Salmon anglers share the blame

Thursday, October 12, 2000 

There are two sides to the current dispute over aboriginal salmon fishing. Conservationists quite rightly criticize native plans to open a commercial Atlantic salmon fishery. But natives also have a valid point: a large commercial salmon fishery already exists. It is called recreational angling, and it brings revenue to both the province and outfitters. Why should natives reduce their fishing, when there is no limit on the number of recreational salmon licences that can be sold?

In 1999, the province issued 17,654 resident and 5,213 non-resident salmon angling licences. It printed 56,000. Each entitled the bearer to catch and kill up to eight grilse (young salmon) over the whole season and to catch and release up to four fish a day.

These numbers don't tell the whole story. The province encourages anglers to release their catch and return all their salmon tags unused. This conservation ethic is shared by the province's angling organizations and the majority of individual anglers. According to a provincial Fish and Wildlife spokesman, "the vast majority" of salmon anglers keep no more than one or two fish a season. Indeed, many salmon anglers conscientiously release every fish.

That being the case, it is difficult to understand why the size of New Brunswick's recreational salmon fishery has not been reduced. The anglers, the province and Ottawa all recognize that salmon stocks are in trouble. Why not limit the number of fish anglers can kill?

A hook-and-release-only fishery is not the solution. Hook-and-release angling still kills some fish, spawners as well as grilse. And, unlike tagged, kept grilse, the number of fish killed by the hook-and-release fishery cannot be tracked. If the overall goal is conservation of dwindling salmon stocks, New Brunswick must reduce the total number of salmon killed - which ultimately means reducing the number of fishermen, not just the number of fish they can keep.

It is time the province and DFO applied the strategy currently used for moose hunting to salmon angling: reduce the overall number of salmon tags available to anglers and hold a lottery for licences, allotting a set number of licences to each healthy watershed. The number of licences available could be increased or decreased as salmon returns allow.

The day is fast approaching when there will be no salmon fishing in New Brunswick. Anglers, aboriginal fishermen and fisheries managers have a choice: they can reduce fishing now and put every possible effort into improving the salmon's chances of survival, or they can continue to fish and argue with each other until the last salmon dies. Which fishing story would you rather tell your grandchildren?