This is the first of two blogs that I intend to get out in the fairly near future. This first one is largely to bring you up to date on what the experts that I’m talking to believe is going on with the salmon population of the Miramichi, and what needs to be done about it. I’m also going to kick off the Miramichi Salmon Association US fundraising season by letting you know about a Christmas auction that we are holding with a limited number of special items.
The second blog, probably to follow in a week or so, has a letter that I am sending to The Honorable Diane Lebouthillier, the new minister of Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Like last year, when I wrote the previous minister Joyce Murray, I’m going to suggest/ask that you write this lady too. More on that in the next blog.
First, just for review, let’s talk again about how the Miramichi salmon season went. To say that the Miramichi’s 2023 salmon fishing could have been better is a considerable understatement, but still it did have its good moments. The run of fish that we experienced on the SW in late June seemed decent. I can tell you that I remember some late June fishing back in the early 2000s when there were not as many fish consistently available as there were in 2023. Whenever the water got down to a level when the fish would hold up long enough to get a cast over them we had decent catches. There were also some good days in mid and late summer too, in fact that part of the season was statistically a little better than most recent years. Rip Cunningham e-mailed me from Black Brook in late August, telling me that while it wasn’t quite like the good old days, fishing was pretty good.
The Miramichi fall run on both branches, however, was much weaker than the summer run – that’s actually a really big understatement. Clearly most of the fish that did return to the Miramichi in 2023 came in to the river early on the constant flow of high water. That was especially evident on rivers like the Cains where fish were regularly caught 18 miles up the river at Muzzerol in July. Most years that area doesn’t see any salmon until September. Still, the overall trap numbers – Millerton and Cassilis – for the entire season – along with personal observations by me and my fishing friends – indicated that the runs of salmon and grilse were far below normal. Some of that was the acknowledged high-water inefficiency of the traps, but the run in total was way down too, there is no denying it. For the most part the runs on the Gaspe and in Newfoundland were down this year also, so problems at sea didn’t help things at all.
While the trap numbers are important, we also have the barrier numbers to look at for additional verification. The Miramichi Salmon Association operates salmon barriers on both the Dungarvon River – which after merging with the Renous flows into the tidewater SW Miramichi at Quarryville – and the NW Miramichi. The barriers each sample only one small portion of both Miramichi branches, but they count every fish that swims through the barrier. This means that their counts are not subject to the interpretation required with the traps which only capture a small and variable percentage of the fish that run up the river.
In terms of salmon, the Dungarvon barrier counted 327 in 2011. In 2023 only 65 were counted. In 2011 the same barrier counted 712 grilse, and in 2023 the barrier came up with just 73. So since 2011 the Dungarvon barrier counts on salmon are down by 80%, but that’s better than grilse which are down by 90%. As terrible as those numbers are, the NW is even worse. They have gone from 298 salmon in 2011 to 50 in 2023, and grilse from 996 in 2011 to 16 in 2023. Those are declines of 83% and 98%. 98 is getting awfully close to 100! It reminds me of the countdown scene in the movie Independence Day when Jeff Goldblum, sitting on Airforce One, looks up from his laptop which is counting down to the alien invasion and says, “Times up.”
The loss of the Miramichi’s Atlantic salmon fishery seems unthinkable, but given the trend since 2011 it is possible. The world-famous Miramichi has long supported something like 90% of all salmon fishing trips taken in the Province of New Brunswick. Every year it is visited by fishers from all over the world. The importance of the Miramichi River to North American Atlantic salmon fishing simply cannot be overstated. So what can be done to stop any further decline and rebuild the run? Virtually all of the experts that we know contend that the central issue is the bloated striped bass population that is consuming unsustainably large percentages of the smolt runs in both branches of the Miramichi. When during the 1990s the striped bass population got down to an estimated 5K adults the DFO placed a complete moratorium on the fishery. The stripers sprang back, and while the fishery was closed in the early 2000s folks in-the-know were already experiencing terrific catch and release striper fishing at the mouth of the river. Salmon also were doing well in those years, proving that the two species can co-exist in some balance of reasonable abundance, and that people can enjoy good striped bass fishing in the Miramichi estuary on a lot less stripers than we have today.
