Thank you very much for the invitation. We really do appreciate being here with the committee.
I'll start with introductions. My name is Kevin Stringer, assistant deputy minister for ecosystems and fisheries management, so on the management side. I have with me Trevor Swerdfager, the assistant deputy minister for ecosystem science, so the ADM science. Also with us is Bhagwant Sandhu, executive director, fisheries resource management; and Gérald Chaput, the one who actually knows about salmon, the coordinator for science advice in the Gulf region in Moncton, in the science branch.
Above all, I'd like to thank the committee for carrying out a study on wild Atlantic salmon in eastern Canada. It is an invaluable undertaking that will serve the department very well.
It really is a pleasure to support your efforts and, as requested, to provide you with some background information on the state of the Atlantic salmon stocks, the fisheries management efforts, and other issues related to Atlantic salmon.
We'll also, if you wish, provide some of DFO's initial thoughts on the recommendations of the minister's advisory committee on Atlantic salmon.
Atlantic salmon are important to the Atlantic economy.
Atlantic salmon spawn in more than 1,000 rivers throughout eastern Canada and are actively fished for food, and social and ritual purposes in the case of aboriginal communities, and as part of recreational fisheries in Atlantic Canada and Quebec.
These fisheries contribute some $150 million to local economies across eastern Canada and generate nearly 4,000 full-time jobs, equivalent to approximately 10,000 seasonal jobs.
Atlantic salmon does contribute significantly to the economic livelihood of Atlantic Canadians, but they're also a very important part of the culture and contribute to a way of life. Atlantic salmon is often referred to as the king of fish, but stocks of wild Atlantic salmon have declined. In eastern Canada, the total abundance of Atlantic salmon at sea prior to marine exploitation has declined by nearly 70% since the mid-seventies.
We've responded in a number of ways, by reducing daily or season bag limits; mandatory catch and release fishing, especially of large salmon; closing of rivers where conservation limits were not met; restrictions on commercial fisheries to stop or minimize bycatch of Atlantic salmon, including requirements to modify fishing gear; and a moratorium on commercial fishing implemented throughout the nineties and, finally, completely in the year 2000.
In 2015 the ministerial advisory committee on Atlantic salmon provided advice on ways to help reverse the trends of declining returns. The committee had consultations across Atlantic Canada and met with some 78 different groups. Their final report was provided in 2015, with 61 recommendations. The recommendations align well and provide a program of work for the department, and align well with much of what we are doing and we are making progress on it. I'll be happy to speak about that later.
I will conclude my opening remarks here. However, we do have a presentation deck. I will just point out what's on the first slide, then I'll ask my colleague, Gérald Chaput, to walk you through it. It really does speak to where we're at with Atlantic salmon, the challenges we currently face, the bright hopes that we have in some positive areas, and the concerns we have in the areas further south. It also speaks to some of the management measures we have.
Slide 2 is really meant to support your work; provide background information on the state of the stocks, enforcement, science, international issues; and to start to speak to some of our initial response to the minister's advisory committee on Atlantic salmon.
With that I'll ask Gérald to walk you through the presentation.
Thank you, Mr. Chair and members of the committee, for inviting us to discuss Atlantic salmon with you this afternoon.
We circulated a deck for you that presents some background information on biology, and then we get into the stock status, and then we touch on some of the fisheries that exploit Atlantic salmon in eastern Canada and elsewhere.
I'll walk you quite quickly through the deck and just give you some background. Atlantic salmon, we call it a salmon, but as I mentioned in the deck, it's really a trout. It's a Salmo. It's mostly closely related to brown trout. And it differs from Pacific salmon on the west coast in that it doesn't die after spawning. So that's the key difference between the two species. It's distributed in about 2,000 rivers in the North Atlantic. It's found in Europe, Russia, all the way to Canada, and the U.S.A. It's broadly distributed in the North Atlantic, and the last point is it's a freshwater fish. It does go to sea, but it requires rivers to spawn. If there were no fresh water and no healthy rivers, there would be no Atlantic salmon. The key point is it's an animal that requires healthy rivers throughout its distribution for sustenance.
The next slide just gives you a quick overview picture, a pictorial of the life history. Again, they spend about two to six or seven years in fresh water as juveniles. They grow very slowly, more slowly in the northern parts of Canada. And after they spend that amount of time they go to sea, and the reason they go to sea is because there is more food, they grow more quickly, there are more benefits to them to go to sea and they can spend one, two, or three years at sea before they come back to the natal rivers to spawn. And of course the longer they spend in the ocean, the larger they come back. That has as an implication then for fitness and also for resource users who can access different types of fish, different sized fish.
