New Brunswick

Contentious salmon stocking plan can't happen without First Nations support: scientist

A University of New Brunswick scientist working on a contentious Miramichi salmon stocking program admits it cannot proceed without backing of First Nations groups.

'It is integral that First Nations agree,' says UNB scientist

The proposed smolt to adult (SAS) stocking program could stall again in 2019 if First Nations remain skeptical. (CBC)

A University of New Brunswick scientist working on a contentious Miramichi salmon stocking program admits it cannot proceed without backing of First Nations groups.

And there appears little likelihood of that happening, with Eel Ground Chief George Ginnish calling it a "non-starter."

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., Glenn Cooke of Cooke Aquaculture and Saint John businessman Brian Moore.

It is working in partnership with the Miramichi Salmon Association and the Canadian Rivers Institute at UNB on the proposal to stock thousands of adult salmon in the river.

After twice being rejected, the CAST organization is applying for the third time to get permission from Fisheries and Oceans Canada to stock the fish, which were captured as three-year-old smolts in the river and raised to adults in a hatchery environment. 

That spares the fish from an ocean migration where most would likely die from seal predation or other dangers.

The plan, dubbed "smolt to adult supplementation" (SAS) would see the fish released into the river at the same place where they were captured, in order to spawn.

Salmon numbers in the river system have declined in recent years. Returns numbered just 27,000 in 2018, well below conservation levels.  

Chief George Ginnish of Eel Ground First Nation says proceeding with the stocking project would be a "massive" violation of aboriginal and treaty rights. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

Earlier this month, Andrew Willett, a JDI manager and executive director of CAST, said plans to release the fish had not changed and the organization remains optimistic it will get a permit to move ahead.

But the adult stocking proposal remains controversial with concerns the fish, who have spent half their lives in a hatchery environment and not endured the hazards of an ocean journey, may weaken the overall salmon population when they breed into it.

While salmon population numbers are low, said Ginnish, there is no immediate danger of collapse.

"The science isn't there," said Ginnish, who is also co-chair of Mi'gmawe'l Tplu'taqnn Incorporated, an organization representing several Mi'kmaq First Nations in the province.

"If they think that's the Hail Mary, that's going to save the salmon, we disagree."

Ginnish said for thousands of years the river salmon have been important culturally as well as a vital food fishery for the Mi'kmaq. 

He said if the project was to proceed without approval from First Nations, it would be a "massive" violation of aboriginal and treaty rights.

"We would fight them with all that we can fight them with," he said. "It's an insult to us, the people on the river. And if it's about a group not from the Miramichi wanting to do what they want with our river, then I think we would have a lot of allies as well that would feel the same way."

UNB scientist Tommi Linnansaari says, 'First Nations are right holders.' (Rob Blanchard UNB)

UNB scientist Tommi Linnansaari, research coordinator for the SAS project and a passionate supporter, said there is no way it would proceed without First Nations approval.

"If the science is understood and a person of a community has an opinion, then we're certainly not in a position to push this on anybody's face," said Linnansaari. "This is a part where those people have to be part of the dialogue and make a decision based on that.

"First Nations are right holders. They are the group that live in the community, they use the salmon both for their sustenance but also for cultural reasons. It is integral that the First Nations agree with this strategy of enhancement."

In both 2017 and 2018, CAST pushed unsuccessfully to get federal approval, going so far as to purchase a full ad entitled "open letter" that was directed at the Fisheries and Oceans Canada in the provincial Telegraph-Journal newspaper.

In a statement last week, DFO said there are no meetings scheduled with CAST.


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