An international conservation organization is warning that large Atlantic salmon could suffer the same devastating collapse as the cod stocks off Newfoundland unless Canada steps up protection efforts and sets a good example for other nations.
The Atlantic Salmon Federation says it's especially concerned that fishermen in Greenland have expressed an interest in resuming a commercial fishery next year for the first time in a decade, despite science that suggests there are too few salmon to support a harvest of any kind.
Large Atlantic salmon, known as two-sea winter salmon, can spend several winters feeding off the coast of Greenland before returning to spawn in North American rivers.
The federation worries that unless Canada is proactive it will be hard to convince Greenland to continue opting out of a commercial fishery for conservation's sake.
"They're not happy with not just the science but also the fact that other nations throughout the North Atlantic, including Canada, continue to harvest far too many fish," federation president Bill Taylor said in an interview from St. Andrews, N.B. "It's a matter of practising what we preach."
Taylor said representatives from the federation will express their concerns at the annual meeting of the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization from June 4-6 in Ilulissat, Greenland.
NASCO is made up of countries where the species is known to spawn or migrate, including Canada, the United States and Denmark, which represents Greenland and the Faroe Islands.
Fishery has ballooned: federation
Since 2003, the organization has been successful in reaching an agreement with Greenland to limit its salmon fishery to internal consumption.
But the Atlantic Salmon Federation says that fishery ballooned from 12 tonnes in 2003 to 43 tonnes in 2010, or 10,000 salmon. That doesn't include an unreported harvest estimated at another 10 tonnes or 2,500 salmon.
The majority of the large salmon harvested off Greenland is believed to be of North American origin. It's also estimated that some of the salmon is from endangered populations.
Neither Canada nor the United States has commercial Atlantic salmon fisheries. Canada phased out its commercial fishery in the 1980s and '90s, though there remains limited recreational and aboriginal fisheries.
Overall, the federation says just under 11,000 large salmon were taken last year in Canada, a decline in harvest of two per cent from the previous year. Most of the salmon caught are known as grilse -- small, mostly male salmon that feed only a few hundred kilometres away from their home rivers.
'We have to listen to the scientific advice. We have to do everything possible to ensure that salmon doesn't go the way of the cod.' —Bill Taylor
The federation says the returns of large salmon to North American rivers dipped last year to its second-lowest point in 40 years. Also worrisome, it says, is the illegal and unreported catch of large salmon in Canada.
"It's not a crisis, but it could be heading in that direction," said Taylor. "We have to do what's right. We have to listen to the scientific advice. We have to do everything possible to ensure that salmon doesn't go the way of the cod."
The federal government imposed a moratorium on fishing cod in the early 1990s when the once-plentiful stocks vanished off Newfoundland, throwing some 40,000 people out of work.
Taylor said salmon stocks could "absolutely" suffer the same fate if things don't change.
Federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield was unavailable for an interview.
However, department spokesman Frank Stanek said in an email that the federal government has implemented a number of measures to protect large salmon, including closely monitoring limited recreational and First Nations fisheries.
In addition, he said the retention of large salmon in the recreational fishery in Labrador is no longer permitted.
Canada will continue to encourage Greenland to suspend its commercial harvest of Atlantic salmon at the NASCO meeting, he said.
"Canada believes that international co-operation ... is vital to ensure the sustained, long-term recovery of wild Atlantic salmon stocks."
As far as Greenland is concerned, Taylor said the federation would ultimately like to see no salmon fishery there at all. But for now, his organization is calling for the catch to be reduced to between 10 and 15 tonnes.
In Canada, Taylor said the federation is also calling for a reduction in the number of large salmon being harvested. It is also urging all aboriginal fishermen to abandon gill nets in favour of trap nets, which Taylor said would allow for the safe release of egg-bearing females.
Taylor said the federation would eventually hope to see just grilse harvested in Canada and only from rivers with a healthy population.
"I think we have a pretty good reputation around the Atlantic salmon world when it comes to salmon conservation and salmon management," he said. "But it's in no one's best interest to fish this species to extinction."