Slide 5 gives you a snapshot of Atlantic salmon in eastern Canada. And the reason for that map is to show you that they're not all the same in eastern Canada. So in Newfoundland, for example, most of the salmon that come back from the ocean come back after spending one year at sea. They come back and they spawn. Contrast that with the maritime provinces and Quebec where a lot of the adults coming back to rivers can spend two years and sometimes three years at sea before returning to spawn. And there are differences in the proportion of females in those returns. There are differences in size, and there are differences in numbers of eggs being brought to the river.
So across eastern Canada, salmon is not really a salmon. There are differences in life history, differences in biology, and differences in characteristics across the rivers.
It's important we talk about management because that has implications for how we address certain declines and certain life histories across its range.
On slide 6, it's kind of a quick snapshot. This really is the overview of stock status. These are the populations that have been assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, COSEWIC. They define 16 groups of Atlantic salmon in eastern Canada. And you can see from the red where we have red circles or red shading, those are the populations that COSEWIC assess as endangered. The population's abundance is very low. There are important threats to these populations, so these are assessed by COSEWIC as endangered.
There is one population that is assessed as threatened on the south coast of Newfoundland. There are several populations that are of concern, we call them of special concern. That means we have to watch their status because they have declined and are facing some threats. Then there are most of the populations in Labrador and Newfoundland that are considered to be not at risk, that is that they are fairly healthy, still fairly abundant, and able to sustain some of the factors that are affecting other populations.
And that is really a snapshot of what we'll cover in the rest of the presentation. What is the status of Atlantic salmon in eastern Canada? That slide really gives you a good snapshot of what it is.
On slide 7, we touched on how many salmon are out there. We can actually reconstruct, we can calculate, how many fish were there across eastern Canada across all the regions before we exploited them at sea. How many fish are out there? As Kevin had alluded to, it's not a very abundant animal. There were never probably more than two million fish in the North Atlantic coming from Canada in terms of Atlantic salmon. Compare that with Pacific salmon where in some rivers like the Fraser we're talking about tens of millions of fish running up one river. There are six species that run up that river. It's very different in terms of abundance on the two coasts. It's still a very important species, but it doesn't play the same role in the environment that Pacific salmon plays.
You can see also, when we track the abundance back to 1971, that we see this important decline overall in terms of Atlantic salmon. There were close to two million in the 1970s, now we're talking about three-quarters of a million total. We're talking about a decline of about 60%. And the large salmon component, the ones that return to Quebec, the Maritimes, and Labrador, those three signature fish, have declined the most, or rather the grilse have declined substantially less.
What is behind the decline? Sea survival is a problem, and we know that because on several rivers we actually count juveniles going to sea, the smolts, and we count adults coming back. We have been doing that in the summer ever since 1970. You can see the patterns of return on slide 8. Those plots show you returns, and particularly for the rivers in Quebec and for the southern rivers in New Brunswick and the Maritimes, there has been a dramatic decline in survival rates. There used to be, let's say, a 5% or 6% return rate from the ocean. Now we're down to less than 1% in some cases.
So really, sea survival is a problem for these animals. They're going through this bottleneck currently in the ocean, and there are probably multiple reasons for that.
On slide 9 is another quick picture of the status. This is really a picture that shows you the recreational fisheries management that was in place in 2015. Where you see red circles, those rivers were closed to any fishing for Atlantic salmon for recreational purposes or by indigenous peoples. Where you see yellow, all the fisheries were catch and release only, no retention. Green was retention of only small salmon or grilse. And where there is purple, there was retention of both small and large, but large salmon right now can only be retained in the province of Quebec by recreational fishermen and only in 37 of 110 rivers.
In Atlantic Canada, of roughly more than 1,000 rivers where we believe salmon exist, in only 37 rivers can anglers currently keep a large salmon. All the other rivers are small salmon only, catch and release, or many of them are closed to fishing because of poor stock status.
On slide 10 it shows you a quick snapshot of the maritime provinces overview. There's a mistake on the map on the left. Prince Edward Island should be all yellow. That's my mistake really. It's all catch and release or rivers were closed. In the three maritime provinces in 2015, anglers could not keep salmon. They had to release them or they could not fish the rivers, primarily in the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia.
Slide 11 shows you Newfoundland and Labrador's status. Again, in this region anglers could keep small salmon only, no large salmon, pretty well throughout the region with a few exceptions, but stocks there are relatively healthier in terms of returns, and so the management reflects that, but they could only keep small salmon.
On slide 12, we have a look at the situation in Quebec.
Management and science for salmon in Quebec is delegated to the province. You'll notice that the region has experienced decreases. From a management standpoint, as I mentioned earlier, there were 110 rivers in Quebec where recreational fishermen could fish salmon, but they could retain large salmon caught in just 37 of those 110 rivers.
