Poor funding further endangers Canada's Atlantic Salmon
St. Andrews by-the-Sea, New Brunswick: During the first week of June 2010, the federal government of Canada will host an international treaty conference in Quebec City attended by all nations with wild Atlantic salmon populations. But, according to the Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF), the federal government deserves a failing grade for its record on domestic actions and international obligations when it comes to the stewardship of this troubled species. ASF points to data from international scientists showing severe reductions in the return of smaller salmon, reduced budgets and failure to enact conservation policies.
“In Canada, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans has the mandate and responsibility to protect wild Atlantic salmon populations,” said ASF president Bill Taylor. “There are many dedicated public servants with a passionate desire to save the wild Atlantic salmon, but they need the resources to allow them to do that job. Ottawa is failing not only this extraordinary species, but also its own hardworking scientists, fisheries managers and wardens, and, ultimately, the people of Canada.”
Canada’s overall population of wild Atlantic salmon dropped from 1.8 million in 1973 to a low of 418,000 in 2001. Returns in 2009 show a slight improvement from 2001, but are offset by a severe drop in the returns of smaller salmon to their spawning rivers.
Throughout Atlantic Canada and Quebec, salmon rivers are assessed annually to determine, not just overall salmon populations, but the different distinct life stages that the species undergoes. In 2009, it was determined that less than half of the assessed rivers were meeting their minimum conservation targets (a population number that keeps the river’s salmon stock from further decline), while more than 25% of the rivers were at less than half of this minimum threshold. Of particular concern are the very poor returns of small salmon (less than 63 centimeters) that have spent one year feeding in the ocean before returning to their native spawning rivers. In 2009, the returns of small salmon decreased 43.6% from 2008.
“One fact that is undeniable and troubling is that DFO funding for Atlantic salmon conservation, research, and management programs has been falling, while the threat of extinction has been growing,” Mr. Taylor pointed out. “In 1985, $24 million was allocated for wild Atlantic salmon in the federal budget. Today, it is half that. Factoring inflation, this means that the DFO budget for wild Atlantic salmon programs has been effectively reduced by nearly 75%, during a period when the population continued to decline to the lowest levels ever recorded.”
“There is a dark-humoured observation in Atlantic Canada’s conservation circles,” Mr. Taylor continued. “Faced with the possibility of the wild Atlantic salmon’s extinction in many parts of eastern Canada, the federal government’s response doesn’t seem to extend much beyond having DFO scientifically document that extinction as it unfolds. Canada is not standing on particularly high ground as the host to the 2010 North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization in Quebec City.”
The North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (NASCO) can be thought of as a United Nations of wild Atlantic salmon, comprised of countries that have a population of the species spawning in their rivers and/or migrating through their jurisdictions. These signatory nations are Canada, the United States, Iceland, Norway, Denmark (representing Greenland and the Faroe Islands), the European Union, and the Russian Federation. At the annual NASCO conferences, these nations are represented by their federal governments for agreement negotiations and resolutions to conserve and restore wild salmon populations across the north Atlantic.
“A NASCO review has deemed that Canada is at odds with its NASCO obligations on three different fronts,” Mr. Taylor declared. “First, on fisheries management, Canada allows a mixed-stock fishery to continue in Labrador with a total lack of research on how it affects wild salmon. On another front, a NASCO review group declared that Canada has failed to adequately address Habitat Protection and Restoration issues. And most recently, signatory nations submitted reports on their countries’ progress toward minimizing the dangers associated with aquaculture. Canada failed on criteria to demonstrate or report on actions toward eliminating farmed salmon escapes and transmission of sea lice from farmed salmon to wild salmon.”
“Much of the work that the federal government is mandated to do on wild Atlantic salmon conservation is now being done by volunteer groups and non-profit conservation organizations.” Mr. Taylor explained. “Community-based river associations are doing the ground work on habitat restoration. ASF stepped in to help negotiate a moratorium on a commercial salmon fishery in southwest Greenland that targeted North American salmon and we are doing much of the research. ASF conducts large-scale tracking research to investigate the high mortality of salmon at sea.”
Mr. Taylor concluded by noting that ASF does what it can and is proud of the work it does, but volunteer groups and non-profit NGOs can’t take the place of a properly funded federal department like Fisheries and Oceans, nor should they be expected to. “We know DFO can make a huge difference in the fight to save wild Atlantic salmon, and we know that the department wants desperately to do just that, but it needs the appropriate level of funding to work with. When that happens, Canada can hold its head higher at future NASCO conferences, when we can show we’re living up to our international obligations. At present, our treatment of wild Atlantic salmon is reflected poorly, home and abroad.”
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The reasons for the decline in wild salmon populations in the Atlantic include damage and loss of habitat (due to forestry and agriculture, development, acid rain and more recently the illegal introductions of invasive species like smallmouth bass), harmful effects of aquaculture (which can spread disease and parasites to wild salmon or escapees that compete for food and habitat) and the phenomenon of “at-sea mortality” whereby salmon do not survive the journey to and from their feeding grounds off Greenland and never return to their spawning river. The causes of inordinate open ocean mortality beyond the normal level of natural predation are unclear and require further research.
For more information on the state of wild Atlantic salmon populations follow this link http://asf.ca/docs/uploads/stateofpopulation2010v3.pdf