Miramichi Final Salmon Counts for 2019

Miramichi Atlantic Salmon Run Final Counts for 2019 

The final numbers for the DFO salmon counting traps used to estimate the number of fish returning to the Miramichi each year are in for the 2019 season. These numbers are available at this link https://inter-j01.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/asir/report/count in case you want to study them for yourself. The trap numbers are posted for the fifteenth and last day of each month June through October.  You can select from salmon or grilse, and select the date that you want with the controls near the top of the page.  The count is cumulative, so by looking at two different dates you can see how many fish came in between any two points in time.

The 2019 Millerton salmon run was perhaps the lowest one ever recorded.

For those who want to go right to the bottom line, the short version is that the runs of both grilse and salmon were very poor, equaling or surpassing the lowest ever recorded on the river. There is no way to sugar coat this, nor is it productive to deny the reality, but there are some details that may mitigate the hard numbers to some degree.  Let’s first review the salmon run as it unfolded in 2019.

Early Going and Mid-summer

A lovely wedge-shaped early season salmon. They get bigger, but no better than this one.

June fishing on the Southwest Miramichi was quite good in 2019. We didn’t start catching salmon quite as early as normal, not landing our first fish until the 24th.  But the fish were going by.  We saw them, and just a few miles away in Upper Blackville Country Haven’s sports were having their best June in recent years.  It isn’t unusual in some Junes for the fish to just barrel through the lower reaches of the river.  Some do pause or even hold for a while, though, and a “choke point” with the right depth and flow can produce good fishing.  On the evening of July 1 I hooked 4 nice salmon in the course of a little over an hour.  I’m going to hold onto that memory for a while to come.

By the time that the July 15 numbers appeared most people were optimistic about the summer run. On the Southwest Miramichi salmon numbers stood at 74, up from 71 in 2018. These were not great numbers by historic standards, but they were at least stable with other recent years that turned out ok in the end.  Things were not quite as good on the Northwest with the salmon counts down about 20% from 2018.  Most of the optimism, though, was about grilse and not salmon.  The Southwest was up on the previous year’s grilse count by more than 100% – from 128 in 2018 to 273 in 2019.  The Cassillis net on the Northwest was also up, though not as robustly as on the Southwest.  Remember that the efficiency of these traps is in the single digits, so these are by no means the actual number of fish migrating into the river.

Upriver this manifested itself as some very good fishing. Keith Wilson said that their late June early July fishing at Wilson’s in McNamee was unusually good this year.  Wayne O’Donnell, manager of the Rocky Brook camp, well upriver of Boiestown, told me that even though they were a little low on anglers this summer their catch was up substantially over 2018.   Dan Cain of Fredericton reported that he fished Clearwater Brook – not far upriver from Rocky Brook – and there were lots of fish present there also.  Through the middle of July, at the barrier well up on the Dungarvon, both salmon and grilse counts were ahead of 2018, though still off the 2000 to 2010 average pace by 35% to 40%.  Meanwhile, downriver the water temperatures climbed in July and the warm water protocols closed the major, brook-fed holding pools.  Runs of new fish entering the river came to a near standstill.  Between July 15 and September 1 during 2018 – also a very poor year between those dates – about 100 salmon were caught in the Millerton trap.  In 2019 that number dropped to only 27.  The NW Miramichi numbers were similarly bad.  We would have to look to the fall for our salvation as we have been used to doing the last few years.

The Fall Run and Final Numbers

In my last blog I described the fall fishing as we saw it which very much agreed with virtually everyone I know on the river. If you haven’t read that report you can just scroll back after you X out of this blog and check it out.  In short, though, there just weren’t a lot of fish around.

The Millerton salmon count on the Southwest went from 101 to 178 between September 1 and October 31. October 31 was the formal last date, though I don’t think the trap was fished nearly that late.  That total of 77 salmon, is an average of 1.3 fish per day.  Assuming the historic average of catching about 5% of the actual number of fish migrating in to the river, then we are looking at about 26 individual fish a day.  In good fall runs just 15 years ago we could easily have seen 2019’s entire fall run in just two or three days!