When the DFO placed a moratorium on striped bass fishing they originally set a population target of 21,600 spawning bass then later increased it to 31,200. The bass population reached approximately 100,000 adults in 2010, and DFO biologist Gerald Chaput later stated that “the years when Striped Bass
spawner abundances exceeded approximately 100 thousand spawners corresponded to years with visibly lower estimated survival rates for salmon smolts.”
Estimates of the current striped bass population are thought to be between 300K and 1M. That is 3 to 10 times the level that Chaput said began to cause visibly lower smolt survival! Also, striped bass meaningfully impact all the other anadromous fish in the Miramichi such as smelts, gaspereau and sea run brook trout. Anecdotally they are also affecting the lobster fishery.
It seems clear that the striped bass population must be greatly reduced, and then kept at or below the 100,000 fish level. The striped bass fishing devotees will complain about this, but we aren’t asking for the 600,000 salmon the Miramichi system hosted in 1965. We are just asking for both populations – along with other anadromous fish – to maintain a reasonable population balance as they did as recently as the 2010 time frame.
John Bagnall with the New Brunswick Salmon Council created a great model that illustrates the effects of striped bass predation and several other relevant variables on the Atlantic salmon population of the Miramichi. Here is how the model shows that things looked on the Miramichi prior to the striper glut, in about 2011, when we had 71% of the smolts making it out to sea. You can see in Row 9 that we had a run of some 65K salmon and grilse. (# of Adults, Row 9) This left a surplus of some 18K salmon to absorb things like poaching, FN harvest and catch and release mortality, and hopefully to provide more eggs for the population to continue to grow. This era was what some of my friends now refer to as the “recent good old days.”
Here, unfortunately, is how things looked in 2022. They are much worse now. The run in the NW is in serious, immediate danger of extirpation. You can see in this spreadsheet that I have used a melded rate of 19.5% to describe smolt survival from the bass over the whole river. In 2022 it was 4% on the NWM and 27% on the SWM. I blended them to 19.5% using the respective habitat areas of each branch. When you run these data points you drop to a run of 10.6K salmon (down 85% from 65K) and you are then 18K shy of the individual fish needed to keep the population from sliding further. We are at least one year beyond what is portrayed in this illustration because we have been at these terrible levels of smolt mortality for the last two seasons. It is possible that any or all of the variables in the model can change, sometimes by quite a lot – things like sea survival, smolt mortality through the estuary, any of several aspects of egg to smolt survival – but the numbers I’ve used in this model illustration are either the latest data or time proven statistics from the Miramichi watershed.
There is a considerable danger in the salmon population getting too low, and part of that danger is a phenomenon called the Allee Effect. This bit of science dating back to the 1930s says that when population levels become too low it creates problems in an animal population. In salmon it could be too few smolts migrating to winter feeding grounds and losing the inherent security of moving en masse. Too few individuals can also make it difficult for salmon to find a mate. A population of only a few hundred individuals may be able to survive in a small Gaspe river with only a couple hundred yards of spawning gravel to populate, but in a comparatively immense system like the Miramichi where salmon can spawn in stretches of suitable gravel that run for many miles, the salmon may simply not be able to find others to mate with or even precocious parr to satisfy the male component. The Miramichi River needs to maintain a sizeable run of salmon, and the lodges, public pools and individual camps located throughout the 5,000 square mile watershed depend on a thriving salmon population too.
Are there other factors effecting the Miramichi that could be responsible for this decline instead of the bass? The answer is that there are other factors affecting the success of the salmon, but that does not change the catastrophic effect that the bass are having on the outgoing smolts. For one thing the smolts are being electronically tagged and monitored as they run down the river to the ocean. They do fine until they hit the areas of bass concentration, and then they are eaten. What about forestry practices, climate change, human development, low survival in the ocean? I stand by an earlier comment that not much other than the numbers of bass has changed in recent years. There are negative effects from all of these things, but they are considered by the biologists I know to be relatively minor, and they are little changed since we were doing well just 15 years ago.
