The Fight for Wild Atlantic Salmon

By Jack Reford

Reford cover image

Jumping Salmon at Murray's Cauld, Philiphaugh, by Walter Baxter

On a cold, wet, and foggy morning in early July, most people would be snug and warm in their beds at the ungodly hour of 3:30 am. However, as I rise, pack my things and hop into the car, I know that I am not the only one stirring in the dark. Following a necessary stop at Tim Horton’s—a Canadian favorite—for a large coffee promptly dumped into a large thermos, I begin to turn my car away from the lights of town and begin the short drive into the wilderness. I am in Canada’s far east, on the Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec, just outside the small industrial town of Matane. The reason for my early rise: a trip to the Matane River, which for a few months every year is home to anywhere between 1500 to 3000 Atlantic Salmon. As the first hints of light start to creep into the horizon, I turn up the bumpy dirt road that follows the twisting and tumbling waters of the clear river. Even though it is still dark, there are already a few trucks parked at the lower pools, and other anglers who, like me, have stayed the sleep that often accompanies a Sunday morning to brave the conditions and pass a fly over the top of some of these fish, sipping out of mugs awaiting the dawn. I continue driving into the woods until I reach my favorite pool, a classic corner, marked by a small painted wooden sign that reads, “La Vielle.”

Atlantic salmon are a migratory species of the family Salmo salar. In order to understand the crisis that the species is under, it is first important to understand the life-cycle and habits of the fish. Atlantic salmon begin their lives as eggs in rivers across the North Atlantic, before hatching and living as fry, parr, and smolt, designated by increasing age and size. A juvenile salmon will spend two to three years in their home rivers before migrating to the ocean (McGee). These small salmon will then spend one to two years at sea before returning to the rivers in which they were born to spawn as grilse (a term denoting a small salmon). Unlike their Pacific relatives, Atlantic salmon do not die after spawning and so can return multiple times to their rivers to spawn. These fish that have spent more than one winter at sea are designated as salmon. Atlantic salmon have always been a primary food source for the Indigenous peoples of the regions they inhabit in North America and were prized across Northern Europe and throughout the British Empire for their delicious meat (McGee).

Historically, Atlantic Salmon thrived across the Northern ranges of North America’s Atlantic Coast. From Maine to the tip of Labrador and Ungava Bay, these anadromous fish would return in massive numbers each summer to spawn before returning to their wintering habitat in the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. Not only limited to North America, rivers that contain spawning salmon could be found in Spain, Scotland, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Today, while these countries still hold populations of salmon, the numbers of returning fish are decreasing each year, and several once-prolific fisheries have become obsolete. For example, according to a Garner Pinfold report to the Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF), in 2011 since 1975, the number of multi-sea winter fish returning to North American rivers has decreased by 90% from 900,000 to less that 100,000 annually (5). There are many factors that have contributed to this decline over the past century, and several of these have been pinpointed and confirmed, yet governments seem to refuse to do anything to protect this beautiful fish. Given the intrinsic economic value of the wild Atlantic Salmon, it is baffling that, in a time when the world spotlight is on conservation, almost nothing is being done—save by private individuals—to make a positive impact on the status of these fish. It is time for the world to understand why salmon populations are at an all-time low, how we can stop the decline, and why we should try.

On the Matane River, the bleak glow of the dawn finally arrives, illuminating the foggy landscape and rain clouds, but most importantly the grey green stones of the river. I survey the hundreds of flies that I have brought—each hand-tied over the past few years, some with storied histories going back to the 1800s, and some my own spontaneous invention—and choose a personal favorite, the “Labatt Blue” Bomber. As the sun fully makes its way over the horizon, I sit in the light drizzle and survey the water, looking for any sign that will indicate the presence of fish. After ten minutes, there is a bright bar of silver porpoises, breaking the surface in the fast water at the head of the pool. Wading into the river, I can feel my heart beating in my chest as I strip of my line and prepare to present my humble offering to this king of the river. Three casts (and a few missed hooksets) later, and it is done. This magnificent fish once again breaches the surface, sips my fly, and lodges the hook in the corner of its mouth. Following a relatively brief fight, I manage to take a hold of the fish’s tail and exhale deeply, feeling an indescribable sense of deep-seated satisfaction. There are few things that make me respect nature as much as this fish. It sits resting in the current, a beautiful buck male, chrome scales glinting in the pale morning light, flexing the strong muscles that have carried it thousands of kilometers from the Arctic Ocean to this small river that winds its way out of the Chic Choc mountains in rural Quebec. As I set him free, my joy is shadowed by an immense sadness. This is the first fish I have landed in the Matane this summer, and salmon return numbers continue to decrease in rivers across the province. Atlantic Salmon populations are facing a crisis, and no one really seems to care.