Looking at the statistics in a relative sense, here are the year-end numbers at Millerton over the last 25 years:

                           Avg. 1995-2005     Avg. 2006-2015       2016        2017        2018        2019

Salmon                       816                         667                     776           584          670           177

Grilse                          2087                       1475                  1030          997         596           531

That 2019 salmon number is a real shocker, and we can only hope that it will turn out to be an outlier.  It is also worth pointing out that the gaspereaux run this year was anecdotally said to be very good, but it was relatively late. According to the MSA’s Mark Hambrook the salmon and grilse will steer well clear of the trap net if it is full of other fish.  The gaspereaux run and the height of the salmon and grilse runs were all taking place simultaneously around the first of July.   Clearly there was a good push of salmon and grilse that filled the pools at Rocky Brook and Clearwater.  But it could be that the July 15 trap numbers were somewhat reduced in 2019 because the traps held many gaspereaux.

Also, due to the big rain on September 7 from hurricane Dorian, the Millerton trap was removed for about a week. There was no such removal in 2018, and that could easily have provided 30 to 50 each additional grilse and salmon – or more.  We were fishing hard at that time, and it was the best abundance that we saw all fall.  Removing the trap for high water is not at all uncommon; it has happened in many other years too.  To be conservative DFO never makes any adjustment to the numbers because of trap removal, so to make one this year would not be appropriate.   None-the-less it can skew the numbers a bit when comparing one year to another.  Also, while it is just one branch, on October 31 the barrier on the Dungarvon River had registered a 10% increase in grilse for 2019 when compared to 2018, and had virtually the same number of salmon.

Why are Atlantic salmon numbers declining?

There is a list of problems plaguing Atlantic salmon, and runs on both sides of the Atlantic are down to varying degrees. The furthest northern rivers seem to be the least affected, and so one has to believe that ocean warming is having some effect, perhaps moving prey further north and adding to the salmon’s perilous ocean migrations.  The Miramichi, though, has been particularly hard hit, and one has to expect that more localized conditions deserve a lot of the blame.  The out of balance population of striped bass has to be a huge factor on that list.   It has been clearly shown by the MSA and ASF tagging work that striped bass are eating a considerable percentage of the smolts trying to exit the Miramichi River system during the striped bass spawning time.  2017 was the current peak of striped bass abundance, and that may explain a lot of the drop in grilse in 2018 and 2 MSW salmon in 2019.

Mark Hambrook also voiced concern over grey seals. Growing up boating on Miramichi Bay Mark has a long perspective on the seals, and he says the growth in their numbers is nothing short of amazing.  Recently, Canadian DFO officials made a statement that the extent of grey seal predation on Southern Gulf of Saint Lawrence codfish was unsustainable, and that the cod could be extinct in that part of their range by the middle of the 21st century even if there is no commercial fishing for cod allowed, and perhaps even if there is a seal cull!  Seals are probably also just as fond of salmon as they are codfish.

What can and is being done?

In Canada First Nations or Aboriginal people have tremendous influence over any Atlantic salmon fishery initiatives that will be authorized by the government. This has been the case for some time, but the First Nations authority has grown by leaps and bounds under the Trudeau administration. Everyone including First Nations is very concerned about the drop in salmon numbers, and they are reportedly taking a fresh look at all of the options.  Certainly one of these is the potential of the CAST adult stocking program which we have talked about a lot in past blogs.  If this program or something very much like it is embraced by First Nations it is everyone’s opinion that it would be instantly approved by DFO and work could move ahead on it in a big way.  We understand that First Nations is planning to call a stakeholder conference for some time this winter at which various options to help the Atlantic salmon population will be discussed.  This was done a few years ago by the CAST members, but apparently First Nations feels that it should be looked at again.  Hopefully the process will help First Nations decide to support the CAST program.

Meanwhile, though, all is a long way from being lost. There are salmon spawning in all branches of the Miramichi, and while the number of spawning salmon may be less than prior years, it is well known that a higher percentage of the eggs being deposited will eventually swim down the river as smolts than if the river was full of spawning salmon – mitigating to some degree the smaller number of spawners.  The available feed and prime habitat for the resulting parr to utilize is greater when there are fewer parr competing, and we may very well see larger parr surviving to become smolts, and with less annual in-stream mortality than normal.  Both Jason Curtis and I remarked about the large size of the parr we were catching on the Cains this fall, and there seemed to be as many or more around than in other falls that we could recall.

