I really love Atlantic salmon fishing, and I especially love to do it in the Miramichi. In the Miramichi you can normally fish in a relatively wild setting, on wade-friendly gravel, and both see and sometimes catch beautiful salmon that go from 5-pound grilse to 30-pound repeat spawners. It isn’t all that far from the northeastern United States, the Canadians are a friendly lot, and we have similar laws and speak the same language. You don’t have to be Bill Gates to own a camp on the river or belong to who’s who on Wall Street to get invited to join a club with decent water. There’s a lot to like. I try in my blog to write about it in a similarly positive tone, because that’s how I feel, and I know that people don’t like to hear whiners anyway.
I’m going to whine a bit now though. I’m going to direct most of that towards Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. I should say to their Gulf office as opposed to the Maritime office. The Maritime office is located in Halifax and has the Bay of Fundy coast up into Central New Brunswick, stopping just short of the Miramichi, then over most of Nova Scotia including the Atlantic on its south shore. The Gulf office stands for the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. It is located in Moncton, and it handles almost all of New Brunswick’s active salmon rivers. You can google around on the DFO website and find a map with all this info.
Apparently, there is a fair amount of autonomy in these offices as there is surely quite a different approach to Atlantic salmon management. On both coasts of Canada they are enthusiastically using what was essentially the CAST program of raising smolts in captivity to adult age and them releasing them to spawn. Supporters of this approach believe it is the closest thing to purely wild spawning that we can get. An acquaintance of mine was invited to fish this fall in the Salmon River – not yet open to public angling for salmon – on New Brunswick’s Bay of Fundy south coast in an experiment to see what was there for kelts bound for the ocean. The Salmon River does not have suitable over wintering habitat for kelts, so the spent fish head back to sea after spawning. Fishing was excellent and in a short while he caught a number of spawned-out adult salmon. This same individual had been skin diving in the upper reaches of the river during the late summer and had seen what he considered to be an impressive number of parr – and he would know. These adult salmon had been raised in ocean cages out in the Bay of Fundy. These activities were all sanctioned by the Maritime office of the DFO. Had it not been for the Gulf office of the DFO we could undoubtedly now be enjoying major increases in adult spawning in the Miramichi from the CAST program.
Samuel Johnson, a famous 18th century English poet wrote that “Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.” DFO certainly seems to have a bottomless pit of objections, and they continue to this day. One evening a couple of falls ago, after decades of the Miramichi Salmon Association gathering a few adult salmon from the river in the fall to spawn out for the next spring’s fry stocking, a friend and I put a nice hen salmon into a spawning box at the Brophy Pool on the Cains. When the MSA showed up to collect the fish the next morning the box was gone! No, it had not been stolen. DFO had sent a warden down the river in the last minutes of daylight, presumably looking for netters. He spotted the box for which a permit had been issued to the MSA, opened it up, released the fish, then took off downriver with the box. The reason was supposedly that there was no one there guarding the fish. How utterly absurd. These boxes had been used by the MSA in this way for more than 20 years, and there had never been a problem. In fact, by creating a ridiculous list of stifling requirements DFO has now made even the spawning box program so incredibly restrictive that given the vagaries of fishing it is entirely possible – as it turned out to be in 2022 – to catch so few fish that no meaningful contribution can be made to the river’s natural spawning.
Some folks may not be terribly concerned to see the adult breeder collection hobbled. There is a feeling that the adults that do make it back to spawn should be left to spawn in the wild – and in truth while the Miramichi system has gone from about 100,000 adult fish just 10 or 12 years ago down to 20,000 – we still do have seemingly decent parr and smolt production. How can that be? Well, when you have less spawners in the river the survival of the fry is much greater because prime habitat is less crowded, and there is more food available for them. In theory this could rebuild the returning adult population within a few years.
The reality of smolts today, though, is that only something like half of them live to make it out of the Miramichi. It used to be much higher before DFO’s policies grew a bloated striped bass population that is threatening not just salmon, but every other anadromous fish in the system including sea-run brook trout and smelts. In the end something like 2% of the numbers of smolts that start down the rivers in May ever come back to the Miramichi as adult salmon. That number used to be closer to 10%. What happened? God only knows for sure, but various commercial fishing activities in the ocean that catch – even as bycatch – migrating salmon, and fish that the adult salmon feed on like capelin, as well as or along with climate change are all prime suspects. Here the bureaucrats in both Canada and America could be of some help if they were so inclined. Greenland didn’t even know that Atlantic salmon swam in their waters until the late 1960s, and now they claim a right to gill net them no matter the condition of the stocks. Instead of our bureaucrats telling Greenland where the bear shits in the buckwheat, we send out wardens on such useless missions as prosecuting local fishermen for releasing more than 2 salmon in a given day – if they are ever so fortunate with severely decreased stocks and required barbless hooks to catch more than 2 in one day. Appalling!