The primary contributing factor to declining Atlantic salmon populations is climate change. The increasing average temperatures and decreasing precipitations has had a significant effect on the ecology of the rivers that salmon spawn in. According to environmental scientist Graciela Nicola and her coauthors, “[The Atlantic salmon] is thermally sensitive and oxygen-demanding and require cold, clean water […], and is highly sensitive to extremes in flow.” When water temperatures get too high, the metabolism of the salmon slows down as the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water decreases. It is analogous to the conditions that humans face at high altitudes. The fish simply do not have the oxygen in their systems to swing against the current and travel far upriver to the areas they use to spawn. Similarly, when water levels are low, the fish feel exposed, and choose to hold in slower-moving and deeper pools. A salmon will not travel upriver if the conditions are not right to do so. This can result in thousands of salmon being trapped at the bottoms of rivers, unable to spawn, if water levels are too low. A 2018 study done by researchers at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research suggests that “the abundance of Atlantic salmon in future climates will decrease for the region modelled,” in this case the River Mandalselva (Sundt-Hansen et al.). This data is consistent with data collected from several other rivers across the world and proves undeniably that the world’s Atlantic Salmon are in trouble. What is especially concerning is that climate change is a problem that is unlikely to be slowed in the coming years, putting further emphasis on the contributing factors that are in the control of those that could make a difference.

Following climate change, the most obvious and tangible historical stressor on Atlantic salmon populations is overfishing. Most commercial fishing for Atlantic salmon takes place in the North Atlantic Ocean around Greenland and the Faroe Islands, the traditional habitat of non-spawning fish. A study published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences found that, “the total North Atlantic commercial salmon catch from 1960 through 1987 indicates a high abundance cycle from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, with catch maxima of about 12000 tonnes in 1967 and 1973. Numbers of salmon returning to home rivers declined precipitously during this time frame, and now most fisheries are closed” (Parrish 282). This conclusively shows that overfishing has had a massive impact on populations of Atlantic, and similar to the cod fishery on the Grand Banks, the commercial fishing of Atlantic salmon is an industry that has suffered as a result of systemic overexploitation. Even though catch numbers are at an all-time low, many people’s livelihoods depend on the fishery, and so, to this day, boats trawl and net for Atlantic Salmon at sea, picking off what little fish remain. The lack of mandatory catch-and-release practices in recreational Atlantic salmon fisheries also contributes to this overfishing problem. For example, in the Matane River, an average of 771 fish have been killed for an average of only 2326 salmon in the river each year since 2000 (“Bilan Des Saisons Antérieures”). Similar proportions can be witnessed across the world in rivers that contain Atlantic salmon and have no mandatory catch-and-release legislation. These fisheries simply cannot sustain this pressure with the number of other factors that are contributing to declining global populations.

In May of 2018, however, a bright spot arose when the ASF brokered a deal to stop commercial fishing in these critical areas by buying out the catch quotas of the commercial fishermen for twelve years, allowing for a rejuvenation of fish stock. In reference to the deal, Kevin Bisset of the Globe and Mail reported that, “in exchange for commercial fishermen not setting their nets, the Atlantic Salmon Federation and the North Atlantic Salmon Fund will financially support alternative economic development in Greenland, scientific research, and education projects focused on marine conservation.” Even so, in 2019, just one year after this ground-breaking deal, Greenland’s department of fisheries reported an annual catch of over 40 tonnes, well over the allotted 18 tonnes granted to fishermen for personal and family use (“Greenland Atlantic Salmon”). At a time when the world would snatch at any opportunity to cry wolf at any environmental foul, nothing appeared in any mainstream media, and there were no consequences for the breach of the agreement. Here, an effective solution to one of the problems was posed, executed, and failed immediately for one intrinsic reason: money. Even though the fishermen were being fairly compensated, the draw of more liquid cash proved too great. More money in communities is beneficial to the government, who collect taxes on the distribution of raw goods and the generation of income. How can the government of Greenland be trusted to enforce this policy in the future? Why haven’t international regulating boards stepped in? Are the Atlantic Salmon truly without allies in their fight for survival?

What complicates this issue even further is that there are other, less significant stressors present that threaten to become even more detrimental in the future. Hydroelectric dams and the production of farmed Atlantic salmon are becoming increasingly important factors to monitor. In a study performed on a number of rivers that flow into the Gulf of Maine, Elizabeth Lawrence led a team of researchers who found that dams have a large detrimental effect of salmon populations. They determined that, “six of twelve [scenarios] produced probabilities [of decline] greater than 40%. When kelts (multi-spawn salmon) were excluded from the model, eleven of twelve scenarios produced probabilities of decline greater than 50%” (Lawrence). Salmon exists in largely remote locations, where hydropower is hugely popular. For example, in Norway, approximately 30% of rivers that contain salmon populations are affected by dams (Sundt-Hansen). In Maine, Lawrence and her team hypothesize that the damming of salmon rivers is one of the main contributing factors to the near extinction that they face. There are endeavours underway to remove dams from effected rivers; however, these projects are expensive and time-consuming, and the draining of reservoirs can have a significant impact on the hydrology of the river. Progress is being made on this front in North America, but industrial expansion into the wilds of Northern Europe threatens the populations in those rivers, and more and more dams are being planned.

