Where did they go? And why? Salmon numbers aren’t just shrinking this year, it’s like the fish are disappearing. The numbers are so low that the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans has closed all salmon rivers on the island to everything except catch and release angling, and in some areas, like Gros Morne National Park, all salmon fishing has been halted.
It’s pretty decisive action, but it’s justified when you look at the whole picture.
This will be a little heavy on numbers, but bear with us.
Looking across DFO’S counting facilities on island rivers, only one river, the Garnish, has seen more salmon this year than last. So far, the Garnish facility has counted 371 salmon, compared to 209 at this time last year. (Numbers are from Aug. 6th in 2016 and 2017.)
For other rivers, the number has either fallen, or fallen off a cliff. With the 2016 numbers first, the Exploits has gone from 22,536 salmon to 14,348; the Campbellton, down from 2,757 to 1,283. Salmon Brook? From 878 to 144. The Terra Nova River has seen returns essentially cut by half, dropping from 5,234 to 2,673. The Northeast River in Placentia? Also halved, from 786 down to 315. Conne River? What was 1,230 fish last year is just 709 this year.
And keep in mind: 2016 was not that great a year either.
Using past years’ information, DFO forecasts that total returns for the year will fall by a dramatic amount: by 60 per cent on the Exploits, and by more than 60 per cent on at least eight other rivers, with at least two showing 80 per cent to 90 per cent declines.
The “why” is a little more complicated. Salmon returning numbers are traditionally lower in years with heavy or late ice cover, and part of the province certainly had that. But the numbers are far down into ranges not seen since the commercial salmon moratorium was put in place.
DFO’S mid-season science review was stark — not only to stop retention fishing, but to stop it until things get better. “Based on the expected widespread declines in total returns of adult Atlantic salmon in the N.L. region for the past two years, it is the recommendation of science that all rivers on the island be closed to retention angling until there is evidence of improved returns.”
That will keep an estimated 30,000 salmon in rivers, and keep enough anglers on the rivers to be the eyes and ears needed to deter poachers.
It may soon be time for an even more drastic solution; if numbers don’t improve, it’s going to be hard to make a case even for hook-and-release angling.
It’s close to the point that every spawner has to have every single possibility for success.