Anyway, I remember Mark Hambrook telling me after the crushing blows of DFO destroying the CAST program – to which the Canadian government had contributed millions of taxpayer dollars – that they were going to let the MSA stock fry from hatchery spawned CAST fish. Apparently, this technique was okay, because some of the objection had been that CAST fish might be spawning with wild fish on the river’s spawning grounds. Fast forward to the early fall of 2022. The first wild smolts collected in Ludlow back in the spring of 2020, and that had been growing in the MSA hatchery, were now ready to spawn. But permission to spawn these fish so that the fry could be stocked in the Miramichi the next spring was denied. Why did they go back on their word? Outrageous! It reminds me of the Wizard of Oz where with every incredibly difficult demand that Dorothy fulfilled a new and even more difficult roadblock to progress was offered up as an excuse.
I have been meaning to write both to the Premier of New Brunswick and the Minister of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and tell them that DFO’s Gulf Region’s current policies are crippling the chances of restoring the Miramichi’s run of Atlantic salmon to its past glory. I’m going to do it soon and I’ll send you a copy in hopes that if we all contribute to the conversation some changes might be made.
I’m also going to comment here on the smallmouth bass situation. As many of you know smallmouth bass were stocked illegally in Miramichi Lake more than 12 years ago. Illegal stocking is going on in many locations. There was a recent article in the Portland Maine newspaper about how rampant illegal stockings are in northern Maine. The MSA and the ASF jumped on the bandwagon immediately after the smallmouth were discovered – I remember the meeting in Boston when the illegal stocking was announced. The government – every branch of it including New Brunswick administration and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans – could or would simply not make a decision to remove the smallmouths with rotenone even though everyone knew it was the only choice. The MSA and the ASF never gave up working on the rotenone solution. Meanwhile DFO did put up an effort to keep the pot from boiling over by using various fishing methods to try to keep the bass from spreading.
The bass did spread into the river, though, and finally a rotenone solution was prescribed for both the lake and the river. Permits were gathered with great expense of time and money – much of it supplied by the government – rotenone was purchased, experts and volunteers were organized, and a date was set in 2021 to apply the rotenone. When the time came a group of First Nations women from a tribe on the western side of the Province decided to disrupt the procedure by physically blocking it. The government let it all happen and the rotenone was canceled for 2021.
The winter of 2021/2022 was spent trying to convince the opposition that the rotenone was necessary and safe. The opponents would have none of it. They simply didn’t want it, and no amount of reason was going to change their minds. They even brought in professional protestors. We know that because some of the protestor’s photographs were recognized from their protesting with the truckers in Ottawa. The MSA, ASF and supporters were ultimately successful in foiling some of the protestors and applying rotenone to a small section of the Miramichi River below the outlet from Miramichi Lake. Some two-dozen dead smallmouth bass were collected, and doubtless there were more that were never recovered. There were no negative effects apparent.
The MSA, ASF and supporters wanted to go right back and apply rotenone to the lake, but a small group of camp owners from the lake as well as the First Nations protestors blocked access to the lake. Faced with more confrontation and insufficient support from the authorities the application in the lake was abandoned for 2022. As far as I know the future of the program is now uncertain. It is widely believed that the Province of New Brunswick itself has to directly take over the advocacy role on this program for it to go forward. They haven’t been willing to do it so far, so who knows how it will go. Again, I blame the failure of this program to date on weak and indecisive action by the government. Hopefully that will change. If it doesn’t I can see no course but an organized effort to kill every Miramichi smallmouth bass that can possibly be killed. Hopefully the DFO will continue its efforts within the lake and maintain a barricade between the lake and the river. I’m also urging the MSA to look into the possibility of operating an electrofishing boat on the river. I have no illusions that such a program would rid the river of the bass, but it might keep the population so low that if the political will within the Province changes, or new techniques become available, that a more permanent solution could be implemented down the road.
Meanwhile, oblivious to all this, spawning is over on the Miramichi for the year, and the river is in the process of freezing over. Freeze up has been hampered by high water. That last raise on December 9 reached 4.25 meters, but it has since dropped back to 1.75 meters – still high but not terribly so. This will have flushed many of the kelts down into the lower section of the river and the estuary. Earlier in the week water temperature had risen to 4.3C/40F but it has now dropped back to just a hair above zero. Over the next week air temps are forecast to be at or below freezing during the day and a few degrees below freezing for the night. This is somewhat above normal, and is due to a cloudy, stormy air mass that is forecast to persist through the period. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the river fill in with ice during this coming week.
Thanks for reading. Brad Burns