Ac­tion needed to save Conne River salmon stock

Mi­aw­pukek di­rec­tor call­ing for en­hance­ment fund­ing

The Central Voice - - Front Page - BY ADAM RAN­DELL

The Conne River salmon stock has reached the low­est level Ross Hinks has ever seen.

And if noth­ing changes soon, the di­rec­tor of Nat­u­ral Re­sources for Mi­aw­pukek Mi’ka­mawey Mawi’omi First Na­tion be­lieves his peo­ple could soon lose a species sa­cred to their cul­ture.

“The days of study are over, we know there’s a prob­lem,” said Hinks, who made his opin­ions known at the an­nual salmon stake­hold­ers work­shop in Gan­der Nov. 7-8.

The de­cline of the south coast stock has been doc­u­mented by the Depart­ment of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Canada.

The 2018 At­lantic salmon fish­way count iden­ti­fied 454 salmon com­pared to 677 the year be­fore.

The Conne River stock is down 76 per cent in com­par­i­son to its 2011-2015 five-year av­er­age.

Hinks sees a num­ber of fac­tors ham­per­ing the re­turn of salmon, but his big­gest con­cern is with sea sur­vival.

Less than one per cent of salmon smolt leav­ing Conne River re­turn as adults.

He feels the so­lu­tion to rebuilding the stocks could be in the form of egg trans­plants, hatch­eries, or fry grow outs.

While Hinks doesn’t deny it’s a costly ven­ture, he’s been ad­vo­cat­ing for govern­ment fund­ing to re­build stocks. By in­creas­ing what’s go­ing out into the salt wa­ter should bring about stronger re­turns, he said. “One per cent of a mil­lion is a lot more than one per cent of 100,000.” When the 2018 in-sea­son re­view was re­leased in July, DFO had stated it was un­sure what was caus­ing low sea sur­vival for At­lantic salmon in the prov­ince. Hinks be­lieves a con­tribut­ing fac­tor for his area is the pres­ence of salmon farms along the south coast.

The New­found­land Aqua­cul­ture In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion (NAIA) lists 25 aqua­cul­ture farms in that area. Hinks feels the salt­wa­ter pen-based op­er­a­tions are es­tab­lished in crit­i­cal habitat ar­eas for salmon and, with­out ad­e­quate feed­ing grounds, the species can’t sur­vive.

Fur­ther­more, he said, wild salmon have to con­tend with risk fac­tors such as in­fec­tious salmon ane­mia (ISA).

Ac­cord­ing to the Cana­dian Food In­spec­tion Agency, ISA is a fin­fish dis­ease. While there is no hu­man health con­cern with this dis­ease, it is detri­men­tal to salmon. De­pend­ing on the strain of the virus, “it can re­sult in death rates up to 90 per cent in af­fected (salmon) pop­u­la­tions,” ac­cord­ing to DFO.

Hinks said Conne River’s 11 river guardians do DNA and scale sam­ples, but are un­able to check for the virus be­cause there is no fund­ing to carry out the test.

He said guardians have also iden­ti­fied cross­breed­ing be­tween wild and farmed salmon.

DFO has been study­ing the im­pact of hy­bridiza­tion fol­low­ing six escapes – three re­lated to salmon – along the south coast in 2013, when more than 20,000 farm salmon es­caped.

Hinks has seen ex­am­ples of this him­self. Af­ter the farmed fish es­caped in 2013, he was able to ob­tain a per­mit to catch and re­tain farmed fish over 63 cm.

“We took 30 farmed salmon out of the river that year,” he said. “And peo­ple have been catch­ing them for years now through the ice.”

In a few cases, Hinks said, they have come across sec­ond gen­er­a­tion hy­brids.

The year af­ter the 2014 es­cape DFO col­lected 1,704 smolts – from eggs fer­til­ized the year of the es­cape, and hatched in the spring of the year of sam­pling – from 18 area rivers ad­ja­cent to the es­cape.

Of that fig­ure, 27.1 per cent of the sam­pled smolts con­tained aqua­cul­ture an­ces­try in 17 of the 18 rivers. Feral salmon (off­spring of two do­mes­tic salmon) were found in 13 of the rivers.

The fol­low­ing year, the pres­ence of feral salmon was es­sen­tially non-ex­is­tent and hy­bridiza­tion was in de­cline.

De­fend­ing farming

Mark Lane, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor for the NAIA, doesn’t feel aqua­cul­ture has im­pacted wild salmon as much as peo­ple like to be­lieve.

“All At­lantic salmon rivers in New­found­land and Labrador are in de­cline, and it’s been hap­pen­ing long be­fore aqua­cul­ture and salmon farming ever ex­isted,” he told The Cen­tral Voice. Lane said a mora­to­rium was placed on the com­mer­cial At­lantic salmon fish­ery in 1992 be­cause of poor stocks, but com­mer­cial aqua­cul­ture has only been in the prov­ince for 25 years.

Fur­ther­more, he said, it’s not just rivers near aqua­cul­ture op­er­a­tions show­ing de­cline based on the five-year av­er­age.

In­stead, Lane at­tributes other fac­tors, in­clud­ing in­ter­cep­tor fisheries (do­mes­tic and for­eign), seals, re­ten­tion an­gling, poach­ing and a chang­ing cli­mate, for the de­clines.

“I think a lot of peo­ple point the fin­ger at aqua­cul­ture be­cause they don’t un­der­stand what it is they do,” he said. “At­lantic salmon, the Conne River, it’s been long in de­cline long be­fore a salmon farm ex­isted at a com­mer­cial scale on the south coast of New­found­land and Labrador.”

