Partners in a Wild Notion
By Deborah Irvine Anderson
The Inner Bay of Fundy Atlantic Salmon were declared endangered in 2003. Of the more than 40 rivers that were home to the species, mostly have none now.
By Deborah Irvine Anderson
But there is good news. The Fundy Salmon Recovery project is a world’s first. It’s innovation is simple, yet effective. The recovery program collects juvenile salmon from the Upper Salmon River in New Brunswick’s Fundy National Park after they’ve hatched in the wild. The parr overwinter in a hatchery and in the spring they are moved to an ocean environment where they are raised to maturity in a marine farm run by Cooke Aquaculture that is dedicated to growing wild Atlantic salmon. When mature, they are brought back to the Upper Salmon and Petitcodiac Rivers to spawn.
Compared to many other conservation efforts, researchers at the Fundy Salmon Recovery Project are seeing results. And it’s due in large part to a wide variety of stakeholders working together: Parks Canada, Cooke Aquaculture, the Atlantic Canada Fish Farmers Association, the Province of New Brunswick, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the University of New Brunswick, the Atlantic Salmon Law Enforcement Coalition and Fort Folly First Nation.
The Inner Bay of Fundy salmon is a unique strain. Unlike most Atlantic salmon which leave their home rivers on the eastern seaboard and travel across the ocean to Greenland and return back to their home river to spawn, the Inner Bay of Fundy salmon stay within the cool waters of the Bay of Fundy and Gulf of Maine all year long. And they’ve been struggling to survive for decades.
The stock in the project come from eggs held at the live gene bank at the Mactaquac Biodiversity Facility, a hatchery 200 kilometres away. They are descended from remnant wild salmon from Fundy Park saved almost twenty years ago.
“If the hatchery wasn’t involved, there would be no fish for us to work with,” said scientist Kurt Samways with the Canadian Rivers Institute at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. “We’d be like every other river in the inner bay of fundy with no salmon. The hatchery has kept this genetic stock alive and allowed us to try this new strategy.”
The Mactaquac Biodiversity Facility was built in 1968. Its hatchery sits on the banks of the Saint John River, 15 minutes outside New Brunswick’s capital city Fredericton. For almost 50 years the 5.3 hectare site has dedicated itself to researching and saving various species of fish native to New Brunswick. Each day, as much as 70 million litres of well and river water are used to raise more than two million eggs and up to one million fish of various life stages.
Operated by the federal department of Fisheries and Oceans, it houses the world’s largest Atlantic salmon conservation hatchery.
“Our department has worked since the late 1990s to maintain this population through Live Gene Banking in the hopes that this iconic species will recover,” Dominic LeBlanc, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard said in a news release. “When it comes to conservation and rebuilding stocks, we all have a role to play, which is why partnerships such as these are so important.”
Gene bank program
Fundy Park first partnered with the live gene bank almost twenty years ago.
“The Mactaquac DFO’s live gene bank program is key as it safeguards our population from extirpation, while we continue to improve our recovery method design,” says Fundy Park ecologist Corey Clarke.
When the project first began, juvenile salmon from the park were captured, raised at the hatchery, spawned at the hatchery and returned to the river at various stages. Fundy Park’s monitoring showed that fish with more captive exposure had lower levels of wild fitness.
With this knowledge in mind the team captures parr from the river for transfer to the Mactaquac Biodiversity Facility.
“We rear them in 25-foot concrete swede ponds. The numbers we receive are at the mercy of the success of electrofishing crews within the Park, but the numbers have been in the range of 500 to 2000, the latter being preferred,” says facility manager John Whitelaw. “Being wild captured fish, the first challenge is transitioning the fish to an artificial diet.”
The facility uses freeze-dried krill as the intermediary food source and transitions the fish to a commercially available feed once they are feeding well on the krill. Whitelaw says it takes about two months.
“The following spring the majority have smoltified, and approximately 300 are retained for future broodstock,” he says. “Salinity tolerance trials confirm the remainder are ready and available for transport to the marine conservation pens.”
Clarke says John Whitelaw and the DFO staff at the Mactaquac facility have been invaluable, advising the project every step of the way when it comes to fish health and feeding.
“They have a wealth of expertise there. The Mactaquac facility is really world class and so are its staff,” says Clarke.
The next step of the project is truly unique.
Dark Harbour, Grand Manan is famous for its dulse: sun-dried seaweed that ranks with fiddleheads and salmon as a traditional New Brunswick culinary delight. This sheltered harbour is the perfect spot for salmon farming, affected by the bay’s famous high tides, yet sheltered from more severe weather.
