Hakai Magazine

Upper Salmon river at outgoing tide and sunrise, Bay of Fundy
For the past 20 years, researchers and the Fort Folly First Nation have been preserving the inner Bay of Fundy Atlantic salmon. Thanks to their efforts, this year saw a small but crucial run return to the Upper Salmon River in New Brunswick. Photo by agefotostock/Alamy Stock Photo

Returning Fundy’s Fish to the Wild

From the gene bank to the wild, a novel conservation effort has brought the inner Bay of Fundy Atlantic salmon back from the brink.

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by Amanda Leslie

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In 2015, I was floating in a drysuit, my face submerged, when I noticed something silver dart between the rocks along the riverbed. My mask had started to fog, but I was able to make out a distinctive yellow tag. The salmon moved toward me, its lips edging closer to the lens of my GoPro before scurrying off. The fish might not have appeared remarkable, but it was. This fish had managed to overcome the 95 percent-plus mortality rate that claims most of the Atlantic salmon in the Bay of Fundy. I turned my head to watch this unlikely survivor disappear upstream—one of just six Atlantic salmon that I observed that afternoon.

That I saw any salmon at all that day was remarkable. But these weren’t just any salmon. These were inner Bay of Fundy (iBoF) Atlantic salmon—one of the 16 genetically distinct populations of Atlantic salmon in Canada. Fifty years ago, 40,000 iBoF salmon returned to 32 rivers that empty into the Bay of Fundy between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. By the late 1990s, that number had dropped to 200. A few years later, there was a season when no fish came back at all.

The population would have been lost forever if researchers at Fundy National Park in New Brunswick hadn’t started preserving a live gene bank of wild salmon. In 2001, scientists and technicians from Parks Canada started working with the Fort Folly First Nation to round up living fish, keeping them in a hatchery at the Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s (DFO) Mactaquac Biodiversity Facility in a last-ditch effort to protect the population’s unique genetics. Over the past two decades, that effort has evolved into a groundbreaking recovery program that has been offering a glimmer of hope for this endangered population.

John Whitelaw, a biologist formerly with DFO, took over as leader of the iBoF Atlantic salmon project last year. Growing up near the Medway River in Nova Scotia, Whitelaw has spent most of his life around Atlantic salmon. He watched his neighbors reel in silvery scales and pale pink bellies until he was old enough to fish himself. Whitelaw remembers when the salmon population started to decline, prompting him to join the growing number of people rallying to help. “I couldn’t shake my connection to the species,” he says.

To help the population rebuild, Whitelaw and his colleagues have been carrying out recovery efforts at multiple locations in Fundy National Park. Their approach is designed to simultaneously tackle two goals: preserving the unique lineage of the iBoF Atlantic salmon with the help of the live gene bank, and growing the natural population with assistance from a marine conservation farm.

The researchers are breeding iBoF Atlantic salmon at the Mactaquac hatchery and releasing their offspring into an isolated watershed in Fundy National Park. This gives the juveniles experience living in the wild before they are re-collected as adults and transported back to the hatchery to start the cycle over again. But the researchers are also collecting wild salmon from the park and moving them to a marine conservation farm with the help of industry partners such as Cooke Aquaculture and the Atlantic Canada Fish Farmers Association. There, they are reared in net pens with surplus fish from the live gene bank, protected from the perils of the open ocean until they have matured. The fish, now adults, are brought back to their home rivers to spawn—seeding a new generation of wild fish.

One of these sites is Black Hole, along the Upper Salmon River. In the 1800s, men spent frigid winters there clearing large swaths of trees, mostly red spruce, white pine, and balsam fir. Come spring, the snow melted, flooding ravines and valleys, and the men drove the logs downriver. The activity carved a deep pool into the terrain, and now that the logging industry has come and gone and the forest returned, the area is a waypoint for a small but growing population of Atlantic salmon on their journey upriver to spawn. It’s here that I spotted my six silvery fish.

Since my visit years ago, park scientists have continued to make progress. Twenty-four Atlantic salmon returned to two of Fundy National Park’s rivers in 2019. In 2020, minimum estimates show that number has risen to 38. “It’s rarely a straight line or perfect curve in nature,” Whitelaw says. “But if you take a snapshot of the last five years, there’s a definite increasing trend.”

“I’ve heard people remark that recovering wild Atlantic salmon is one of the greatest conservation challenges that we are facing today,” says Neville Crabbe, executive director of communications at the Atlantic Salmon Federation, a 25,000-member organization dedicated to restoring wild Atlantic salmon that isn’t directly involved in the Fundy project. “If human efforts stopped, there’s nothing to suggest the population would persist. But the goal of a recovery program is to use these interventions to get things back to a point where nature can take over again.”

This momentum has led to a regional collaboration between various national parks in the Maritimes, including Fundy, Cape Breton Highlands, Gros Morne, Terra Nova, and Kouchibouguac. By combining projects focused on salmon populations in various stages of recovery and decline, Parks Canada staff can learn from each other while assessing the impact of recovery actions across the region. The project’s success is inspiring a similar effort in Maine.

The Government of Canada has also announced the creation of the first Parks Canada Research Chair in Aquatic Restoration, building on research linkages at the University of New Brunswick, along with an additional CAN $431,000 in funding for Atlantic salmon recovery.

Whitelaw admits they still have a long way to go. But there is no mistaking the cautious optimism in his voice when he tells me that, in the Bay of Fundy, the Atlantic salmon population is finally moving in the right direction.