Mills at Old River Lodge: some of the world’s best salmon fly-fishing
Vincent Swazey, an outfitter and guide with 48 years’ experience on New Brunswick’s fabled Miramichi River, looks pleased. A client from New Jersey has just called to confirm that he will be arriving in the fall for a full week of fishing. “There you go,” he says after hanging up the phone. “Maybe word is finally getting round that things aren’t so bad.” For Swazey and his colleagues on the Miramichi system—home to some of the world’s best salmon fly-fishing—such calls have been all too rare this summer. Along the gleaming river that for decades has acted as a magnet for well-heeled fishermen— including former Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams, legendary U.S. test pilot Chuck Yeager and actor Robert Duvall—many sport-fishing operators are reporting early season bookings down between 25 and 50 per cent from last year. It is a trend that threatens to put a serious dent in a $20-million industry. The reason: many American anglers, the lifeblood of the Miramichi economy, have been scared away by reports of a depleted salmon fishery. Bad news, Swazey finds, travels fast. ‘They know almost as quickly in New York and Boston what’s going on as we do here on the river,” he says.
Just as galling as the dollar losses is the conviction, widely held among Miramichi guides, outfitters and lodge owners, that
Falling stocks imperil a $20-million industry
they are the victims of bad press. They say their businesses have been unduly harmed by recent publicity over an alarming decline in the world’s Atlantic salmon stocks. The decline has prompted the federal department of fisheries and oceans to cut fishing quotas on the river by half this spring. Anglers are now limited to keeping one salmon per day rather than two, and hooking and releasing another. The Mirimachi operators say they have little problem with the catch reduction since few of their clients are interested in keeping fish any more. But they balk at the new limits on hook-and-release, a practice they view as a sound conservation measure.
There is no doubt that the Atlantic salmon is under siege: over the past two decades, the fish population off the North American coast has dropped by more than one million. Some of the largest declines ever occurred in 1997—and on just about every river that empties into the Atlantic, including the Miramichi. There is no clear consensus on why the salmon are disappearing, but among the most commonly cited culprits are exploding seal populations, changing ocean temperatures and commercial overfishing, especially at sea. In response, Canada closed its last remaining commercial fishery off Labrador this spring. Then, in June, Greenland—which once harvested nearly a million salmon a year—
bowed to international pressure and banned commercial salmon fishing.
Such actions are almost universally applauded by residents along the Miramichi. They question, though, how the recent fishing limits imposed on their river will further the cause of conservation. They point out that commercial fishing has been banned since the early 1980s and that, while stocks are in decline in the river, they remain healthier than in many other areas. As Swazey puts it: “They tell us the problems with the salmon are in the ocean, and yet they are attacking the anglers in the rivers to deal with it.” Those concerns are echoed by Arnold Boer, director of fish and wildlife for the province of New Brunswick, who says that Ottawa’s latest quotas for the Miramichi
“seemed to be a real quick knee-jerk reaction. The outfitters have suffered greatly because of the bad publicity.” Dave Dunn, chief of recreational fisheries for the federal fisheries department, counters that the decline in Miramichi stocks is very real— for example, the number of large, spawning salmon returning to the river has dropped from 36,000 in 1994 to 18,000 in 1997. The message Ottawa wants to send out, he adds, is, “there’s reason for concern and we’re asking for cutbacks from all parties.” Dunn defends the hook-and-release reduction on the grounds that fish never hooked have a higher chance of survival, but he distances his department from alarmist media reports. Says Dunn: “The department has never put out the message that this resource is in crisis on the Miramichi.” Perhaps not. But according to Alex Mills, a veteran outfitter and owner of Old River Lodge near Doaktown, N.B., that is precisely the sort of talk that has reached the ears of the foreign customers to whom the Miramichi caters. “They come here for the fishing opportunities,” said Mills during a recent interview on the front porch of his lodge, as the sun set slowly over Miramichi. “They don’t want to sit idle on the banks because of hook-and-release quotas that do little, if anything, to conserve fish.”
Dunn’s department is currently conducting a mid-season count of the Miramichi salmon stocks, with results expected this week. If the fish numbers are up this year— as many along the river loudly claim—Dunn says the quota cuts will be reversed. But Mills fears such a decision would come too late to make much difference, at least for this season. “Once the customers are lost, it’s hard to get them back,” he says. “It’s looking like a pretty bleak summer.”
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