Dark Harbour is also home to the world’s first Wild Atlantic Salmon Marine Conservation Farm. Salmon farmers at Cooke Aquaculture collaborate with the the scientists from DFO, Fundy National Park and UNB to improve the chances of young wild Atlantic Salmon. This is where the smolts will live for the next few years until they reach maturity, monitored and fed daily by salmon farmers on site.
“Wild Atlantic salmon are incredibly important to our region, to our environment, to our people and our culture. The Fundy Salmon Recovery collaboration is a perfect example of the positive impact we can have when we pool our knowledge and our resources toward a shared goal,” said Glenn Cooke, CEO of Cooke Aquaculture in a news release. “Seeing these fish in their native waters is a tremendous payoff that we’re all proud of.”
Aquaculture a key
Involving aquaculture in conservation has been key to the success of the program says Clarke. Each fall, a team of biologists from all project partners survey the salmon in the pen, identifying which ones are mature and ready to make the journey back to Fundy Park. When the time comes, the salmon are transported via truck, ferry and then by helicopter to the Upper Salmon River.
The annual release day is the culmination of hard work by the diverse group of stakeholders that make up the Fundy Salmon Recovery Collaboration.
“Salmon are so important to us and are an essential part of a healthy ecosystem on which we all depend,” says Rebecca Knockwood, Chief of Fort Folly First Nation. “We are happy to have this opportunity to reconnect our youth with the land and this iconic species through this work.”
“Our biggest success is the partnership. It’s not easy to get all these groups on the same page.” says scientist Kurt Samways with the Canadian Rivers Institute at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. “It’s quite an emotional day, seeing everybody come together so seamlessly, all the partners working together. It’s like, ‘Wow, look what we’ve been able to do.’”
What they’ve been able to do is resuscitate a river whose salmon were all but gone. The program is seeing historically high numbers of fish returning to this river. In 2012 they counted 42 fish, a 20 year high. In 2015 smolt production was higher than expected on the river owing to good survival of offspring produced during those returns in 2012. They began releasing adult fish again in 2015 and again have seen bumps in adults returning/surviving until the following year in both 2016 and 2017.
After the release, biologists and researchers from the University of New Brunswick and Fundy National Park monitor the fish using two kinds of monitors: PIT tags and radio transmitters. They gather a variety of data, tracking the fish, genetics, and river nutrient levels.
Clarke is thrilled with the success he’s seen so far in Fundy National Park.
“We are seeing adults that we release survive from year to year to come back and spawn again. So already the ecosystem in Fundy National park has improved.”
The project has been so successful the park now offers opportunities for park visitors to book exclusive swim with the salmon experiences each fall. And local authorities are worrying about poaching.
Replicating the success
The project’s success isn’t going unnoticed. Members of the team were recently in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia to consult with the national park there. The park hopes what’s been learned from the New Brunswick team can be replicated in other places facing salmon stock crises.
All partners agree the key to success now and in the future is having everyone involved from government and academia to aquaculture and First Nations.
“Time will tell how profound the impact of this project is on conserving Inner Bay of Fundy salmon. What is an unarguable and immediate success is the cooperation and collaboration of a multitude of partners working together on this common goal,” says Whitelaw. “Something as formidable as conserving an endangered species cannot be done by one group, department, agency or industry. The breadth and depth of this collaboration and the collective work being done with this Fundy Salmon Recovery project is nothing short of impressive.”
Photos by Nigel Fearon
Sea cages at Dark Harbour, Grand Manan, New Brunswick the home of the world’s first Wild Atlantic Salmon Marine Conservation Farm operated by Cooke Aquaculture.
Salmon are collected at the hatchery in Mactaquac before transportation to the Wild Atlantic Salmon Marine Conservation Farm.
Fundy National Park ecologist Corey Clarke (foreground) and other team members of the Fundy Salmon Recovery Project at the sea cages in Dark Harbour, Grand Manan, NB.
A helicopter delivers adult salmon to team members of the Fundy Salmon Recovery Project at Upper Salmon River in Fundy National Park.
Fundy Park ecologist Corey Clarke.
Aerial view picture of hatchery:
The Mactaquac Biodiversity Facility sits on the banks of the Saint John River, just outside New Brunswick’s capital Fredericton and minutes from New Brunswick Power’s hydroelectric dam at Mactaquac.