Salmon-stocking plan for Miramichi again denied permit by DFO
CAST's controversial Miramichi River plan opposed by First Nations
For the third year in a row, federal fisheries officials have denied a New Brunswick company permission to release thousands of hatchery-raised adult salmon into the Miramichi River.
Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientists and a non-profit company called CAST have been at odds since 2017 over the merits of the restocking plan, which got underway with the capture of several thousand three-year-old salmon smolts that were then raised to adulthood in large tanks in a hatchery.
CAST, backed by J.D. Irving Ltd. co-CEO Jim Irving, wants to return the hatchery-raised fish to the river in the same place they were captured to allow them to spawn.
But in a letter to CAST dated Aug. 8 and obtained by CBC News, Sylvie Lapointe, the assistant deputy fisheries minister, said the department, while committed to Atlantic salmon conservation, continues to believe the Miramichi is not the place for this "experiment."
CAST, which stands for Collaboration for Atlantic Salmon Tomorrow, describes itself as a partnership devoted to salmon research and recovery. Glenn Cooke, CEO of Cooke Aquaculture, and Saint John businessman Brian Moore are directors, along with Irving.
CAST is collaborating with the Miramichi Salmon Association and has provided funding to the University of New Brunswick's Canadian Rivers Institute, which is also a key research partner.
DFO pressured for go-ahead
Lapointe and her staff have been under tremendous political and public pressure to give CAST a green light for its project.
In the weeks preceding the posting of the letter, DFO and its Moncton and Ottawa staff, were targeted in a series of full-page, front-section ads in the Telegraph-Journal and other Irving-owned daily newspapers.
The ads, placed by CAST, have dismissed staff at Fisheries and Oceans as "bureaucrats," with no plan to reverse the decline of wild Atlantic salmon in the Miramichi River system.
They accuse the federal department and the Atlantic Salmon Association — a long-established conservation group — of working together to block CAST's marquee project, known as "smolt to adult supplementation," or SAS.
Salmon numbers in the river system have declined in recent years. Returns numbered just 27,000 in 2018, well below conservation levels.
CAST works with scientists
A recent CAST newspaper ad claimed the project had assembled the "largest team of research scientists in Canada to address the decline of Miramichi salmon."
Both Fisheries and Oceans and the Atlantic Salmon Federation maintain the population overall is not yet at crisis levels, and there is no need for potentially very risky interventions.
But it's the science behind the project and a lack of consultation with First Nations that most concern federal officials
Lapointe's letter cites, among other records, a 2016 DFO report that refers to "adaptive genetic changes" that can occur rapidly, even within a single generation, to fish raised in an artificial environment.
"DFO has a responsibility to consider all the benefits and risks of this type of work on the wild Atlantic salmon population," Lapointe said.
First Nations have concerns
First Nations groups in the Miramichi area are also opposed to the stocking plan, citing a lack of consultation with them and similar concerns about potential genetic effects on wild fish.
Copies of Lapointe's letter were sent to James Irving, Glenn Cooke, Brian Moore, New Brunswick's members of Parliament, all provincial MLAs, and Premier Blaine Higgs, who has advocated at senior levels for the CAST project in Ottawa.
The Fisheries and Oceans decision raises questions about the fate of as many as 13,000 captive adult salmon now being held in the South Esk hatchery.
Lapointe suggests the salmon could be useful for experiments on thermal tolerance and recovery. Another option, she said, is to release "not reproductively viable" salmon, equipped with acoustic tags, at sea to assess movement and mortality.
In an email statement to CBC, the executive director of CAST said he was "very disappointed" the department doesn't support the project, and he accused it of showing no "real leadership."
"Currently, there are no legitimate scientists opposed to the CAST SAS plan, and many are actually very supportive," said Andrew Willett, who is also a manager with J.D. Irving.
Willett did not respond to questions about the future of the stocking plan or what will now happen to the fish being held in the South Esk hatchery.
But Willett said the government's position "defies common sense," so CAST will regroup to find a way forward for the project.