SMRA wants feds to back off Atlantic salmon

By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
February 3 2021

ST. MARY’S – With almost exquisite irony, the St. Mary’s River Association (SMRA) has joined other conservation groups in eastern Canada to oppose a federal effort that could formally list their cherished Atlantic salmon as a protected “species at risk.”

The move comes after a notification earlier this year from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), which stated it was “in the final stages of developing listing advice … under the Species at Risk Act (SARA)… for the Ministers of Fisheries and Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard to support the Minister of Environment and Climate Change in making a recommendation to the Governor in Council on a listing decision.”

According to the memo on DFO stationery, signed by Julie Stewart, who is identified as Director, Species at Risk Program, the department “is projecting that a proposed listing decision could come forward in fall of 2021.”

The problem, said Deirdre Green, a SMRA board member, is that the listing designed to save the fish could actually hinder any efforts that are already underway to do so.

“We support any initiative that provides the best opportunity for Atlantic salmon to survive and thrive,” she said. “However, we are not convinced that listing Atlantic salmon under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) will accomplish this, or that it will aid our group in fulfilling the mandate to conserve, enhance and protect the St. Mary’s River ecosystem.”

She added: “When a species is listed under SARA, there is a general prohibition against harming and harassing that species. This has been known to impact critical research, recovery and restoration efforts.

“Conservation is a human activity and Atlantic salmon need people who care. Our group is concerned that our work and that of others will be negatively impacted. Indigenous communities, various NGOs and conservation-minded volunteers should not be alienated from the rivers and the aquatic species they care about, and a SARA listing could do just that.”

The SMRA is not alone. Both the Nova Scotia Salmon Association (NSSA) and The Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF) have expressed grave reservations about DFO’s decision.

“The listing of a species as either ‘Endangered’ or ‘Threatened’ (but not ‘Special Concern’) under SARA triggers legal prohibitions which would effectively end recreational salmon angling,” the NSSA recently posted to its website. “A well-managed catch-and-release salmon fishery fosters stronger public engagement in salmon conservation; provides important population data for stock assessment; and helps prevent poaching due to the presence of responsible anglers on the water. A SARA listing could also potentially curtail long-term research and habitat restoration efforts to which the NSSA and our local affiliates have devoted considerable resources.”

The ASF is even blunter.

“A SARA listing would close low-impact salmon fisheries on more than 130 rivers in Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Cape Breton,” its website notes. “It would also extinguish the hope of reopening rivers in parts of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. This is unnecessary [and] ill-timed.”

According to Green, a more sensible approach would be to “use the tools we have now and work collectively to develop a better path forward to ensure the survival and recovery of the Atlantic salmon.”

She points out, for example, that since 2014, the SMRA has spent approximately $3 million dollars on habitat restoration and liming in the St. Mary’s River and completed 600,000 square meters (about 20 linear kilometres) of in-stream structure work.

“This past fall, we spread approximately 850 tons of lime over 200 acres on one of the West Branch tributaries,” she said. “There are Atlantic Salmon returning to our river, spawning on restored sections of river and being observed frequently in the estuary, cold water holding pools throughout the east, west and main branches.”

A SARA listing does not compel DFO or other government agencies to do anything about the actual threats a species might face, such as resource extraction, agriculture and unregulated fishing.

“As such, it is our belief that there is no need for another legislative or regulatory tool at this juncture,” Green said. “DFO currently possesses the tools it needs to take the required actions on the rivers in question.”

Late last year, DFO announced a slew of investments designed to protect aquatic species at risk in Atlantic Canada, including a grant to the NSSA worth up to $3 million “to conduct conservation planning for priority watersheds within the Southern Uplands region of Nova Scotia.”