Striped bass population drops sharply in Gulf of St. Lawrence
DFO warned of 'huge natural fluctuations' that could put species on endangered list
The spawning population of striped bass in the Gulf of St. Lawrence plunged in 2018, ending a remarkable run of sustained growth over the past decade, according to a newly released update from Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
The average estimate is now about 333,000, down from 900,000 in 2017.
DFO's analysis notes its 2018 estimates vary widely from a low of 154,000 spawners to a high of 623,000.
'Very rough winters'
So why has the population of striped bass fallen?
"Potentially it may be linked to the last few winters. Since 2017, it's been very rough winters," said Martin Mallet, a biologist and executive director of the Maritime Fishermen's Union.
Mallet told the standing committee on Fisheries and Oceans this week it will be interesting to see what kind of impact this winter has on the population.
"It froze up in November in Miramichi Bay this year — the earliest in 10 years," he said.
Jeff Wilson, who also testified before the committee, warned the striped bass population could be in serious trouble if the trend continues.
"This population is the most northerly population. It is susceptible to huge natural fluctuations like we saw last year," said Wilson, founder of the Miramichi Striper Cup, a popular striped bass tournament that has grown as the population rebounded.
"In 1995, we lost two-thirds. That happened last year," he said. "If we lose two-thirds this year, we are down to endangered species level."
Small commercial fishery
Last fall, with striper populations on the rise, DFO approved a 25,000-fish pilot commercial fishery for the Eel Ground First Nation in New Brunswick.
It was the first commercial fishery since 1996 when the spawning population hit a low at around 5,000.
Wilson recognized Indigenous rights to first access, but he cautioned against a commercial fishery.
"The scaling up of a commercial fishery to the numbers that would make it viable, this population will never sustain over a long period of time," he said.
In the summer of 2017, stripers migrated far north of their home waters in Miramichi Bay, reaching the Quebec north shore and the Labrador coast.
"The combined fishing and natural mortality on striped bass that migrated further north in 2017 is unknown but believed to be significant," DFO said in its update.