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Editorial: Byrne wades in

Minister of Fisheries and Land Resources Gerry Byrne says while the debate around crab prices persists, a 2014 independent report dispelled much of the controversy that surround particularly the 4R region.
Fisheries and Land Resources Minister Gerry Byrne. — SaltWire Network file photo

So, who is best positioned to tell us the state of salmon stocks on the island — salmon scientists, or the provincial fisheries minister?

Wednesday, fisheries scientists gave an update on the numbers of salmon returning to rivers on the island portion of this province. The news isn’t good. The numbers are still extremely low, and the juvenile salmon that are leaving rivers for the ocean are small.

The recommendation put forward as a result? That there should be no retention fishery for the rest of this season. (Recreational anglers had been allowed to keep a single salmon so far this year.)

As federal salmon scientist Geoff Veinott put it, “every fish that’s removed is a fish that is not available to spawn.” It’s pretty compelling logic.

But it doesn’t appear to be the message the provincial government, and more particularly provincial Fisheries Minister Gerry Byrne, wanted to hear.

Clearly, for a number of reasons, the province wants people to be allowed to catch and keep salmon.

Now, Byrne has made the point before that, years ago, he had a background in biology. He used that to argue, at one point, that he should join scientists at salmon science meetings.

The provincial government is also in the process of doing a two-year study on the effects of hook-and-release on salmon.

Clearly, for a number of reasons, the province wants people to be allowed to catch and keep salmon.

But that, essentially, is the sum total of the province’s efforts to understand the current salmon problem.

It’s probably unnecessary to point out that one study does not an expert make, any more than undergraduate degree in science does.

Byrne can be forgiven for his approach in some ways, if for no other reason than that his job is not to simply speak to the health of salmon stocks. His job is actually more nuanced, balancing public expectations, the needs of tourism operators and the desires of voters.

In some ways, it’s like the balancing act by the federal government in the late 1980s, a balancing act that kept the cod fishery open long after it should have been closed down.

Even some of the words being used sound startlingly familiar: “Anglers throughout the entire province are experiencing, they’re witnessing, high, high, high returns in the last number of days and weeks,” Byrne told the CBC.

Byrne is saying what people want him to say — and representing voters is part of his job. But anecdotal witnessing of “high, high, high returns” is empirically empty, and if politician Byrne does not realize that, maybe biologist Byrne will remember it from his years in science.

Politics and fisheries science are not a good mix, especially for the fish involved.

Thursday, the federal government announced there would be no further retention of salmon.

For scientific and conservation reasons, it’s the best call.

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