MSA biologist Kelsey McGee recently reported that the 2019 smolt count on the Little Southwest Miramichi was estimated at 66K outgoing smolts, and that was right in line with the average dating all the way back to 2005. The Atlantic salmon spawning stock in the LSM was several times larger in the early 2000s than it is now, but the river is still continuing to pour out a large number of smolts.  If we can get a break in the conditions that have lowered returns from the ocean we can still have a solid run, and the stock can rebuild very quickly.

Striped Bass

Young of the year striped bass.

There are some important bits of information worth sharing about striped bass. First, it seems that the First Nations’ harvest really isn’t going all that well.  Both this past spring and this fall the catch is said to be far below the quota.  Apparently the fishing effort that First Nations is able to put forward just isn’t on the scale required to catch the quota.  Personally I can’t understand why the gasperaux netters down in the Bay aren’t given a big slice of this quota.  That would solve the problem quickly.  It would seem that these commercial fishermen are just as deserving of a crack at the bass as any other Canadian citizens.

Another issue is the terribly restrictive slot limit that recreational anglers have to work with. A more accommodative slot limit or minimum size would allow more people to catch and retain striped bass for food.  We’re told that because of a concept called COSEWIC or “Committee On the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada” DFO has been extra cautious on expanding the striped bass harvest.  Under COSEWIC Miramichi striped bass are officially considered endangered – even though the population stands at levels never before seen by any living person – because it was believed that the striped bass spawn exclusively in the Northwest Miramichi, and that makes the whole population especially vulnerable.  Two years ago the Miramichi Salmon Association undertook a program to net larval and young-of-the-year striped bass, and this year and last they sampled not only the NW Miramichi, but also the Southwest Miramichi and the Tabusintac Rivers.

MSA staff netting an area of the Tabusintac for young-of-the-year striped bass. They found lots proving that striped bass spawn in this river too.

You guessed it. Both larval and young of the year striped have been found in all three of these river systems.  So it is clear that the NW Miramichi is not the only striped bass spawning river on the Northumberland Shore of New Brunswick.  It is very likely that other Northumberland Rivers are also hosting spawning striped bass populations.  The government review process is reported to be painfully slow, but eventually this clearly documented information should change the COSEWIC status of stripers away from endangered and allow a more normal harvest of this species.

 

19 Comments on “Miramichi Final Salmon Counts for 2019

  1. Bradd, A very thoughtful analysis of of the DFO measurements vs. this years actual fishing experience! I know the Bullock’s felt that fishing results this season were far better than last year although it fell precipitously during the last week. I have long thought that DFO’s trap net numbers were at best a rough idea of run statistics. I once talked to NB fisheries officials and who told me they had no confidence at all in the Millerton and Casillis numbers and that they only believed the barrier counts on the Dungarvon, Northwest and Juniper. Unfortunately the Juniper barrier was discontinued after 2010, for reasons I don’t understand. When we had that data it gave an idea of actual fish that reached the headwaters especially in years like 2005, 2013 when we had extreme high waters and Millerton was totally non functional during long intervals. One thing that I thought CAST was doing that was worthwhile was the sonar counting system. It seemed to be functioning pretty well but was suddenly discontinued on the SW Miramichi this year! They still did it on the LSW and while the data is only thru the end of September it does not show very many salmon went up the LSW with the Dorion rise of water. The same location back on the MSW would be a useful tool to compare to Millerton. Do you know why CAST discontinued it? Your comments on the Striped Bass situation were very interesting and informative. I had previously thought the First Nation catch was reliable! Certainly angler capture in the spring could do a lot to supplement the take. I would estimate my group alone caught and released 500 fish each of the past 3 years. Increasing the slot size window would seem to be important because we have noticed the average size of the fish has increased each year. On the subject of Stripers I did run across paper by the UNB CAST team reviewing the subject of smolt predation by Stripers. It’s not an original work and is pretty inconclusive but does have a comprehensive list of all the WW evidence published to date. It’s worth a read and here is a link if you are not aware of it https://www.mdpi.com/2410-3888/4/4/50/htm. Once again thanks for all your thoughts and efforts and especially for interjecting a ray of hoped optimism for the Miramichi. Sometime I get a little to pessimistic!

