LIFESTYLES

An Atlantic mystery

Salmon are no longer returning to many rivers

JOHN DeMONT September 12 1994
LIFESTYLES

An Atlantic mystery

Salmon are no longer returning to many rivers

JOHN DeMONT September 12 1994

An Atlantic mystery

Salmon are no longer returning to many rivers

LIFESTYLES

Back then, the fish stories never seemed to end at the Lansdowne Lodge in Upper Stewiacke, N.S. Until five years ago, anglers from as far away as Asia, Europe and the United States packed the comfortable 17-room lodge as soon as the Atlantic salmon started running. But this summer, the Lansdowne stands silent: most of the salmon rivers in the area are so depleted that they have been closed to anglers. “Salmon fishing in Nova Scotia is a thing of the past,” laments Tom Kennedy, who opened the lodge 17 years ago. “So are we.” He plans to turn the once-bustling retreat into a senior citizens’ home—where the after-supper talk is unlikely to be about back casts, fly patterns and the heart-thumping thrill of landing a powerful fish on the end of a thin nylon line.

Ironic, in a way. Throughout North America, fly-fishing is enjoying a surge in popularity, thanks, in part, to Robert Redford’s lyrical 1992 film, A River Runs Through It. What a time for the Atlantic salmon—which have made Eastern Canada a mecca to foreign anglers for more than a century—to start mysteriously disappearing. Last year’s harvest in Canadian waters was the lowest on record— 401 tons—just 70 per cent of the 1992 harvest

and only 22 per cent of the average over the previous 20 years. This summer, although a few rivers—including New Brunswick’s fabled Miramichi—appear strangely unaffected by the salmon shortage, most areas have experienced low water levels and dismal salmon runs, forcing the department of fisheries and oceans to close dozens of rivers in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland to fishing.

And that has put a huge dent in what was a $150-million-a-year salmon angling industry in the region. “We’ve reached the crisis stage,” concedes Bill Taylor, an executive director at the Atlantic Salmon Federation, a nonprofit organization that promotes salmon conservation.

Taylor, like most conservationists, saw problems looming years ago. But optimists had hoped the salmon stocks would recover this year because of limits on the number of fish caught by anglers, a moratorium on commercial fishing off Newfoundland and a program that pays commercial fishermen in Greenland not to fish for salmon. Instead, the news has simply gotten worse. Only 18 years ago, scientists calculated that there

were about 850,000 North American salmon in the northwest Atlantic Ocean, where they feed before returning as fully grown salmon to rivers in the Atlantic provinces and Quebec. Scientists now put the figure at 213,000—about the minimum level needed to sustain Canadian salmon stocks at healthy levels. “The further you go below that threshold,” says David Meerburg, a senior policy adviser for the department of fisheries and oceans, “the more susceptible the stock becomes to some natural disaster.”

The deck was always stacked against the salmon, which follow their own internal compass from the moment they hatch. Each spring, millions of juvenile salmon, or smolts, leave Atlantic rivers for their ocean feeding grounds. But even at the best of times, only a small percentage survive to make the return trip to their home rivers where they spawn: birds of prey hunt down thousands of fish before they leave the rivers; drift or gill nets claim others as they migrate through coastal waters to their deepsea grazing grounds.

But why, in recent years, have thousands more salmon been dying in the ocean, dramatically reducing the numbers of fish available to refertilize Eastern Canadian rivers? Some authorities say that the food base for salmon—small fish like capelin—is declining; others speculate that natural predators could be taking their toll. And according to

another theory, foreign vessels may be harvesting large quantities of salmon beyond Canada’s 200-mile fishing limit. But scientists are relatively certain about one other factor: the ocean temperature is falling. Historically, as Meerburg points out, “there has been a very close relationship between the coldness of the water and the number of salmon out there.” Salmon prefer to feed in waters with surface temperatures of between 4° and 10° C. As the ocean cools, there are fewer areas with such optimum conditions.

What to do is anyone’s guess. Some scientists remain convinced that the government has done enough—at an early enough stage—to prevent a full-scale disaster. In the meantime, research continues into the depletion of the salmon stocks.

An additional twist in the disappearing salmon mystery is that some rivers appear relatively unaffected. In Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, on Cape Breton Island, and on the worldrenowned Miramichi and Restigouche rivers in New Brunswick, fishermen are hooking healthy numbers of fish this summer. Some scientists speculate that fish in those rivers may have spent the winter feeding in different—more hospitable—locations than the salmon from depleted rivers. And their return has also drawn the most passionate anglers. “Salmon fishing is a simple, beautiful thing,” says Laurie MacDonald, 32, a fishing guide who lives less than a mile from the Chéticamp River on Cape Breton Island. “Once you’ve presented your fly correctly and seen that graceful, beautiful fish take it on an Atlantic river, you’ll never forget the experience.”

The sport’s allure overrides trivial considerations like wealth and social standing. No one seems immune—from working stiffs who camp beside their favorite fishing holes, to the rich and famous members of the Restigouche Salmon Club, the chief executives of huge American corporations and golfing legend Jack Nicklaus among them. On the 600-mile Miramichi River system, most of the best fishing pools—and the luxurious adjacent lodges—are owned by international pulp and paper companies and such wealthy businessmen as New Brunswick’s Irving family. Out on the river, they rub shoulders with celebrities that have included baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams and British bluebloods, including Prince Charles.

In a perverse way, the sudden scarcity of salmon makes hooking one all the more exciting. After three years as editor of the St. Andrews, N.B.-based Atlantic Salmon Journal, Toronto-born writer and editor Harry Bruce was beginning to wonder if the sport’s allure was overblown. Then, last month, he hooked his first salmon on the Miramichi. “It was everything I’d imagined,” he recalls. “I spent the night thinking about all the new fishing gear I was going to go out and buy.” That gear will not be much use if the salmon shortage affecting most of Atlantic Canada dries up the fabled Miramichi as well.

JOHN DeMONT