Published April 8, 2015 - 9:38pm
“They fight like the devil,” Gerry Doucette said Wednesday.
“And they’re a tremendous eating fish.”
The Antigonish angler was talking about striped bass.
In the shadow of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ much-publicized announcement Tuesday, that the Maritime provinces’ recreational salmon fishery will be catch-and-release only, was the extension of the striped bass fishing season in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The long decline of salmon runs over the past 20 years has garnered public attention.
Meanwhile, the striped bass populations have exploded in the southern gulf to numbers not seen in living memory.
The population change is all the more shocking considering so far as anyone knows, the entire southern gulf population only has one spawning river — the North-west Miramichi River in New Brunswick — and during the early 2000s their numbers were so low they were considered for listing as threatened.
The recreational catch-and-release season for anglers will open May 1 and continue until Oct. 31.
During four periods of that season, anglers will be able to keep one fish a day. Those periods are May 11 to 31, Aug. 1 to 23, Sept. 24 to 30, and Oct. 24 to 31.
To make it a bit more complicated, that one fish kept by anglers must be between 50 and 65 centimetres long.
It was complicated rules like this, warned Doucette, that led to some anglers accidentally running afoul of the law after recreational fishing for striped bass opened two years ago.
The Antigonish Rivers Association, of which Doucette is a member, recommended to Fisheries and Oceans that a daily bag limit of five fish be set for the entire season of May 1 to Oct 31, with no closures.
“We asked that knowing that you never get what you ask for,” Doucette said.
“There are concerns and there are opportunities with this species. The concerns are around what they are (preying) upon, and there is an opportunity to develop this into a very lucrative recreational fishery, as it is on the eastern seaboard of the United States.”
But Fisheries and Oceans has opted for the cautious middle ground.
“I think this is a boom and bust species,” said Wayne Fairchild, a research scientist with the department.
“Due to environmental conditions you can lose an entire year class.”
Fairchild is two years into a three-year study of striped bass stomach contents that is so far dispelling some concerns of salmon anglers.
Only two per cent of the striped bass caught at the mouth of the Miramichi River, when salmon smolts would be running out in the spring, contained the juvenile salmon.
The main species found in the predators’ stomachs were, in order of frequency, smelt, gaspereau, insects and crustaceans.
The only proven spawning ground for southern Gulf of St. Lawrence striped bass is in the Northwest Miramichi River. The fish make their way from all the coastal estuaries and swim up the river to the head of the tide where the ocean’s salt water meets fresh water.
When the salinity is just right, the fish begin breeding.
“The temperature has to be just right, the salinity has to be just right,” said Art Redden, who lives on the Shubenacadie River, where the Bay of Fundy striped bass population breeds.
“But when all those factors are lined up, all hell breaks loose and it’s something to behold.”
While the population is strong in the Bay of Fundy too, Redden said it’s important to protect the few locations where striped bass spawn.