In some situations, we can see that the condition of the population has improved slightly. In 2014, however, returns of large salmon in Quebec were lower than in previous years.
We know a lot less about the status of salmon populations in eastern Canada's northern region, mainly in the Ungava Bay area.
The next slides are about fisheries, where we're exploiting and who's exploiting salmon in eastern Canada.
On slide 13 you have the history of total catch of Atlantic salmon. You can see the maximum catch was a little over 2,500 tonnes and you can see the dramatic decline since 1992, continuing to 1998 and in 2000. That's because the commercial fisheries were successively closed in Newfoundland, then Labrador, and then finally the last ones in 2000.
The fisheries were closed in the maritime provinces in 1984. So the closures began in the mid-1980s and terminated in 2000.
Landings in 2015 of Atlantic salmon by all users were roughly about 130 tonnes, contrasted as I mentioned to 2,500 tonnes, the maximum in early 1970.
On the following slide is a breakdown of who's catching the salmon in Canada. There are three groups. We have indigenous communities throughout the Atlantic provinces, recreational anglers, and residents living in Labrador who have access to a food fishery for salmon.
I've also plotted the catches of Greenland on this graph. Greenland residents catch salmon in the north Atlantic, and they catch salmon originating from North America and Europe. You can see on the red line that these are the catches in Greenland, and that's the only fishery where catches are actually increasing over the last 10 years. That's because of the current management system in Greenland.
Basically, we have a sharing between recreational and indigenous communities in terms of catches and very small catches by Labrador residents.
Slide 15 shows you the share of the small salmon and large salmon. Why is this important? In Greenland, where they fish salmon, they fish entirely large salmon, the salmon that would return to Canada as two-sea-winter and three-sea-winter salmon.
The grilse don't go to Greenland, so they harvest entirely large salmon originating from both Europe and Canada.
St. Pierre and Miquelon, belonging to France, fish for Atlantic salmon off the coast of Newfoundland. The indigenous peoples catch mainly small salmon or grilse, but also large salmon. Recreational anglers catch predominantly small salmon or grilse. Very few large salmon are kept in the recreational fishery.
Catch and release in recreational fisheries is increasing in popularity. In 2015, anglers reported releasing about 71,000 Atlantic salmon. Roughly 90% of the large salmon that are angled are released, returned to the water. Almost 50% of the small salmon are returned to the water. So catch and release is a very common practice in recreational fisheries in eastern Canada, and it's done even in areas where people can retain salmon. It's simply a practice that people like and it's becoming more common throughout eastern Canada.
I want to conclude with the stock status of Atlantic salmon. This is taken from the report by the International Commission on the Exploration of the Sea. This is a committee that meets annually. It consists of scientists and biologists from North America and Europe. They pull together a report on the stock status of Atlantic salmon in the north Atlantic.
The total population of Atlantic salmon used to oscillate at about 1.5 million animals in the 1970s. Now it's declined dramatically to about 600,000 animals. This is an important drop. During the last 20 years, 1993 to 2014, there were a little over half a million animals in this region. It's a small population considering there are over 1,000 rivers in Atlantic Canada that produce salmon. The declines in abundance have been most severe in the southern regions of eastern Canada: the maritime provinces, the Bay of Fundy, the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia. Those rivers have been closed to fishing by all user groups for over a decade. As you go further north, populations are healthier. There is a south-to-north climb in abundance and also in the health of the rivers. We see this relationship between geographic distribution and stock status.
There is continued low abundance of salmon in Canada, despite the significant changes in fisheries management. We've closed commercial fisheries, recreational fisheries, and even indigenous fisheries in some regions. Despite all those closures over the last 25 years, Atlantic salmon abundance has continued to decline. We think it is associated with poor marine survival. Even in places where the freshwater habitat is healthy, marine survival is a problem for these animals. That is the major constraint right now for Atlantic salmon.
I'll finish there. My apologies for taking a little longer than expected.
Thank you very much, Gérald.
I'll be very quick on the last couple of slides.
Slide 18, I already spoke to this, the economic importance of this. The department gets how important this is to Atlantic Canadians. It really is a major part of the economy, a major part of people's livelihoods, and important to the culture, so we don't lightly put restrictions on when we do put restrictions on.
Given the scenario that Gérald has just outlined, slide 19 talks about some of the things that we have done. We have conservation objectives for key rivers. We have reduced daily limits in terms of what can be possessed, and what can be caught and what can be retained. We've established mandatory catch-and-release, especially of large salmon, in many areas where we are concerned. We've closed rivers particularly in areas that align with where COSEWIC has said, “This is now endangered.” There has been a moratorium on commercial fishing since 2000. We've made investments through the recreational fisheries partnership program, and stakeholders have made investments, in particular the Atlantic Salmon Conservation Foundation, into habitat protection. I'm happy to talk about some of that work as well.