Is warm water a big issue? Antóin O’Sullivan earned his PhD from UNB a few years back and has specialized in just this issue. He has uncovered some fascinating and important information about how salmon react to warming water. In doing his work he has studied water levels and temperature trends in the Miramichi since 1870 – the last 149 years. Some of what he found is included in the graphs below. I was struck by two things. First, the average high temperature for the summer has risen a grand total of .7 degrees C in the last century and a half. If you look at Sullivan’s graphics below you will also see that since the 1940s there has been essentially no change in June and July temps and only a very modest rise in August. In large part August is a much cooler month anyway, so that doesn’t seem to be much of an issue at all.
In another report written by Nova Scotian Mike Dadswell PhD he says that in Caesar’s time in Rome there were plenty of salmon acknowledged by the literature of the day. Temperatures then were 2.5C higher than they are today. Dadswell – from whom I have a handwritten 1980s letter about Canadian striped bass in my files – lays the overall salmon decline on what he calls IUU or Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated commercial fishing on the high seas. That may well be an important factor effecting all salmon populations. They are all in some state of decline, but no other river in Atlantic Canada has been hit anything like the Miramichi which previous to the bass explosion had stood very tall in the salmon world.
Will simply reducing the numbers of bass restore the Miramichi’s Atlantic salmon? Theoretically it should over time, but how much time? How much is the Miramichi already suffering from the Allee Effect? The only way to bring the bass population down quickly is to restore the commercial fishery and open it up starting in the spring of 2024. Having First Nations be the only allowed harvester isn’t going to work. Their quota of 50,000 striped bass annually has not been met in 5 years of having it available. Make the new quota a substantial one and allow the gaspereau netters throughout the Miramichi Bay and estuary to participate. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to do so? They already have the necessary gear and set locations, and there is a big, established market available in Boston. The fishery would be very lucrative. Alternatively, the bass would make a great supply of fresh native fish for the local NB populous.
An expanded commercial fishery is the only way to bring the current bass population down to the recommended level of 100,000 spawners, and it needs to happen in 2024.
An important part of the solution, according to all of the top salmon biologists that I am talking to is to supplement the Miramichi’s salmon population with the stocking of fry. There is a very clear track record of success with this technique. It was done in a big way on the Miramichi for well over 100 years, years when the Miramichi consistently had some of the greatest salmon runs in the world and the river was lined with outfitters and recreational salmon fishers.
With the runs down as they now are the broodstock utilized must be individuals gathered as wild smolts and grown to adulthood in the hatchery. Studies like this English study show that hatchery fry stocking technique will produce more than twice as many adult returns from the same number of eggs when compared to wild spawning. The stocked fry will live completely naturally and wild in the river for two years before smolting so their chances of going to sea and coming back as adults should be as good as the wild spawned smolts.
The Miramichi is still producing a diminished but reasonable number of wild smolts. At this point it is still possible to procure the needed numbers of these wild smolts and raise them in a hatchery. Actually a thousand female smolts – the river is producing hundreds of thousands – grown to adulthood would produce about 6M eggs which would eventually create about 12,000 adult salmon returns. This would be without consequence to the wild run because between the bass and survival at sea only about 4 percent would ever have made it back to the Miramichi anyway. What a plus that would be. This and even more needs to be done, and it needs to be done immediately! Bear with me for a letter to the new minister in a week or two.
Here are a couple of other announcements:
“Brookfield dams are degrading cherished and environmentally significant Rumford Falls, Aziscohos, and Ripogenus fisheries through their dewatering and peaking generation practices. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has given them a license to kill. Renewed licenses will be in effect for the next 40 years. Your opportunity is to seize this moment and fund our fight through a Legal Defense Fund. With your help, we can ensure these fisheries’ future. Please send your contribution to Maine TU Council, C/O Steve Heinz, 3 Spruce Lane, Cumberland Foreside ME 04110. Trout Unlimited is a 501(c)(3) organization.”
Thanks for reading. Brad Burns