Counting salmon: more complex than you might think

Paul
Paul Smith
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Although the season won’t open for nearly two whole months, there’s plenty happening in the salmon fishing world right now. Folks are buying rods, oiling up reels and filling fly boxes.

The days are growing longer and there’s yard work and jobs around the house that need tending to. The long, dark winter nights, perfect for tying flies, are long gone. Strategic anglers are planning out their time, ensuring that sheds are built, shingles repaired and fences mended, before it’s time to head off to our esteemed fishing holes.  Some of us are even warming up our casting arms with a bit of seatrout fishing.

Salmon have been in the media of late. The Atlantic Salmon Federation stated last week on its webpage that Newfoundland’s courts are getting tough on poachers. That, I believe, is a good thing.

It appears that just recently, two men from Stag Harbour had the book thrown at them. They landed a total of $6,000 in fines, and neither of them is allowed on coastal waters for two years. They were both convicted of fishing salmon out of season in coastal water, and one had the charge of obstructing a fisheries officer added for good measure. A cooler, two suits of rain gear, one salmon net and seven salmon were forfeited to the Crown. I think it might be better to buy a salmon at the supermarket, or catch one legally on a fly hook.

Just last week, salmon made the CBC evening news. A reporter did an interview with a concerned angler by the name of Peter Parsons. Parsons expressed concern over the Department of Fisheries and Oceans no longer counting fish passing though the fishway on Salmon Brook, a tributary that flows into the main stem of Gander River just below Glenwood. If I recall correctly, he had two main concerns. Firstly, that a lack of official presence at the facility would leave pools below the fishway wide open for poaching. Secondly, science about the salmon runs on the Gander River would no longer be available. For 2014, DFO will no longer count salmon on Salmon River and as well Northeast Brook Trepassey.

In my view, the poaching argument is, at best, weak. Counting and monitoring salmon populations is the science side of DFO. The staff who do this aren’t hired to chase down poachers. That’s the job of DFO’s enforcement division. And they patrol our rivers not just around counting facilities; rather they are challenged with protecting every inch of every river in Newfoundland and Labrador.

There are 13 salmon counting facilities in the whole province, but there are 394 waterways that hold salmon. Counting facilities are expensive and are there for science and monitoring functions. It is neither economical nor practical to utilize them for enforcement. That is totally another battle, and a whole other quintal of fish.  

What about Mr. Parsons’ second assertion, that science in the future will be sadly lacking on the Gander River? DFO’s side of the story is that the data from Salmon Brook is redundant and that the money could be better spent. They say that salmon are counted on both the Exploits and Campbellton Rivers, which are in the same salmon zone. Based on 15-year data, there’s an overwhelming correlation between these fish runs and there is no need to count salmon at all three locations. That’s the story I got from DFO officials.

A somewhat different argument is presented with respect to stopping the count on Northeast Brook. The salmon population on this river is very small, historically fewer than 100 fish. There is no salmon angling allowed on the river. The facility began as a research project, an experimental river of sorts, to study salmon behaviour, smolt production and rearing habitat. John Gibson, the DFO scientist who carried out the research, retired in 1997 and there is now really no purpose in counting the fish. The run is too small to have any meaning for the overall salmon picture. And, like in the case of Salmon Brook, other facilities in the area produce meaningful data. Both salmon entering the river and smolt on their way out are counted on Rocky River, in what DFO considers to be reasonable proximity to Northeast Brook.

DFO is telling us that they are not cutting back science by ending these salmon counts. Their intention is to spend money to count salmon at two new locations that are more strategic and meaningful from a salmon monitoring and scientific perspective.

Apparently this has already been talked about with stakeholder groups at the last round of Salmonid Advisory Committee meetings. I chatted by telephone with Carole Grant, who heads the salmonid section head at DFO in St. John’s. She’s leaning towards locating new counting facilities in areas that might measure the alleged effect of salmon farming on wild fish stocks. Somewhere along the south coast as well as Fortune Bay were areas mentioned in our conversation. I like that idea. Science pertaining to the effects of escapees, sea lice infestations and disease proliferation would be both interesting and valuable, and might serve to guide the future of aquaculture development in this province.

I’ve talked to a few folks who still can’t condone not counting salmon on Salmon Brook. Although they agree that data sets from new locations are needed, it should not come at the expense of Gander River. It is after all, one of our premier angling rivers. On the other hand, DFO contends that data from the Exploits and Campbellton is quite adequate as a predictor of stock health, both in the overall zone in general, and the Gander in particular. I guess folks will have to agree to disagree.

While I’m on this topic, I’ll take the opportunity to tell you a little about the way salmon are counted. The process of not only counting, but also recording of biological characteristics such as length, weight, scale samples, fin clips, sex and so on, is gathered via either counting fences or existing fishways.

Fishways are permanent structures that are put in place, generally constructed of concrete, to allow fish passage past obstacles that were previously impassable.

They may be constructed to maintain a fish stock after a hydro power dam is built, or to open up new spawning areas for salmon above natural obstacles like waterfalls. In cases like the Exploits River, both issues are dealt with — a two-birds-with-one-stone sort of deal.  It’s one of the few cases in the world where development has actually improved a salmon run.

Fishways are already there, so DFO often utilizes this opportunity to count fish on their way through. It’s generally cheaper than installing a counting fence. The downside to using a fishway is that there is no way to count the outgoing smolt, only incoming salmon. Fishways on the Exploits, Rocky River, Middle Brook and Terra Nova are taken advantage of for counting salmon. Salmon Brook was a fishway scenario but is discontinued. Of course, the fishway itself will still function to allow the passage of salmon to the upper reaches of the river.

Counting fences are temporary structures that must be removed each winter. Although more costly to operate, these fences can count both the smolt going to sea and the salmon returning. That means better science.

Counting fences are used at Rocky River, Northeast Brook (discontinued), Campbellton River, Conne River, Harry’s River and Western Arm Brook on the island, and in Labrador at Muddy Bay Brook, Southwest Brook and Sand Hill River. You might notice that Rocky River has both a fishway and a counting fence, doubly blessed so smolt can also be counted.

I hope I’ve clarified what goes on in the salmon counting business. Many times wrong impressions can be gathered from short TV interviews and news blurbs. I hope that our tax dollars are being spent in the most efficient and strategic manner with the best interest of our wild salmon stocks at heart. I’m sure that’s what we anglers want.

 Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every

opportunity. He can be contacted at

flyfishtherock@hotmail.com  or follow him on Twitter at @flyfishtherock.

Organizations: Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Atlantic Salmon Federation, CBC Salmonid Advisory Committee

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Gander River, Northeast Brook Trepassey Rocky River Campbellton River Glenwood Salmon River Fortune Bay Campbellton Exploits River Terra Nova Conne River Muddy Bay Sand Hill River

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  • russ
    April 19, 2014 - 11:39

    There is good news that might be for Atlantic Salmon. We can restore their numbers to historic abundance. We've proven the means to do so with Pacific salmon. Last year Alaska made the largest catch of salmon in all history. Read how that happened. http://russgeorge.net/2013/10/28/fish-came-back-next-day/ It is very well established that Atlantic salmon are starving at sea due to the collapse of their ocean pastures. Everyone knows that when a pasture is depleted it can support but very few livestock. As we move forward to replenish and restore Atlantic ocean pastures the salmon and other species including the Almighty Cod, will return. http://russgeorge.net/2014/03/12/bring-back-atlantic-salmon-restoring-ocean-pastures/ If you are willing to help bring the fish back tell your friends and your representatives that we must replenish and restore the Atlantic ocean pastures and Bring The Fish Back.