An innovative project to rebuild populations of wild Atlantic salmon in New Brunswick rivers has been quietly under way in a corner of Grand Manan, and on June 8 another stage was marked with the introduction of over 700 more fish to the sea cages at Dark Harbour.
The inner Bay of Fundy salmon are a distinct population and are classed as endangered under the federal Species At Risk Act. Efforts to bring them back to Fundy National Park and the Petitcodiac River have been under way for over 15 years. Previous conservation measures included removing obsolete dams, adding fish ladders and releasing young salmon into the wild, but these efforts didn't have much effect on numbers returning to spawn. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada's (COSEWIC) 2010 species profile estimates that the inner Bay of Fundy population declined from some 40,000 earlier in the 20th century to fewer than 200 in 2008. The Fundy Salmon Recovery program grew out of research that showed that fish which spend their early lives in rivers or streams act and grow differently than fish raised in a hatchery and ultimately have a much better chance of survival.
Alex Parker is a resource management officer with Parks Canada and a biologist working on the project. He explains that "those early years are the most important" for young fish, which ideally "only ever see the wild" as offspring of adults introduced into the rivers. Fundy Salmon Recovery is the first project in the world to collect young fish that have spent the critical early life stages in the wild, grow them to maturity in sea cages and then release them as adults back into their home rivers, the Upper Salmon and Petitcodiac, where it is hoped they will produce healthy offspring.
Parker says initial success with this approach led to a shift in focus in 2014 from research to this bigger program, and the Dark Harbour site is now the world's first marine conservation farm. The fish were originally raised by Cooke Aquaculture in Seal Cove. Discussions between project partners, the Atlantic Canada Fish Farmers' Association and the Village of Grand Manan led to the establishment of a dedicated site. "We can have all our [cages] in one location, its own special unique site," Parker says.
Dark Harbour Pond is challenging for commercial aquaculture because of its small size, "but it's perfect for us." He notes that there are "two sister programs" between Parks Canada and Fort Folly Habitat Recovery. Last October, 500 fish were trucked and then airlifted "home." Another release is scheduled for this fall.
This month's new arrivals will spend at least a year in Dark Harbour until they are old enough to spawn. "The fish tell us when they're ready," Parker says. They typically spawn in October. Each will be measured and examined, data and tissue samples taken, and a passive integrated transponder implanted, with a distinct number for each fish. "It's a very robust program," Parker says, with research still a major component. Many organizations are following it, he adds, including academics, NGOs and government. The University of New Brunswick is studying impact on the rivers and ecosystems. Other partners include Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the provincial Department of Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries.
Early transponder tracking showed that "multiple fish" from project manager Corey Clarke's research returned to spawn. Fifty fish was an approximately 20‑year high, Parker says. "That return ... is very much what spurred this project" and allowed them to apply for funding. There was "unexpectedly high" smolt production in 2015. He notes that these are still early results, and it's still too soon to make comparisons with wild survival rates, but things look promising. "We are seeing higher [numbers] than anything since they were listed as endangered."
Many factors may have contributed to that decline, including environmental changes and human activity. Asked if he's concerned about these threats to the project fish, Parker says, "Our approach is to put more and better fish into the rivers," to focus on building numbers to restart the population, and he hopes those healthier fish will have the potential to adapt and survive.
He praises the salmon site workers and project partners. "We've worked with a lot of really great people; it's been an absolute pleasure. The fish are raised so well and are in great shape. It's been very rewarding."
To learn more about the project, visit <www.fundysalmonrecovery.com>.