    Bill

    • Bill – I have read that paper by the UNB biologists that you reference, and before replying went back to look at it again. To me that evidence is overwhelming that striped bass massed for spawning in both the NW and SW Miramichi are taking a large toll on smolts leaving the rivers. I think that it is likely the biggest reason that the Miramichi salmon run has declined more precipitously than the Gaspe populations. Brad

      • Brad, I agree! I’ll be doing my part to lower the population next spring too……….. Bill

  2. Thanks for your informative post, Brad. It’s sad to see the slump on your side of the Atlantic too. My gut feeling is the CAST initiative is the best bet so fingers crossed.

  3. Great effort on your reporting,tks. Their has been no mention of magensers coraling small fish and devouring more than any preditor that’s on the rivers. I think an effort to cull them would have a drastic effect on fish populations.

    • Bill – the idea of an open season in spring/summer has been floated unsuccessfully before, but now with the Miramichi salmon population in tough shape perhaps it will fly. I will bring it up some folks at the MSA who can take it up the regulators. Thanks Brad

    • Hi William. Elton and White did a lot of work on the predation of smolt by mergansers in the 1950’s. Here is some of what they concluded. 1.9 million parr had been eaten by 1200 American Mergansers. That number of parr is equivalent to about 1 million smolts. Through stomach analysis (1200 dead mergansers) they calculated 1584 parr were eaten by bird per year. They consumed about 37% of all parr in the main southwest in the early 50’s. A bird control program was established from 58 to 71 and compared to previous non-controlled (51 -57) with the result that the smolt production grew from 1.6 million to 2.5 million per year on the main southwest. I could rant on, but you get the drift, and you can find some comfort that your instincts and observations have served you well. One other thing, I think the increase in eagles is thinning the mergansers, which may not have been much of a factor in the 60’s and 70’s. Now we just need wolves to eat the beavers and killer whales to eat the grey seals and we’d have a balance again. Kevin Anthony, Boothbay, Maine

      • Kevin – thanks, great comment. I have been asking Mark Hambrook of the MSA what can be done about mergansers, and hopefully the MSA will take this up as a possible action. I have heard that the Migratory Birds Treaty is an issue, but that was signed in 1918, so clearly there is a way to work with it. Brad

  4. Good Morning Brad,
    thanks again for your review of the season, I wish it could have been better. The whole Atlantic Salmon situation reminds me of a Winston Churchill comment , “an enigma wrapped up in a puzzle”. Let’s hope next year Mother Nature smiles on the Miramichi.
    Kal

    • Great historical reference Kal. When it comes to salmon fishing, one thing is for sure, the fishing success of a specific time in one particular year are not reliable for making predictions for the following season.
      -Casey

  5. Brad,
    Sobering report to say the least. Hopefully the First Nations will get behind the CAST adult stocking program. It certainly is frustrating to see the lack of action to the Striped Bass issue. Can’t understand why DFO is so slow to act on real data. The salmon will rebound on their own given half a chance with the right conditions. Thanks for compiling all the data for this report.
    Larry

  6. Hello Brad, Having fished the Miramichi every year for close to 30 years, after this Fall’s trip the trend is obvious. I fished from September 29th until October 5th with Joe Blaze and Linda Warren. They are both experienced, excellent fishers and our results reflect the reported numbers. The Salmon/Grilse ratio went to hell this year. I’ve kept a meticulous fishing log for all trips that includes air temp, water temp, water levels, moon phase, and weather conditions. This year the conditions were perfect the week we fished. Besides the low numbers of fish hooked, landed and “pulls” the one result that bothers me most was the fact that we did not hook/catch any parr…..zer0…. In past seasons it was not unusual to hook 6-12 parr each session. Not only that, the lack of parr activity (rising to flies in the margins) was disturbing. I walked and scouted the shallows to look for them without success. We fished the week prior to Bill Jacobus and left knowing it would be “tough sledding” unless a good run showed up. The handwriting has been clear for years now and I’m puzzled why the DFO has been so slow in reacting. You can point the finger at the many environmental causes for the decline, but their lack of timely reaction and without plausible solutions is something this veteran Miramich angler will hold them partly responsible for.