When it comes to habitat im­pacts, he said, farming pro­duces high out­put in a small space, and doesn’t en­croach­ing on the habit of wild salmon on the south coast be­cause wild salmon can eas­ily by­pass the farms.

“We try to set our sites away from salmon rivers or nat­u­ral mi­gra­tory pat­terns for wild At­lantic salmon,” he said.

The aqua­cul­ture in­dus­try has been feel­ing the ef­fects of ISA as well.

The Cana­dian Food In­spec­tion Agency has five listed re­ports of ISA in New­found­land so far this year, up from three in 2017.

Lane doesn’t feel the farm re­lated in­ci­dents have had any bear­ing on the wild stocks.

“Our fish are cer­ti­fied dis­ease free be­fore they are put in the ocean,” he said. “It’s a nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring pathogen, we con­tract it from the ma­rine en­vi­ron­ment.”

Even though the farmed salmon are vac­ci­nated for the virus, they can still con­tract it.

“It’s sim­i­lar to a flu shot,” said Lane. “It’s ef­fec­tive, but not 100 per cent all the time ef­fec­tive.”

Any fish show­ing symptoms would be fol­lowed by im­me­di­ate ac­tion, he said.

“We have reg­u­lar strin­gent mon­i­tor­ing pro­grams,” he said. “If a fish, for ex­am­ple, tested pos­i­tive for a case we would de­pop­u­la­tion the cage.

“If a farm wasn’t run prop­erly it could (have an im­pact), but the way we run things, no I don’t think so. We have two lev­els of vet­eri­nar­ian care, we are test­ing all the time. If we sus­pect a case that leads to di­ag­no­sis we would de­pop­u­la­tion the farm at our cost.”

He doesn’t deny hy­bridiza­tion has taken place along the south coast, and ad­mits escapes from salmon farms played a fac­tor.

“That is some­thing we ac­cept re­spon­si­bil­ity for, it’s un­for­tu­nate, we don’t want to have escapes, but we still don’t know the fall­out of that ei­ther,” he said.

The NAIA is work­ing in con­junc­tion with DFO to de­ter­mine the ef­fects of hy­bridiza­tion on wild stocks.

Lane added the brood stock for farmed salmon orig­i­nates from wild At­lantic salmon.

“Is hy­bridiza­tion bad? We’ll con­tinue to look at that,” he said.

Ac­tion needed

Ei­ther way, there’s still a very real prob­lem with the Conne River salmon stock, and Hinks be­lieves stock en­hance­ment is the next step in re­cov­ery. And in do­ing so, he said, it can re­turn a way of life to the Mi­aw­pukek Mi’ka­mawey Mawi’omi First Na­tion peo­ple.

The band’s Abo­rig­i­nal food fish­ery agree­ment is in place, but it hasn’t been used since the 1990s.

“We were con­cerned about our har­vest and how much of an im­pact it was go­ing to have on what was re­turn­ing to the river, and we got an agree­ment with the prov­ince to go in and an­gle,” he said.

But even an­gling has been halted for the past three years.

“If we don’t step in and do some­thing, it’s go­ing to be gone,” he said of the lo­cal wild salmon stock.

He’s rec­om­mend­ing DFO make de­ci­sions to pro­tect the species, not just for cur­rent­day fish­ers and out­fit­ters, but for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

If that means lim­it­ing an­gler re­ten­tion lim­its and end­ing catch and re­lease in the prov­ince, then he’s ok with that.

“It should be based on the num­ber of fish that’s re­turn­ing,” he said. “If you’ve got a lot of fish why not (al­low for in­creases); (but) if you don’t have very much and are tee­ter­ing on the brink of ex­tinc­tion, why fish?”

The stake­holder ses­sions in Gan­der pulled to­gether those with a vested in­ter­est in salmon to dis­cuss con­ser­va­tion, man­age­ment re­sources and the stock it­self.

Feed­back col­lected is used to make a de­ci­sion on the 2019 sea­son an­gling sea­son.

Ac­cord­ing to the DFO $3.7 mil­lion was in­vested in 20172018 for salmon sci­ence – to sup­port salmon as­sess­ment and re­search – in New­found­land and Labrador.

Jackie Kean, DFO re­source man­ager, at­tended the ses­sions and un­der­stands Hinks con­cerns.

She said a work­ing group has been es­tab­lished for Conne River and an ac­tion plan is be­ing de­vel­oped.

Aug­ment­ing the stock through hatch­ery-based pro­grams is an idea that was raised in the ses­sions, she said.

“Those rec­om­men­da­tions will be given se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion,” she said. “Salmon is a pri­or­ity with the depart­ment, any­thing that comes out of it, we will con­sult with sci­ence and it will def­i­nitely be looked at.”

ADAM RAN­DELL/THE CEN­TRAL VOICE

With only 454 At­lantic salmon counted at the Conne River fish­way this year, Ross Hinks, the di­rec­tor of Nat­u­ral Re­sources for Mi­aw­pukek Mi’ka­mawey Mawi’omi First Na­tion, says the stock is in dire straits. The band has tried ev­ery­thing to sup­port the stock, in­clud­ing ceas­ing the Abo­rig­i­nal food fish­ery and river an­gling, but it con­tin­ues to de­cline. He is now call­ing on govern­ment to pro­vide fund­ing for an en­hance­ment pro­gram to help re­build the stock.

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