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The Miramichi needs a voice, not a spokesman.

Link to DFO Recreational Salmon Fishing Survey
Nostalgia Isn't What It Used To Be
By Jerry Doak
"Everything looks worse in black and white" sang Paul Simon in "Kodachrome", commenting on how imagination colours all our reflective memories, a metaphor he later revisits in "My Little Town". Imagination is a wonderful thing, but it is hardy a sound basis for good management and is often a source of discontentment.

For many years, people have been told that nothing in nature is as good as it once was, and somehow it is all our fault. This is usually accompanied by a proposed solution and a plea for a donation to help assuage our guilt. The salmon world is no different, nor is its nostalgia any more accurate. Selective memories block out a lot of fishless days and fail to contextualize those memories which are both vividly treasured and often reported as regular occurrences.

In 2004, Ed Baum, a fisheries scientist with Atlantic Salmon Unlimited, made this observation in the Bangor Daily News: "Over time, numerous popular articles have exaggerated the abundance of New England salmon runs (walking across the river on their backs, using them for fertilizer, prohibiting serving the fish too often in lumber camps, etc.) Fisheries scientists discounted those stories long ago, yet they persist in the media because they make good copy. Such stories are commonly told about fish and fishing worldwide." (Full Text)

Growing up on the Miramichi in the 1960's, I was keenly aware at a young age that our river had its share of both good and bad years. It was an era when spray planes rained down DDT to kill, among other things, the spruce budworm and it was a time when commercial nets were filtering out all but the smallest of salmon. So vigorous was this interception that the only time most people fished was when the nets were lifted on the week-ends, allowing a few salmon to make it through unscathed. I remember Herbie Wade of the legendary Wade's Fishing Lodge telling me that in those days, their outfitting business revenue was 60% from the spring salmon kelt fishery, 30% from the fall run and only 10% from summer fishing.

As J. W. Bud Bird rightly observed, "In those earlier years there was a vigorous commercial fishery and, apparently with no application of scientific knowledge then, the nets were sized to let only the grilse (the so-called "young fish") survive, on the premise they would grow up to become the source of future Salmon populations. This was also convenient business wisdom at the time, because it allowed the nets to capture virtually all the mature adult Salmon, thus enhancing the commercial bounty of the harvest. As most of us will well remember, almost all our great Salmon rivers became populated primarily with grilse, and it was a rare site to even see a large fish roll to the surface." (Full Text)

In 1998, a young director of the ASF challenged me in the store by saying "You have to admit. This river is nothing like it used to be 20 years ago" to which I replied "You don't remember this river 20 years ago." He admitted that his information was purely anecdotal, but, he presumed, reliable. He is still a director of the ASF and now also the MSA and he probably continues to believe his delusion. Regrettably, like many others, he has a platform from which to declare and act upon his misconception.

To be clear, 1977 was an excellent year for the Miramichi, immediately followed by 6 terrible years where the fishing was extremely challenging and the runs were dwindling steadily. The downward spiral was not reversed until 1984 when a grass roots movement of river people finally convinced fisheries minister Pierre DeBane to remove the commercial nets which Minister Romeo LeBlanc had re-introduced in 1981. In exchange for that measure, anglers agreed to release all large, multi- sea winter salmon. Not only did this move make perfect biological sense, it was also instrumental in the rebounded stocks we enjoyed throughout the late 1980s. It is, however, useful to note that those dismally low adult numbers of the early 1980's were still able to spawn some excellent returns of Miramichi fish 4 and 5 years later.

During that resurgence of the fishery, many stretches of water were purchased at high prices by people with great expectations. Salmon, like the rest of nature, are cyclical creatures and when runs are strong, mediocre pools are productive. However, in lean years, they are less so, as salmon tend to populate premium pools first. The health of the river is often misjudged by those whose expectations for their stretch of water is simply not born out by history.

A little historical context might be in order before we indulge the next round of complaints from people who's memory may be selective at best. Keep in mind that many pools where people recall having had great fishing are now off limits to the public, through the encroachment and assertion of riparian ownership. Were they still accessible, they might still be producing some memorable moments, and probably still are for a select few.

As for me, I do find myself longing for the days when our conservation groups had the courage to stand and declare that the salmon angler is the solution and not the problem. As for the health of my beloved Miramichi river, I wouldn't trade the present for any time in my previous 59 years. As another Simon, Carly, sang in "Anticipation", perhaps we should be content to "stay right here, 'cause these are the good old days."