numbers compare to 41, 284, and 341 respectively during 2014, 2015, 2016 for salmon, and 61, 1257, and 350 for grilse.

The seemingly very low 2014 statistics illustrate where the DFO policy of making no estimate for times when high water blows out the traps hurts the comparability of the numbers year to year. It appears that 2017 MSW Miramichi numbers are greater than they were in 2014 when in reality we missed the best 10 days of the season that year due to Hurricane Arthur washing away the counting nets.  I was there enjoying the excellent run which officially was recorded as zero.  You can read more about this by scrolling back to 2014 in my blog.

The reality is that through 8/15 the run this year on both branches is poor compared to historical averages. The question is why.  These numbers come at a time when we are getting mixed reviews from some mainland rivers to our north, but also decidedly negative numbers from some Newfoundland Rivers like the Exploits that have been big producers in modern times.  We will have to wait until closer to November to know for sure how much the dearth of fish has been caused by this unbelievably rainless, warm, sunny summer -it really hasn’t rained to speak of on the Miramichi since early June.  There hasn’t been a single sizeable raise of water all summer.  The summer has been warm, but not really hot.  We’ve only had one or two days of 30C or better all summer.  We’ve had lots of nice cool nights too.  The problem has been no water – deep water is harder to heat up than shallow water.  I’m sure that there have been many years like it, but not in my experience.  We hear that fishing has been okay in the headwaters where it is normally cooler, but there have been very few if any good fishing days on the MSW Miramichi below Boiestown since about the 10th July.

It is certainly possible that we will have a strong run this fall that will in some part make up for the weak showing so far. It wouldn’t be the first time.  In both 1997 and 1998 the Millerton track records show that two thirds of the grilse came into the river after August 15th, and in fact through that date in 1997 the Millerton trap only recorded 267 grilse or about 60% as many as so far in 2017.  So the current situation isn’t without precedent.  We’ll just have to wait and see how it all ends up.  Thankfully the cool and hopefully rainy days of fall are drawing very close now.

So what stands in the way of the really robust runs that the Miramichi system is capable of?  Investors like to talk about the wall of worry; that is a list of potential problems that can derail a market, or in this case a run of Atlantic salmon.  Let’s list a few, in no particular order:

  • The commercial net fishery killing thousands of adult salmon in Greenland and Saint Pierre Miquelon.
  • Striped bass spawned in the Miramichi system eating smolts and parr.
  • Poaching of adult salmon by fishermen and nighttime netters.
  • Poor catch and release handling techniques.
  • Harvest of Atlantic salmon by any and all user groups including First Nations.
  • Over harvest of capelin – vital Atlantic salmon forage – throughout their range.
  • Over harvest of other Atlantic salmon forage.
  • Poor forestry practices removing too many trees over too large an area of the Miramichi watershed causing both erosion and warming of the water.
  • Ocean warming causing negative changes to the wintering areas.

So which of these do we concentrate on? I say, especially since we don’t know which of these things is most responsible, or if it is the old “combination of factors” that we try to fix them all.  I saw a news article the other day with a Newfoundland official asking the federal government “what it was going to do about the salmon situation.”  Well, they could twist arms – and get the U.S. to help them – in Greenland, Denmark and France to end those mixed stock net fisheries, greatly liberalizes the recreational striped bass harvest, give the First Nations and gasperaux netters a quota of striped bass to catch and sell, put a few bucks into the warden’s coffers to do some meaningful enforcement work, put a two year moratorium on capelin harvest then reduce the quota by at least 50% while reviewing carefully all other forage fish harvest quotas, stop all retention fisheries for wild Atlantic salmon everywhere in Canada, and put some forestry conservation practices into place that will really do something to protect the rivers.

I don’t have any thoughts on how to change our climate, especially in the short run, but we can sure do a lot about the rest of the list.

Brad Burns

PS As always, please feel free to contribute with a comment.  If you have already successfully commented in the past your comment will automatically be posted.  If this is your first post I will approve it as soon as possible and you will then be set for the future.  I’m finding that the comments provide some nice breadth of views and experiences on the subjects we are discussing.

9 Comments on “Atlantic Salmon Numbers Update 8/15/17

  1. Brad, I’d like to add one more item to your list of items causing the decline in our salmon runs: SALMON FARMING!

  2. Hi Brad,

    Enjoyed your commentary and blog as always. I do like your list of what is hurting the return of Atlantic Salmon to their native rivers. It is an excellent brief, concise and accurate list of why Salmon are not returning home.

  3. Brad, I look forward to your weekly posts and can’t wait to make the annual trip to Blackville in Oct. Does the DFO have a counting station that monitors the salmon/grilse that enter the Little Southwest?

    • Carl – the Cassilis trap net is in the NW Miramichi before the Little Southwest splits off, so the fish coming up the Little Southwest will be included in that count. I’m not aware of anything that monitors the Little Southwest specifically. Brad

      • Thanks. I thought that might be the case after looking at the location of DFO’s counting stations.

  4. Hi Brad, very nice to read your report, things are pretty poor here this year also. July 2016 nine hundred, July 2017 two hundred, having said that conditions weren’t favourable but when we did get water the numbers were still down.
    Quite a number of Pacific salmon arriving in the Scottish rivers ,the outcome of this is not known at present.
    Note catch return for beat two last Saturday, the Heron was there with Sommy.

  5. The saying “Death by a thousand cuts” comes to mind. Add to your list the unreported loss of salmon in the industry term of “by-catch” that is shoveled off the decks of commercial fishing boats targeting other species.

    I’d like to know if others who have fished the Miramichi have seen a dramatic decline in the number of parr caught. I fish the Boiestown area and in my 20+ years of fishing there I’ve witnessed fewer and fewer parr in the river. Let’s hope that the Fall run is good,,, but let’s not forget the need for a change in fisheries management to improve the salmon stocks in a declining fishery.

    • Bill – I would agree with commercial by-catch from non-directed fisheries probably being a potential factor.

      It has seemed to us in Blackville that parr numbers have held up quite well. Maybe a few less this year than some other recent years, but we still seem to be seeing a lot. Of course that is all just anecdotal, but I think the parr surveys done by electrofishing each summer are still holding up quite well. I remember reading somewhere a story by an English biologist who did parr surveys on a river system where the commercial fishermen who lived at the mouth of the river netted it so effectively that it was very hard to catch any adult salmon up in the river. In spite of this the parr counts held up remarkably well over time. When they studied it they found that in spite of the reduced number of spawning fish the parr that were produced survived in greatly increasing percentages to smolt size. This may have been because of more food for the parr that were there, better spawning site selection by the breeders, the river being less attractive to predators because of decreased parr levels etc. In short I don’t think that from whatever I’m hearing or seeing that low parr abundance is yet a big factor in the Miramichi. How many of them are making it past the army of stripers waiting down in the estuary may be a big problem though.

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