DNA testing on Atlantic salmon in two P.E.I. rivers has revealed these fish could be from an ancient strain that isn't found anywhere else.

salmon in P.E.I. river

An adult salmon in Cross River in 2014. (P.E.I. Wildlife Federation)

The discovery comes at a time when salmon stocks in the Maritimes are in a dramatic decline, but populations in eastern P.E.I. have been going up.            

Fred Cheverie, area watershed coordinator with the P.E.I. Wildlife Federation, has spent decades protecting Atlantic salmon stocks in rivers in the Souris area.       

Cheverie sent away the fish for DNA sampling as part of a massive study of Atlantic salmon.       

"It's the first good news story for Atlantic salmon in the last 300 years."- Scott Roloson

A fish geneticist at Laval University tested 10,000 fish from 150 rivers in the region.      

Cheverie says the geneticist discovered something unique in the salmon from eastern P.E.I.

"And they found that the cluster of fish from Atlantic Canada was very closely related except two in North Lake and Cross River, the two in our section," said Cheverie.

"So we believe that we have the true ancestral strain of Atlantic salmon living in our rivers."

Tracking migration route

Unlike most salmon rivers on P.E.I., the two rivers in the Souris watershed were never restocked with salmon from the Miramichi, says Cheverie.  

The Miramichi fish return in the summer, but the ancient salmon don't return to the Souris area until late fall.

salmon research in North Lake P.E.I.

Crews setting the net for Atlantic salmon research project this spring in P.E.I.'s North Lake Creek. (P.E.I. Wildlife Federation)

"Maybe our approach to restocking salmon is wrong," said Cheverie.

"Maybe this is when fish intended to return to Prince Edward Island in late fall. If we can find more information about our fish, then it probably could answer a lot of questions for other fish in other rivers in the Maritime provinces."

Cheverie is working with a team of biologists, including Scott Roloson from the Canadian Rivers Institute.

"It's the first good news story for Atlantic salmon in the last 300 years."

The plan is to put acoustic tags on the so-called ancestral salmon to track their migration route when they leave P.E.I.          

Depending on what scientists find out, these salmon may someday be used to restock other rivers

The other partners working on the research project include the University of Prince Edward Island, the Canadian Rivers Institute, the Atlantic Salmon Federation, P.E.I. Fish and Wildlife, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Mi'kmaq Confederacy and the Abegweit First Nation.