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Harvest Linked to Abundance
“the rule is always jam tomorrow and jam yesterday - but never jam today.” - Lewis Carroll - Through the Looking Glass

There is a "catch phrase" being tossed around lately by some proponents of mandatory grilse release. Instead of admitting that they are not likely to support the harvest of a grilse under any circumstances, some suggest that if stocks rebound, they will support a harvest which is linked to abundance. At first glance, this might seem like a reasonable position but upon closer examination, it appears to be a thinly veiled strategy of indefinite postponement.

The problem begins with actually defining abundance and is compounded by the process of determining abundance. It certainly cannot be predicted, as even the most short term predictions are often contradicted by nature's stubborn indifference to man's expertise. It is equally unlikely that abundance will ever be affirmed as having been truly achieved. After all, when was the last time you heard anyone say "we finally have enough fish"? Not in my 45 years behind the counter. The more likely response now is "don't eat that, I might want to play with it later".

Consider veteran angler Art Lee's comment in the Autumn 2013 Atlantic Salmon Journal, "Gotta tell ya. Once upon a time, I hooked, landed and released 19 salmon during a single Icelandic fishing period, losing only one that would have rounded it out nicely had it stuck." Does this "conservationist" sound like someone who might be willing to share his toys? As the old saying goes, too much is never enough.

Far from being a new and enlightened angling ethic, this is really nothing more than an insatiable appetite for entertainment, an appetite which nature is under no obligation to fully satisfy. Contrast this with the oft-maligned local angler who takes home an occasional grilse, shares it with family and friends, and is not immediately driven by a compulsion to eat another. Oddly, the appetite for food is viewed as more destructive, despite the fact that it is much more easily satisfied than the appetite for entertainment. This may explain why we pay our farmers so little and our actors so much.

One observer, who later became president of the Miramichi Salmon Association, summed up this view for Phillip Lee in the 1996 book "Home Pool". "Some New Brunswick residents have resented the fact that there are private pools on their rivers. They think that for the cost of a salmon license they should be able to fish anywhere they want all season long........ Most of our local people feel that they should be able to fish for nothing, It isn't the way of things. It costs a lot to have private pools for your guests to fish in, both in taxes and leases. You can't go golfing for free. I don't know of anything that you can go and enjoy that isn't going to cost you something. Fishing shouldn't be any different from anything else. It's entertainment. There isn't room enough for everybody who wants to go salmon fishing. And I don't know where you draw the dividing line unless it's the people who can afford to pay their way. There's got to be somewhere to draw the line."

In 1998, the Atlantic Salmon Journal postulated "If, hypothetically, each angler killed one grilse each rod day, we would kill every grilse in the river long before the end of the season", completely disregarding the impossibility of that scenario. This doesn't sound like someone who might be willing to share their pet fish, or for that matter, anything else? It sounds more like the old Lays chip commercial: "If I give one to you, I'll have to give one to everybody". The inability of some scientists to understand human behaviour in anything other than numerical terms often results in worst case scenarios being offered to support some presupposed conclusions.

For those who believe that abundance will lead to a reopened fishery, consider this case in point. The grilse retention ban was first introduced on the Northwest and Little Southwest Miramichi in July of 2010. Despite overall strong returns in both 2010 and 2011, the ban was not lifted but was further expanded without any compelling data to prove its effectiveness. Here's a 2010 mid season quote from one of the ban's architects. "What a difference a year makes!" commented Bill Taylor, President of the Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF). "Last year, poor returns of grilse (mature salmon that spend one year at sea before returning to freshwater) were a major concern. This year, grilse are returning in abundance to many rivers. Some rivers in eastern Canada have actually experienced the best returns that they have had in decades."..............."Anglers are seeing lots of salmon in rivers, whether the Humber in Newfoundland, the Cascapedia in Quebec, or the Miramichi in New Brunswick and are reporting good to great fishing depending on water levels and temperatures." (Full Text)

By June of 2011, the ASF's tone had changed. "The federation says the returns of large salmon to North American rivers dipped last year to its second-lowest point in 40 years." "It's not a crisis, but it could be heading in that direction," said Taylor. (Full Text) As the Bangor Daily news reported in June, 2011 "On the heels of one of the worst salmon returns in history, Bill Taylor says large egg-bearing females that seed rivers across the north-eastern seaboard need to be protected." Just for the record, we have been doing exactly that on the Miramichi since 1984.

As most of you clearly remember, the summer of 2011 gave us some of the best fishing we have ever experienced and is still reflected upon by anglers in glowing terms as an unforgettable season. Still, not enough abundance to lift the grilse retention ban on the Northwest or Little Southwest.

Curiously, the abundance of grilse in the Miramichi in 2010 did little to improve our 2014 grilse populations. If grilse are as essential to spawning as we have been led to believe, we should have seen a more positive result in 2014. This pattern is also reflected in the dramatic decline in our 1996 and 1997 returns after the legendary 1992 spike in grilse counts.

In light of the conservation industry's history of self contradiction, can we really expect a fair and scientifically based assessment of abundance from them. With a few influential voices dictating their scientific policy, it seems unlikely that we will hear anything different for quite some time.

If you fish the Main Southwest Miramichi, you know that every fish you have ever landed has been spawned during a multi-tag grilse retention fishery. You also understand that every grilse you catch is already directly linked to abundance, inasmuch as your best and most persistent efforts will still only result in the potential harvest of a small percentage of the available run. If you fish the Little Southwest or Northwest Miramichi, you probably realize that the past 6 years of mandatory release of grilse has been neither scientifically proven nor practically demonstrated to have helped the returns to those rivers. If you fished anywhere on the public waters of the Miramichi last season, you must have been struck by how few fishermen you encountered. Only the most disconnected and aloof would dare to suggest that 2015's local angler presence was anything close to normal.

Last year, in the combined absence of solid data and sound analytics, the Miramichi was subjected to a massive misdiagnosis, amid great pomp and circumlocution. Several indicators which belied the uncertainty of the analysis were dismissed out of hand in a rush to perform an invasive and unnecessary surgery which has eviscerated our local fishery. Rather than being exposed for the malpractice that it was, it has been heralded by some as their crowning achievement and is now paving the way for the introduction of a new management paradigm.

For those who have visited the Miramichi over the years, you know that your experience here has been enhanced by the courtesy of the local fishery. Unlike on some rivers, through our respect for private property, recognition of riparian ownership, considerate exercise of navigation rights and our shared collective knowledge, local anglers have always welcomed and befriended those who visit this verdant valley. Surely it is not an unreasonable request to ask for a little consideration and respect toward us in return.

If we have any hope of returning this precious resource to a state of abundance, we will need to recognize abundance as a by-product of a shared and equitably managed grilse retention fishery, not an elusive pretext for the indefinite perpetuation of this current fiasco.

Jerry Doak
February 2016