Media Room

Fight to save Miramichi salmon run goes high-tech

September 13, 2017

The days of waiting an entire year to get a look at the health of the Atlantic salmon population in the Miramichi River watershed are a thing of the past.
Fish movements in the river system are now being tracked live, by researchers with the Collaboration for Atlantic Salmon Tomorrow - a massive, multi-pronged initiative with representation from government, environmental and private sectors trying to get to the bottom of the steadily declining salmon counts on the Miramichi.
CAST is posting up-to-date figures on its newly launched website from data being collected through the use of sonar technology. 
The sonar project is one of several being undertaken by the coalition as it looks to bring clarity to the situation while working toward solutions aimed at restoring the health of the watershed’s legendary run of wild Atlantic salmon.
Representatives from the Canadian Rivers Institute at the University of New Brunswick are leading the charge on this project, after setting up monitoring sites on the Miramichi’s southwest and northwest branches.
Sonar cameras have been in position on the Southwest Miramichi River just below the main bridge in Blackville, as well as on the Little Southwest Miramichi River near Upper Oxbow - which flows into the weaker Northwest Miramichi River - since the summer of 2016.
While there is still some fine-tuning to do in order to improve accuracy, officials with the project say being able to eventually have a running tally of the number of salmon swimming upstream and back out to sea represents a significant step forward in the overarching fight to save the species.
“One huge advantage to the sonar technique is the prospect of automating salmon counts - having people out on the river counting salmon 24 hours a day, seven days a week is not practical,” said Andrew Willett, the executive director of CAST, in a statement released by UNB Friday morning. “Can you imagine what it will mean if we can automate the counts and get a robust and accurate picture of Atlantic salmon stocks? That will certainly help in the effort to manage stocks on the Miramichi and, we hope, aid in a revival.”
The purchase of the sonar cameras was funded by J.D. Irving, Limited, one of the key backers of the CAST initiative.
J.D. Irving, Limited is a privately owned company headquartered in Saint John. Its activities include forestry, paper products, agriculture, food processing, transportation and shipbuilding. Brunswick News newspapers, including the Miramichi Leader, are published by Brunswick News, Inc., a separate company.
The daily counts can be viewed online at castsalmon.com.
All of the data posted to the live tracker comes following a review of the information being collected by the sonar equipment, which has been sunk into the water near the river’s edge and project at total of 96 beams designed to capture the image of any fish that might be swimming by. The fact that literally everything with gills that crosses the path of those monitoring stations is documented as part of the data collection process is one of the challenges that researchers are working on.
Jani Helminen, a PhD student at UNB involved with the project, says that while the sonar imagery is detailed enough to provide a number of clues that can help staff identify the species of fish they’re looking at, he noted there’s still some work to be done in order to maximize that accuracy. “The sonar image is accurate enough so that fish can be clearly counted and measured from the footage,” he said.“But it is not yet possible to tell the species from the image with certainty - although fish size, migration timing and migration behaviour can be used to make useful assessment [of] what the species in the image is.”
The project - officially dubbed the Adaptive Resolution Imaging Sonar initiative - will see research continuing for the next three years with the goal of establishing sonar technology as a trusted, effective method for counting salmon in the Miramichi River. Information has been pouring in since June 1 with the first year of the program expected to continue until November.
Measurement data posted to the website also classifies fish into the “grilse” category, or any fish that falls between 48 and 62 centimetres, and also an “adult salmon” classification of anything 63 centimetres and over.
Dr. Tommi Linnansaari, a UNB biologist and a research associate with the Canadian Rivers Institute, notes that it’s possible that certain species such as striped bass and shad could be included in those numbers.
“The numbers detailed on the new website represent the current knowledge of fish movements in the Miramichi River and indicate seasonal changes of fish movements,” Linnansaari said.
“Although the information is a huge step to better population assessment in Miramichi River, there is still some uncertainty in the numbers and we are working hard to improve the accuracy.”
Up until now, the only way for the public to access salmon counts was through the annual report posted to Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Gulf Region website every spring.
The federal department’s methods harnesses a combination of “mark and capture” experiments based on catches at various monitoring facilities positioned throughout the watershed.
The most recent estimates from the federal department, released in April for the 2016 season, showed a combination of good and bad, with the Southwest continuing to outperform the weaker Northwest system.
The report shows the Southwest Miramichi River system exceeded its spawning requirements last year, recording a 107-per-cent rate, which is up significantly from when it hit 90 per cent of its target in 2015 and from the 70 per cent it posted back in 2014.
The Nor'West - which includes tributaries like the Little Southwest Miramichi and the Sevogle rivers - met only 75 per cent of its spawning targets needed to sustain a healthy population in 2016. However, that's still a fairly stout turnaround from when numbers plummeted to just 25 per cent of its spawning requirement in 2014.

– KRIS MCDAVID Miramichi Leader