Sunday, November 20, 2011

RESTORATION: Good news from the Petitcodiac River

Microgadus tomcodTomcod Image via WikipediaStill recovering from the battering it's received at the hands of mankind, the poor Petitcodiac River still has a way to go before achieving anything close to full health.

But judging from the Petitcodiac Fish Recovery Coalition's fish trap results for this year, we are at least starting to make amends for strangling the life out of the river for more than two generations.

The coalition first set up its fish trap last year, just after the gates blocking the river at the Moncton-Riverview causeway were opened for good. Not much changed that year, but then again, since the gates had only just been opened and thus the headpond still existed until a short time earlier, no great results were anticipated. This spring the trap was set up again near the old railway trestle at Salisbury and the improvement in returns of some species was nothing short of striking, especially considering this trap only catches a sampling of the fish travelling upstream, not all of the fish.

No Atlantic salmon were trapped in 2011 after one smolt was caught in the previous year - likely that fish was confused because a smolt should have been going out to sea, not upstream and into the fish trap at that time of year - and those who think that opening the causeway gates was a mistake will seize upon the dearth of salmon so far as evidence of their claim. What those people refuse to consider is that it has always been known that restoring already endangered inner Bay of Fundy salmon to this river will take time, maybe even decades, if it happens at all. The opening of the gates was never about just the salmon; it was always about the passage of all native species of fish upstream beyond the causeway gates, and that is not a subject for debate but rather a raw fact.

Still, one salmon did make it upstream in 2011 even though it didn't land in the trap - its sonar tag's signal was picked up as it made its way to wherever it was going - a good sign indeed, in particular because the fish was one of several that had been released earlier in the year in the Bay of Fundy, and only one in 10 of those fish was tagged, making it somewhat improbable that the tagged fish was the only one of the releasees to make its way up the Petitcodiac River.

Could this - or these - salmon represent the vanguard of the permanent, naturally recurring return of Fundy salmon to the Petitcodiac, where our parents and grandparents used to angle for majestic Atlantics until the 1960s? Only time can answer that question.

Perhaps a better indication of how opening the gates has benefited the river - can there be a better indicator of a river's health than its fish? - is the presence of a much greater diversity of fish this year compared to previous years when the gates were closed. And nowhere is this more eyebrow-raising than in the sudden return of the striped bass. Where not a single striper was detected above the causeway for many decades, two baby bass showed up in early summer with more babies following throughout the season, followed by a stream of two-year-old fish later last summer, in turn followed by more mature fish in the fall, for a total return of 158 fish. And remember, this trap was not designed to catch every fish in the river, so it is quite likely that the number of stripers or any other species mentioned here was actually higher than the coalition's annual report cites.

Of particular note, the stripers seemed to make their way upstream of the causeway during periods when the tides were highest - surely an indication of the importance of restoring the tidal influence above that abominable structure.

Also rebounding in great numbers are the tomcod, and coincidentally or not the tommycod were also considered, like the stripers, to be gone forever from the waters above the causeway.

Where a single tomcod was found in the fish trap last year, the first seen that far upstream for decades, last year 1,316 tommycod were recorded, again with the period of most abundance coinciding with the highest tides of each month.

The news hasn't been as great for some native Petitcodiac species, however. For example, shad used to be plentiful upstream of the causeway but not a single specimen has been seen in decades. A single shad was detected this year, but it was well outside its usual spawning run, so who knows what that means? Likely only that we have a long way to go yet in restoring the river.

The number of gaspereaux fell precipitously this year compared to last, but that could be explained by the annual migration going by the fish trap prior to it being installed last spring. Somewhat similarly, no rainbow smelt were detected last year or this year, but perhaps the smelt passed by before the trap was set up.

And just two trout were counted as well, again demonstrating that there's a lot of work left to do yet.

Thanks to the coalition's efforts, we can see the turnaround that is occurring in the river. We can also see the extent of the damage we've done and that it's going to take some time before the river forgives us our trespasses.

Still, the progress is remarkable given the relatively tiny tidal opening the fish have to work with compared to pre-1968, when we decided to choke the river almost to death. Imagine what might happen if the federal and provincial governments own up to their crime against nature and fully restore the most significant natural feature of this entire area once and for all.

* James Foster is a Times & transcript reporter and avid outdoorsman. His column appears on Fridays.

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