Group led by Irving, Cooke not giving up on Miramichi salmon stocking program

Proponents of a plan to stock adult salmon in the Miramichi River will make another attempt this year to win approval for the project from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

CAST proposal stalled in 2017, 2018 amid DFO concerns

The CAST plan would see salmon smolt captured in the Miramichi, raised to adults in a hatchery, then returned to the spot in the river where they were captured to spawn. (CBC)

Proponents of a plan to stock adult salmon in the Miramichi River will make another attempt this year to win approval for the project from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. 

CAST, which stands for Collaboration for Atlantic Salmon Tomorrow, is a New Brunswick registered company chaired by James Irving, co-CEO of J.D. Irving Ltd., with Glenn Cooke of Cooke Aquaculture and Saint John businessman Brian Moore listed as fellow directors.

CAST has been working with the Miramichi Salmon Association and has helped fund salmon research at the University of New Brunswick's Canadian Rivers Institute.

The project saw three-year-old salmon captured from the river and raised to adults over the next three years in a hatchery.

The plan is to return the fish to the river in the same place they were captured to allow them to spawn.

Salmon numbers in the river system have declined in recent years. Those travelling to and from the ocean face threats from a rapidly growing striped bass population as well as from seals and other sources.

Returns numbered just 27,000 in 2018, well below conservation levels.

The project — dubbed SAS, or smolt to adult supplementation — was stalled, at least temporarily, when DFO refused to issue permits in both 2017 and 2018 following complaints from Miramichi-area First Nations about lack of consultation and questions about the science behind the project.

But CAST and its supporters are not giving up.

CAST and its supporters aren't giving up on their project to return partially hatchery-raised salmon back to the Miramichi river. (Shutterstock)

"Nothing has changed with our project. We have approximately 13,000 salmon in the MSA hatchery that are planned for release over the next three years," said Andrew Willett, CAST's executive director. "We remain optimistic there is a path forward to proceed with this important Atlantic salmon conservation project."

During the lengthy period in the South Esk hatchery, just outside of Miramichi, the salmon are spared the hardening of a lengthy ocean journey and — for the vast majority — an untimely death.

Opposition to plan

Opponents of the adult stocking program say the period in the ocean ensures only the strongest fish return to the river to breed.

They fear without that natural selection process the storied Miramichi salmon population will be weakened overall when fish who have never been tested by a sea journey are allowed to breed in.

The issue pits those who feel the Miramichi salmon population will bounce back over time without interference, against those who hold that without the introduction of the partially hatchery-raised fish the river's entire population will collapse.

Willett said controlled experiments with 40 SAS fish released in 2017 were a success. 

"They spawned in the fall of 2017 and their progeny (year one salmon fry) were observed in the spring of 2018. In the fall of 2018, we released both SAS and wild fish and observed normal spawning behaviour between the SAS and wild fish," said Willett.

"We are optimistic that as we answer concerns regarding genetics, we can move this project forward."  

The experiments are unlikely to erase all concerns about the suitability of the addition of partially hatchery-raised fish to the Miramichi population.

The Atlantic Salmon Federation is among those who have raised concerns.

Norwegian hatchery fish not faring well

A lot of research has taken place in Norway, where a variety of stocking methods — including smolt to adult supplementation — are employed to increase the salmon populations in about 60 different rivers.

"Generally, the hatchery fish is doing worse than the wild, naturally produced fish, from smolt to returning adults," said Sten Karlsson, a scientist with the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research.

Sten Karlsson of Norwegian Institute for Nature Research says the project 'could have a negative effect on the overall wild population.' (Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA))

"When you keep the fish in a hatchery you have them in an artificial environment, and therefore unintentionally you could do selection for some traits that is favourable in the hatchery but not so in nature. You don't want to do that. That could have a negative effect on the overall wild population."

While DFO has been reluctant to approve the release of the adult salmon over the past two years, it is unclear whether that will change in 2019.

In a statement, Keegan Eatman, a DFO communications officer , said the federal department remains "supportive of CAST's goals."

"The Department is investing in science and will continue to work with partners, including CAST, Indigenous peoples, recreational anglers and other stakeholder groups, to support initiatives that will promote the recovery of Atlantic salmon populations," said Eatman.            

Chief George Ginnish of Eel Ground has been outspoken in about what he regards as a lack of proper consultation by CAST with First Nations groups. 

He could not be reached for comment this week.

About the Author

Connell Smith

Reporter

Connell Smith is a reporter with CBC in Saint John. He can be reached at 632-7726 Connell.smith@cbc.ca

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