Finally, the commercial farming of Atlantic salmon is a practice that was initiated to remove pressure from wild populations but has had unforeseen negative consequences. Primarily, the location of these farms has created several problems. Most commercial fish farms consist of several pens that are suspended by flotation devices and anchored in place by tethers to land or by anchors sunk to the sea floor. It is also significantly more inexpensive to locate these pens in the ocean, in habitats that can support Atlantic salmon, rather than on land. As a result, it is common for wild salmon to encounter several fish farms during their migratory travel. As a result:

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) have identified salmon farming as a key threat. Farmed salmon can spread diseases and parasites to wild salmon, while escaped domesticated salmon compete for food and habitat in freshwater and interbreed with wild salmon, thereby weakening the wild gene pool (Garner Pinfold 8).

Atlantic salmon are a unique species in that there are distinct genetic differences between fish born in different rivers. These differences can contribute to factors such as size, persistence, strength, and spawning success. As rivers gene pools are diluted by escaped farmed fish, their offspring become less and less likely to survive the arduous lifestyle of wild Atlantic salmon. According to fisheries biologist Darren Green, “Since the [fish farming] industry began in the 1960s, production of farmed Atlantic salmon in the North Atlantic gradually increased to reach 1.1x10^6 tonnes in 2009, while annual catch of Atlantic wild salmon has decreased from c. 10000 to 2000 tonnes over the same period.” Clearly there is a correlation between increasing fish farming and decreasing catch numbers. The most evident solution to this issue is to mandate all aquacultural practices take place on land, where disease, parasites, and escapement cannot be an issue. This type of aquaculture is economically feasible, yet is more expensive, which makes the switch difficult.

After all is said and done, it seems as if the wild Atlantic salmon are doomed. However, this is not the case. There are several rivers, most of which are in Northern Canada and Russia, which have very healthy populations of fish. Clearly, there is something in the way these populations are managed that is conducive to the maintaining and even growth of fish stocks. One prime example of exemplary population management can be found at the Atlantic Salmon Reserve, a group of three rivers on the North coast of Russia’s Kola peninsula. Here, private citizens have worked with the local government to operate a recreational fishing lodge with mandatory catch-and-release practices to support scientific research and the protection of the rivers and local ocean from poaching. Since the institution of this reserve, parr densities in all three rivers have increased, indicating positive population growth (Power). Why can this successful model not be replicated across the world? The answer: it is difficult, and most people believe that salmon are not worth it. Even though this is the ideal, there are still practices that can be encouraged and mandated relatively easily to help the salmon.

Already there is a jurisdictional framework in place that is unique to Atlantic salmon rivers. Most rivers that contain Atlantic salmon across the world fall under the control of specialized organizations that monitor and licence proper fishing practices. In Quebec, for example, each salmon river has its own ZEC (Zone Ecologique Controlé) that maintains the river and sells access rights to certain sectors to preserve the best spawning water and ensure the best returns each year. Because of this, it would be incredibly easy to implement mandatory catch-and-release practices across the board and minimize the effects of recreational angling. Catch and release is proven to work, and be an effective conservatory practice. A study on the effects of catch and release at high-water temperatures found that only 7% of fish caught and released at uncomfortable temperatures died following release, and all fish released without any visible wounds at normal temperatures survived past the study window (Havn). It is a no-brainer for governments to mandate mandatory catch-and-release practices in all recreational Atlantic salmon fisheries. Another important aspect of salmon conservation moving forward will be to increase the social awareness and conscience of the peril that the species is in. If more people cared and more pressure was put on those in charge, than a tangible difference could be made, and quickly. There is a myriad of simple things that could be achieved with the stroke of an official’s pen on paper to ensure that these fish will be here for generations to come. As with any conservation effort, sacrifices will have to be made, but I can ensure you that they are well worth it.

There are certain places left on the planet that provide a sense of hope for these magnificent fish. In the summer of 2017, I was lucky enough to visit one of these places, the George River in the far Northern reaches of the Ungava territory in Northern Quebec. Compared to many of the rivers is the Gaspe, the George is gargantuan, and because of its remote location is still teeming with fish. As tons of water crash down the three-kilometer chute of rapids that is Helen’s Falls, thousands of salmon skirt their way up the edges, holding in small pockets and back eddies. It was here, over the course of four days, that hope blossomed in my own heart. Seemingly, fish after fish—all big, bright, and healthy specimens—took our riffle-hitched flies as they skated across the surface of these small and technical pools. My grandfather, who has fly-fished for Atlantics across the world for more that fifty years, summed this river up in a few perfect words: “I just can’t believe it.” While the George and Helen’s Falls are certainly special places, I still dream of one day, when rivers like the Matane can be returned to their original state, and wild salmon will once again thrive across the Atlantic coastlines of the world.