New Brunswick

Mi'kmaq chiefs blast both sides in Miramichi salmon-stocking controversy

Mi'kmaq chiefs are the latest to weigh in on a growing controversy over an ill-fated attempt to stock adult salmon in the Miramichi River.

'A massive, massive oversight,' group says of failure to consult First Nations about thwarted project

Under the CAST program, three-year old Atlantic salmon were captured then raised to adults in a hatchery. They were to be released into Miramichi tributaries this fall to spawn. (CBC)

Mi'kmaq chiefs are the latest to weigh in on a growing controversy over an ill-fated attempt to stock adult salmon in the Miramichi River.

The plan to place more than 600 eight-pound salmon in two Miramichi tributaries came to a screeching halt in late September after Fisheries and Oceans Canada denied the program a permit to proceed.

To undertake this huge a project without consulting the first people that live here and rely on that fish to survive would seem to us to be a massive, massive oversight.- George  Ginnish ,  Mi'gmawe'l   Tplu'taqnn  Incorporated

The project earlier saw three-year-old wild salmon smolt collected from rivers while on their way to the sea. 

The fish have been raised to adults in a hatchery and were to be released early this fall into the same rivers to spawn.

Fisheries spokesperson cited lack of peer review and concerns that First Nations had not been allowed "meaningful participation and consent," for the decision to stop CAST, an acronym for a public/private partnership involving, among others, J.D. Irving Ltd., Cooke Aqua, the Miramichi Salmon Association, and UNB from releasing the fish.

On Tuesday, Chief George Ginnish, co-chair of Mi'gmawe'l Tplu'taqnn Incorporated, an organization representing Mi'kmaq in the province, slammed both the CAST plan for the Miramichi and Fisheries' handling of the issue.

"To undertake this huge a project without consulting the first people that live here and rely on that fish to survive would seem to us to be a massive, massive oversight," Ginnish said.

Ginnish was also critical of the Fisheries Department's decision to allow CAST to collect the salmon smolt in the first place.

CAST seeks direction

The federal department's decision also provoked a blunt, unsigned "open letter" under CAST letterhead published on page 3 of the Saturday Telegraph-Journal.

The letter criticized what it called the Fisheries Department's "mixed messages and last-minute rejection" of the plan, which had been in the works for more than two years.

The letter asks the department for "clear direction" within 30 days on how the CAST program can proceed.

The CAST project has received $4.7 million from ACOA and the New Brunswick government.

In further comments Tuesday night, CAST executive director Andrew Willett said the organization is frustrated with Fisheries and Oceans and has no quarrel with Chief Ginnish and First Nations. 

He said CAST has held over a dozen meetings with First Nations since July 2015.

"We were surprised to hear the lack of peer review was an issue for our permit from DFO," said Willett. "In July of 2017, CAST and DFO agreed that the next peer review would take place in the fall of 2017."

Despite the halting of CAST's Miramichi project, Parks Canada was allowed to proceed on Oct. 11 with its plans to stock adult fish in the Upper Salmon River, which flows into the Bay of Fundy and has all but lost its original wild salmon population.

Federation has doubts

In another twist, it has been revealed the Atlantic Salmon Federation, a major voice in conservation of wild Atlantic Salmon, quietly withdrew from the CAST partnership in January after expressing concerns about releasing hatchery-raised fish into the Miramichi.

On Tuesday, spokesperson Neville Crabbe said not enough is known about how the fish would react with other fish and with the environment.

"There's very little known about it to the point of determining whether it would be effective or harmful in a case like this,"  Crabbe said.

"We still feel that the Miramichi River is simply not the place for this type of an experiment."