Advocates fear a federal designation could spell the end of catch-and-release fishing on some or all of eastern Cape Breton's rivers and streams.
Ottawa is considering listing Atlantic salmon in the region as endangered under its Species at Risk Act (SARA).
But even if the salmon population is listed as endangered, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said it won't automatically stop recreational fishing.
Bill Haley, president of the Margaree Salmon Association, said successful salmon stocking programs and hatcheries are helping conservation efforts.
"The weak link in most of this is the investment in science hasn't been there where DFO are concerned for almost a few decades," Haley said.
Salmon populations at risk
Despite a recommendation from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) in 2010, DFO hasn't officially labelled eastern Cape Breton salmon as endangered.
COSEWIC is an independent advisory panel that meets twice a year to assess the status of wildlife species at risk of extinction. Despite a species designation, populations can only be protected by Ottawa.
In 2013 and 2014, DFO conducted two reviews on the species' recovery potential. The news was not good.
Although some populations in eastern Cape Breton were viewed as being closer to their conservation requirements, substantial declines were found in other populations such as those in the Grand and Clyburn rivers.
In a 2020 report, the Atlantic Salmon Federation said estimated number of egg depositions in Middle, Baddeck and North rivers was below conservation requirements.
But Haley feels a lot of time has passed since COSEWIC first made its recommendation. Since that time, he said the provincial Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture has run a successful salmon stocking program on the Baddeck and Middle rivers.
He's also concerned an SARA designation in eastern watersheds would add more pressure on the world-renowned Margaree River, which brings seasonal tourists each year to Cape Breton.
"Given accurate data, we have confidence that they will make responsible decisions," said Haley.
'Part of our heritage'
Nova Scotia Salmon Association executive member Mike Bardsley said salmon fishing is a part of the province's fabric.
"We are all conservationists," he said. "But part of that means when we can recover the population to the point where it's thriving, we create the opportunity for recreational angling and that is a distinct part of our heritage."
Bardsley said the association would like to see changes to the way SARA listings are managed.
"We don't want to be the generation that closes the book on Atlantic salmon angling in Nova Scotia, and unfortunately a precedent would suggest to us, that when listed under SARA, it's very easy for a river to be closed to angling."
In an emailed statement, DFO said that even if listed as endangered, decisions on fisheries closures will be made on a case-by-case basis, while options for catch-and-release fishing will be considered if they do not impact conservation efforts.
In addition to listing Atlantic salmon in eastern Cape Breton as endangered, Ottawa is also considering listing salmon in the Gaspé-southern Gulf of St. Lawrence as a special concern and striped bass in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence as a special concern.
DFO is now finalizing its listing advice for its own minister, along with the minister of environment and climate change, in making a recommendation to cabinet.
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