  7. Thanks Brad The longer we are in this business seems the less i know each year so many different factors each season . Have learned though to not put a lot of stock in the DFO counts over the years especial years of water rises & counters removed during the better fishing. A few years back when my son work with MSA & knew what was happening daily We would be having excellent fishing after rises of water i would say must be good counts this week he would say counters removed do to high water time & time again these fish never got counted . Remember another season the final counts came out with numbers up to Oct 15th then counts for end of season that showed only one more salmon but after checking closer the counters were removed on Oct the 16th that year but no one was informed of that so everyone though there was no fall run after the 15th so who knows how many fish came in after Oct 16th & who knows this year as all the locals say fish can still arrive in November .There is no 100% way of knowing the true numbers each year but the Lodges & people who fish for spring salmon has a good idea the following spring. One year a few years back DFO had low returns we were worried about the spring fishing that year On April the 15th i called lodges from Boisetown to Quarryville all was having great results with approx over 1000 salmon grilse landed that first day of spring season we knew of & thousands daily in a spring the DFO said no fish went up the year before . The DFO counts for 2018 was not the best but the spring season for us ended up being our best in 20 years landing big salmon till the end of May while fishing trout & Striped Bass approx 1200 Salmon & Grilse landed for us alone so those fish came into the river sometime If not during season than after the counters were removed in Fall This fall for us like most on the river was not one of the best for sure but the three rises of water did not help especial the big rise off hurricane Dorian With counters removed any fish in system went for the headwaters . Was told Rocky Brook & Clear Water had a better season than some past years . This fall was much like 2015 for us on the Lower Main River as in 2015 we did not land a salmon in lower stretch of the Main River after the big rise of water the last week of September that year but did do better on the Cains & the Norwest in October in 2015 than this year .Sure hope a lot more fish came in than the DFO are reporting for this season but i will wait till after the spring season before coming to any conclusion of the true returns, been fooled by DFO numbers before .lets hope the 2020 returns will be so good it will not leave anyone guessing probably just Wishful thinking but can always dream Tightlines

    • Byron, yeah the spring fishing in the Miramichi was surprisingly good this past spring, and it held on for a long time. Keith Wilson told me the same thing from 40 miles upriver. I’m sure with you on hoping for good returns in 2020. The uptick in early grilse returns for 2019 is certainly encouraging as a possible indicator of how the female component of that year class may be doing at sea. Plus, unless Greenland cheats us again that should help allow for a better return of those hen salmon.

  8. Thanks again Brad for contributing in a huge way to educating anglers and providing your experienced perspective on the health of the system. My own experience for what it’s worth, fishing mostly in the headwaters near Juniper, is that fishing was poor this year. I would add though, that the headwaters on the MSW and North Branch remain ideal habitat for spawners and a parr nursery. Despite more clear cutting, even relatively close to the river, the water still seems to provide suitable refuge and food for the young salmon up here.
    Of course, the new threat to these parr is the small mouth escapees just downriver by Miramichi Lake. I wrote a letter to DFO asking for an explanation as to their silence on this matter despite calls for poisoning the lake. The public has no faith for DFO to make any correct decision for the future of our salmon, wether it be their handling of the small mouth problem, CAST, stripers, and I could go on. Their lack of communication to the public is disappointing to me as a tax payer, conservationist, and hopeful angler.
    Enjoy your “off season” and I look forward to future posts.

  9. Brad, Thank you for an excellent analysis. How do you explain the drop in numbers of salmon while the younger grilse numbers seem to be holding? If the mortality of smolts caused by the stripers were significant I would expect lower numbers of grilse.
    It is interesting that members of the Penobscot River First Nation have approved use of the smolt to salmon hatchery technology as a way to improve the Penobscot salmon population. Jack

    • Jack – for the last 5 or 6 years – ever since the stripers hit those big population numbers – we have had very low grilse numbers. In the early 2000s we had around 2000 grilse a year in the Millerton trap. We now have a quarter of that. The salmon numbers were down too, but not as much, from roughly 900 to 600 through 2018. I think that is in part because the Miramichi population had a fairly large component of repeat spawners. This year we hit the point where low grilse numbers for so many years in a row finally impacted the salmon numbers in a big way. At least I suspect that is part of it. The striped bass population, while still way too high, is calculated by DFO to be down very substantially. The 2019 grilse were the first year glass to benefit from this decline in bass. We can hope that the 2020 2 MSW virgin spawner component of last year’s grilse class will see an increase in returns.

