New Brunswick

First striped bass commercial fishery in 20 years goes ahead on Miramichi

Eel Ground First Nation has struck the first striped bass commercial fishery deal in the Miramichi River since 1996.

Eel Ground First Nation can fish 25,000 striped bass out of the Miramichi River this fall

Wild salmon groups fear an exploding striped bass population is eating too many juvenile salmon. (Meghan Wilson, DFO)

Eel Ground First Nation has struck the first striped bass commercial fishery deal in the Miramichi River since 1996.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans put a stop to commercial fishery on the river after the bass population declined to only 5,000.

But in the past 10 years, the bass population has boomed, tripling from 2016 to 2017 to reach almost a million.

Eel Ground Chief George Ginnish said the First Nation has been fighting for a commercial fishery deal for years, finally signing an agreement in June to fish 25,000 striped bass this fall.

"It's probably been 10 years that we've been banging on that door," Ginnish said.

He said it's too soon to say how much revenue the deal will bring to the First Nation or how much the fishermen will actually be able to sell.

Eel Ground First Nation Chief George Ginnish says the community has been pushing for a striped bass commercial fishery for almost 10 years. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

However, the fishery will likely be a relatively small operation, with one vessel and four or five fishermen.

Ginnish said it's a small step, but the First Nation would rather "dip its foot in the water" before diving headfirst, not knowing what the yield is or what impact it will have on the river ecosystem.

Food insecurity

Eel Ground First Nation includes 220 households and about 600 members.

A study of food and nutrition in First Nation communities led by University of Ottawa, University of Montreal and the Assembly of First Nations found 40 per cent of Eel Ground First Nation members experience "food insecurity."

"Food insecurity basically means that you're not sure if your next meal is lined up, and that's 40 per cent of resident members," Ginnish said.

I don't think anybody is consuming it in mass quantities- George Ginnish, Eel Ground chief

Ginnish said the Eel Ground fishermen would sell the fish to a local hotel and a fishmonger out of Nova Scotia, and use the money for economic development and the community food bank.

Fish caught commercially must be 19 to 25 inches long (about 48 to 63 centimetres), he said. Other sizes that are caught, up to 200 fish, will go toward the communal freezers for members of the community.

Ginnish said he's aware of warnings telling pregnant women not to consume bass because of higher mercury levels, but he said he's not concerned for his people.

"I don't think anybody is consuming it in mass quantities," he said.

Bass and salmon: mortal enemies?

There is conflicting research about whether the striped bass boom is affecting the Atlantic salmon population in the same river.

The Atlantic Salmon Federation, a conservation group, applauded the decision to grant the fishery licence to Eel Ground. Peer reviewed research done by the federation found striped bass eat 18 percent of salmon smolts during spawning season.

Bill Taylor, the president of the Atlantic Salmon federation, said "without a shadow of a doubt," the large striped bass population is hurting salmon and crowding them out.

"It's not about trying to do damage or wipe the striped bass out at all," he said. "It's a matter of bringing an equilibrium or balance back to the Miramichi ecosystem. There are way way way too many striped bass."

But according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, "there is no evidence to support the view that striped bass have caused the overall decline of Atlantic salmon."

"In a three-year study of striped bass stomach contents, only a low proportion of stomachs contained Atlantic salmon smolts," the department says on its website.

"The number of smolts in those stomachs was also low and the timing corresponded with the peak migration period for the smolts."

The department declined to clarify or expand on the information available on the website.

On the recreational side

Jeff Wilson, co-host of the Miramichi Striper Cup, an annual catch-and-release bass fishing tournament on the river, said the decision to allow a commercial fishery makes him a "very concerned citizen with regards to striped bass recreational fishery."

Wilson said the greater numbers of bass in recent years have been "very good" for the tourism and recreational fishing industry in the area, increasing the chances amateur anglers will snag a bass on their first try.

"Making major moves like this, by taking and starting a commercial fishery, when in fact history shows this population cannot sustain it, is absolutely economic travesty," he said.

Les Ginnish, resource manager for Anqotum Resource Management — a group representing seven New Brunswick First Nations — said he doesn't believe 25,000 fish would have much impact on recreational fishing.

"We should be working together, not fighting with each other," he said.


Hadeel Ibrahim is a reporter with CBC New Brunswick based in Saint John. She's been previously awarded for a series on refugee mental health and for her work at a student newspaper, where she served as Editor-in-Chief. She reports in English and Arabic. Email: Twitter: @HadeelBIbrahim