The next slide speaks to the ministerial advisory committee. We talked about their four major meetings across Atlantic Canada. They met with 78 groups and made 61 recommendations. The department has reviewed each recommendation, analyzed it to determine what we are doing, what scientific evidence there is, and how we can advance it. It is important to note the report does not say, “This is the problem with respect to Atlantic salmon.” It speaks to a program of work around a number of areas including management, international work, science research, predation studies, etc. It speaks to a broad set of issues. It certainly reflects the department's current activities, and we will be guided largely by it as we go forward.
A number of the recommendations have already been implemented. They did an interim recommendation on catch-release in the Gulf region, and a NASCO strategy seeking for Greenland to adjust their management strategy. We continue to advance on others.
Slide 21 speaks to some of the major pieces of the recommendations, all of which we continue to work on.
With that, we've taken some time. It is important to us, and we know it's important to you. We really welcome the opportunity to be here to answer your questions and assist in any way we can.
I'll preface my remarks by saying the Committee for Atlantic Salmon Tomorrow has put in a huge amount of effort already, as you've pointed out, with private funds and interests to advance salmon conservation. The department is extremely appreciative of that and looks forward to continuing to work with CAST as an ongoing activity.
The specifics of the proposal that you mentioned you've described quite accurately. The proposal is to bring smolts in out of the wild, capture them, and rear them for about 18 months. The logic is that when you put them back into the water in the wild, they'll be faster, stronger, more able to go to sea, and survive longer. Then they'll come back, spawn, and ultimately increase the numbers. That's the theory.
The practice is not yet proven. We don't have any experimental data to suggest that will work. We have a number of concerns. We are always concerned about fish going back to sea and their fitness for survival.
One of the points we've raised with CAST, and with others, is that when you take animals out of the wild and rear them in a hatchery, we think—but do not know for sure—that affects their fitness. By fitness we mean their ability to forage, thrive, and feed.
If you're a captive animal for 18 months, you're being fed and your diet is changing. Instead of feeding in the wild exclusively on fish, you're feeding on man-made feed, so the composition of your feed is changing. We know that certain behavioural changes occur while in captivity. We think there are slight genetic alterations that occur, as well.
When you put those fish back into the wild, they're not the same animal that came out of the water 18 months before. Our concern is to make sure that whatever goes back into the wild is not going to pose any risks whatsoever for existing wild salmon.
The comments and concerns we voiced back to the consortium that was advancing this project were along those lines. We said that before we proceed with a full-scale project of reintroduction, we would like to understand better what those risks are and how to make sure we can mitigate them to the extent they exist. We would like to conduct a smaller-scale experimental design, rather than going for a full-fledged reintroduction program.
Initially we refused the request to collect 5,000 smolts out of the wild with the idea of putting them back in. We have now approved a different proposal with a different experimental design that I could take you into, if you like. We are working with CAST scientists to figure out the experimental methodology going forward. We will wait and allow the experiment to run its course, because what's critical, as Kevin has mentioned, is the future of the species. We don't want to do anything at all that we think would put it at further risk than it already is.
I noticed in your report on page 20 you said that, “The report does not pinpoint any one reason for the declines”. I think that's completely wrong. We know why the fish have declined: too many of them are being killed; it's that simple.
I'm glad, Mr. Chaput, you said that the freshwater habitat quality is largely good, and I'm glad you referenced the recreational fisheries conservation partnerships program. Having fished some of those rivers myself, that assessment of the quality of the freshwater fish habitat is correct.
I want to focus on the issue of open ocean mortality. The only reason for open ocean mortality has to be predation. I can't see there being disease issues, temperature issues, or any of that kind of stuff. So I want to focus on two of the major predators on the Atlantic salmon, the striped bass and the seals.
I did a bit of research on the striped bass and the ICES Journal of Marine Sciencewrote a paper that said, “Moderate to strong correlations were found between estimates of striped bass abundance and the return of Atlantic salmon to three of the four major New England” streams.
In a study on the Merrimack, in Massachusetts, 48% of striped bass had smolts in their stomachs.
In the Miramichi, striped bass abundance has gone up, based on your department's studies in 2014, between 150,000 and 250,000. My understanding is that they were at one point a SARA-list species but now they've become superabundant.
Given their strong tendency to prey on Atlantic salmon smolts, and their vast abundance, why did you curtail the recreational fishery so severely last year when it was recommended to the department, at least by the committee that I was on, that a greatly expanded recreational fishery on the striped bass be allowed?