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Original Issue

A heartening prognosis for salmon

After having been given up for lost by pessimists, the patient shows signs of rallying. While conditions have temporarily improved, constant attention is advised for at least the next five years.

So might read a bulletin on the health of the Atlantic salmon in the rivers of eastern Canada. According to Gary Turner, a senior biologist in salmon research for the Canadian Fisheries and Marine Service in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the runs this year are at about the same levels as last, which were up over recent years as the result of eliminating nets along certain parts of the coast. In mid-July Bill Boyd, owner-operator of Boyd's Fishing Lodge on the Miramichi at Blackville, New Brunswick, said, "Over the last 10 days 75% of our guests have taken their limit of two fish a day. The largest salmon taken so far is 14 pounds, and the average is eight to 12 pounds. We expect a fine season, up to last year's."

In Quebec, Jean-Paul Dubé of New Carlisle, the provincial coordinator of salmon fishing for the Department of Tourism, Fish and Game, says: "July fishing was better than last year's. Now I am trying to interest anglers in August, when all our Gaspé rivers fish well. We have openings on the Matapédia, the St. Anne in Gaspesian Park, the Matane, the Cap Chat and the Little Cascapédia. On the Little Cascapédia, the fishing is much improved over what it has been."

Such cheering news did not seem likely as recently as 1971 when Canadian salmon stocks were in swift decline. In North America, the Atlantic salmon historically ranged as far south as the Housatonic River in Connecticut. But with the spread of industrialization, viable salmon runs were sustained only in eastern Canada. Although these, too, were gradually being threatened, it was not until the early '60s that conservationists began to be really alarmed. In 1958 commercial fishermen had discovered a major feeding ground of salmon in the northeast Atlantic, in Davis Strait off the southwest coast of Greenland. The fish taken were mostly from rivers in Canada and Great Britain, but the commercial fishermen, who were largely from Denmark, exploited the find to such an extent that the catch rose from 132,000 pounds in 1960 to 5.7 million in 1971. Concurrent with this ominous development, the catch in Canadian home waters slumped by almost half.

The first stirrings of protest against the high seas fishing came from the Atlantic Salmon Association in Montreal. Soon U.S. conservation groups, most notably the Committee for the Atlantic Salmon Emergency, launched a campaign of their own and talked of a boycott against Danish goods. Following Senate passage in December 1971 of a bill authorizing the President to restrict imports of nations whose fishing operations "diminish the effectiveness of an international fishery conservation program," the Danes decided to talk turkey on salmon, and in February 1972, the U.S. Government, which had been working on restoration of salmon runs in New England rivers, reached a bilateral agreement with Denmark. There were two key provisions: 1) the high seas fishery is to phase out and end completely by Dec. 31, 1975; 2) native Greenland fishermen will be allowed to catch up to 1,100 metric tons of salmon annually, but starting in 1976 this fishery must be confined to within 12 miles of Greenland's coast.

Two months after the U.S.-Danish agreement, Jack Davis, the Canadian Minister of Fisheries, proclaimed a total ban on commercial salmon fishing in New Brunswick. Davis also banned the extensive drift net fishery off Port aux Basques in Newfoundland; 80% of the salmon caught there were migrating to spawning rivers in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec. The no-netting ban will be reevaluated in five years: meanwhile the Canadian government has paid more than $2 million in compensation to commercial fishermen for loss of income. Angling continues on a highly regulated basis because a salmon taken on the fly generates many times more money for the economy than does a netted fish. A few weeks after Davis acted, Quebec prohibited commercial fishing in the Gaspé.

Commercial fishing continues elsewhere in Newfoundland, and in Nova Scotia and on the north shore of Quebec, but the ban in New Brunswick and Gaspé waters has resulted in far greater numbers of salmon returning to their home rivers. In New Brunswick the angling catch almost doubled, from 19,295 fish in 1971 to 32,119 in 1972. And on some Gaspé rivers it just about tripled. For instance, on the Matapédia the angling catch was 1,112 fish as compared to only 370 in 1971, while on the Restigouche the take jumped from 447 to 2,120. Interestingly, with the ban on commercial fishing the price of salmon has gone from $1.25 to $2 a pound, and poaching has become a big problem. Wilfred M. Carter of the International Atlantic Salmon Foundation says, "Poaching is far more serious than most people think, and it will be until the penalties are more severe. Now the penalties are at the discretion of the magistrate, and the courts are too often lenient."

In an effort to augment the runs on Canadian rivers, eight salmon hatcheries are now in operation. Running a salmon hatchery is a far chancier business than raising trout. Just below the 600,000-kilowatt Mactaquac hydroelectric dam on the St. John River in New Brunswick, the Canadian government runs the largest salmon-rearing station in the world. It is big enough to raise three million trout a year, but salmon demand far more tender loving care, and annual production is limited to 250,000 salmon smolts—2-year-old fish that are released directly into the St. John each spring to migrate to sea. Of these quarter of a million smolts, fewer than 3% (7,500) return from the Atlantic. "Young salmon are very susceptible to psychological shock," says Chris Frantsi, fish-disease biologist at the Mactaquac station. "Walk near trout in a hatchery pond and they'll follow you around waiting to be fed. Salmon won't do this; they'll retreat to the other side. They never become accustomed to people. If I visit a salmon hatchery where certain ponds have high mortalities and the fish are in poor condition, I will more than likely find that these are the ponds with the most visitors. We no longer allow tourists to go through our hatchery, and we are attempting to simulate natural conditions."

Even with good quality smolts, hatchery fish still pose a problem when stocked in non-native river systems. If these rivers were not beset by the problems of dams or pollution (and the Atlantic salmon is a very fastidious fish), the fact remains, Carter points out, that "Each salmon river appears to have its own strain, with substrains in tributaries. This is partly genetic and partly environmental. The migratory pattern is at least in part hereditary. When the Connecticut River salmon runs ended, we not only lost a salmon river but the strains of salmon that were adapted to that particular river system. If salmon are to return to the Connecticut River, or any other river where they formerly were, you have to decide what kind of a stock you are going to use. You simply can't stock salmon taken from one river in another river because salmon used to be there. We need broad spectrum progeny that are capable of adapting to a new river. Otherwise we will continue to fail."

In line with this thinking, the International Atlantic Salmon Foundation, the Huntsman Marine Laboratory in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, and all the official Canadian and U.S. agencies are cooperating in a program centered around a new North American Salmon Research Center. The foundation is attempting to raise $2.4 million needed to build a hatchery on Chamcook Creek in St. Andrews. Dr. John Calaprice, an outstanding fish geneticist, has been hired as director, and the first fish should be ready for release in test streams by the spring of 1976.

Meantime, the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife released 50,000 smolts into tributaries of the Connecticut River this spring. Despite Carter's apprehension it is a start. As a matter of fact, even now it is possible to fish for salmon in several Maine rivers, notably the Machias, Penobscot, Sheepscot, Dennys and Narraguagus, where remnant runs are being nursed back to size. True, the runs are not large—137 salmon were taken from the Narraguagus last year—but the catches would be higher except for one very peculiar problem. "People have forgotten how to fish for salmon," says Phil Andrews, a biologist for the state of Maine. "They've forgotten where the lies are, where the fish hold. The fish are there to fish for, but the traditions of fishing have to be reestablished."