      I’m sure that people from the CAST program, the MSA etc are doing their best to show the Miramichi First Nations that the Penobscot FN have approved the SAS program. We have reason to hope that SAS will be approved sooner rather than later.

  10. Thanks for the report Brad… some thoughts I am a salmon fisherman and this is written with the bias of one. In my humble opinion more people need to express their own opinion to the decision makers (DFO) in regards to the Atlantic Salmon. Its been 8 years of declining returns. Numbers are at an historic low. Many factors have contributed to this.
    1. The Miramichi River rises and falls much more quickly than in past decades due to the clear cutting taking place. I never knew so much clear cutting went on in NB until I began hunting. The more I travel the back roads of the Miramichi the more I see. This results in a lower and warmer river as the river does not have the slow and steady additions of ground water held in the wooded area along the river. Warmer water is a foe to salmon and a friend to striped bass.
    2. Striped bass numbers have increased to estimates of, at times, 3 plus million in the Miramichi system. Bass eat smolts and parr and trout. That’s not good.
    3. “Something is going on in the ocean.” That’s a comment I’ve heard and read quite often over the last decade. Scientists are trying to figure it out but the number of smolts that survive the trip to the ocean and eventually Greenland are at historic lows as well
    There are many things that can be done to TRY to save our salmon. The projects that look at improving cold water pools and other fish habitat is a positive. Though I believe that landing a salmon and bringing it home to the table is a privilege we should have in NB, I have begrudgingly accepted hook and release as a necessary step at this point and time. We simply don’t have the fish to support the retention of any. The use of barbless hooks to allow for easy release is a plus (have you seen the disgusting videos on you tube of ‘fisherman’ trying to release a salmon after dropping it, holding it out of the water for way too long, etc) I’m sure I am missing a few other potential positive moves but I’ll move on to what I think is the best chance at an attempt to have fish in our river…
    The program that has been tried and has had some success in the Upper Salmon River where young budding scientists capture smolts that are transported to the worlds first wild salmon farm off of the coast of Grand Mannan and are allowed to grown in a protective environment in those waters MUST be implemented and expanded upon in the Miramichi. The DFO is the governing agency in the matters of migratory fish and though they have allowed this program in the Fundy area they have halted it in the Miramichi system. Their reasoning, if I understand it correctly, is that the Upper salmon River is barren of salmon and so why not try it. By that logic they will not permit this project to go on in our river until it is barren of fish (which will happen in our lifetime if more measures aren’t taken) The DFO is concerned that the fish taken from the river as smolts and allowed to grow in a protected area will not have the same DNA as those that traveled to Greenland as smolts to become salmon. That may be true (though I haven’t yet seen convincing evidence). But at this point shouldn’t we be willing to risk that. The Miramichi system is estimated to have approximately 20, 000 salmon. That’s it. In my lifetime there were near 10 fold as many in the system. I believe that the DFO should allow the Canadian River Institute and UNB scientists to make an attempt at returning our river to one where an angler can cast a fly into a pool with a fair chance of attracting a salmon.
    Talk to your local politicians… Voice your opinions… contact the DFO. Write letters. Become more informed about CAST Do whatever you think might help to put fish in the Miramichi Bob Bowser (NB Salmon angler)

    • Bob – sorry it took me a day to approve this. I thought I already had until the computer reminded me. Future comments by you won’t require approval and will post immediately.
      I agree with what you are saying, and definitely feel that DFO should have allowed the CAST SAS program to proceed. That discussion is still going on, and hopefully it will eventually go our way.
      I think the greatest estimate of striped bass abundance in the Miramichi system – contrary to old opinion they do not spawn only in the NW – was thought to be around 1,000,000 and current estimates of that are now much lower. I haven’t seen anything yet for 2019, but the word is that it will be similar to 2018.
      Estimates of the Miramichi salmon population were as high as 600,000 in the mid 1960s, and over 1,000,000 in the 1920s. My god what we have lost. Brad

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