Nova Scotia

Atlantic salmon numbers up from record lows of 2014, but still struggling

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans survey says the so-called king of fish is still struggling.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans survey says salmon returns lower than in 2015

DFO warns any long-term comeback is limited by the fact so many salmon die once they leave their home rivers. (CBC)

Atlantic salmon numbers are up from the dismal lows seen in 2014 in Maritime rivers on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, according to the 2016 stock status report released by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

But the so-called king of fish is still struggling.

"Returns of salmon in 2016 were generally lower than in 2015 but improved from the low values of 2012 to 2014 in most rivers," the department concluded.

The report also noted wide variations in the size of salmon seen in the rivers and the reproduction occurring in them.

It also warns any long-term comeback is limited because so many salmon die once they leave their home rivers.

"In New Brunswick the trend overall is one of variability, year-to-year fluctuations on the rivers and the tributaries. But the long-term picture is that many populations throughout the Gulf of St. Lawrence are still at or near their historic lows," said Neville Crabbe of the Atlantic Salmon Federation.

How the big New Brunswick rivers did 

The region's most closely monitored salmon river, the Restigouche, illustrates the variability seen in 2016.

Last year its main stem hit 129 per cent of conservation requirements, meaning that enough eggs were laid by returning salmon to sustain or grow the population in the river. But its tributaries were below — in some cases well below —conservation requirements.

Overall, the Restigouche was slightly under the minimum level needed to sustain its salmon population.

The Miramichi was also variable in 2016. The southwest branch hit 108 per cent of conservation requirements while the northwest branch was at 75 per cent. 

Overall, it too was slightly under sustainability. 

Nova Scotia's 4 rivers

Nova Scotia had four Gulf salmon rivers assessed: River Philip, East River, West River and the Margaree in Cape Breton.

The good news was from the Margaree, where DFO says eggs from returning small and large salmon exceeded conservation requirements.

The conservation level was reported at 241 per cent.

Lewis Hinks, Nova Scotia director of the Atlantic Salmon Federation, said the data also shows big variations in the province.

"We're seeing returns of large salmon increasing in some rivers and small salmon decreasing and that poses some questions for us and some concerns, I guess," said Hinks.

He wonders about the impact of the weather in recent years, with extremely dry conditions in 2016 and extremely wet weather the previous years.

Hinks would like to see more hand counting and sampling of adult salmon on the Northumberland Shore of Nova Scotia.

Juveniles are assessed using electrofishing, which shoots electric current into the water, temporarily stunning fish so they can be counted.

DFO estimated abundance in Nova Scotia based on the 20 per cent of licence stubs returned by anglers as of February 2017.

"It's kind of important in our mind to have a better handle of the makeup of the population and how many fish are really returning," Hinks said.

On the three mainland rivers, DFO estimated catch rates of small salmon, known as grilse, dropped compared to 2015.

Large salmon catches were estimated to be down in the West River and River Philip while the East River in Pictou County was slightly higher. 

P.E.I. also has salmon

On Prince Edward Island, DFO reported conservation requirements improved in half the rivers compared to 2015, and salmon are thriving in the northeast tip of PEI.

Elsewhere in the province, salmon are doing poorly, DFO said. 

"Most of the smaller systems are not surveyed every year, which makes evaluation of short-term status trends difficult. Salmon are considered to be at risk of extirpation in several rivers where spawning appears to occur in intermittent years," the report states.


Paul Withers


Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.