Volunteers angle to boost salmon in St. Mary’s River

ST. MARY’S — A year after federal research showed that the once-threatened Atlantic salmon had made a convincing comeback in the St Mary’s River, a just-completed seasonal program led by local volunteers indicates that the “king of fish” continues to hold its own in one of Canada’s most storied angling streams.

“We [caught] the required 30 salmon in seven days, with 346 St. Mary’s River Association (SMRA) volunteer hours spent on the project,” Scott Beaver, SMRA president, told The Journal last week about the annual kelt fishing initiative, which began this year on April 1. “It was a successful season, indeed.”

Beaver explained that collecting kelts (salmon that overwinter in the watershed) and sending them to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans biodiversity facility in Coldbrook in the Annapolis Valley to undergo “a process of reconditioning” before being released back into the river is part of a SMRA conservation program that’s been underway for years.

“Team members started work on a salmon recovery paper back in 2010, which was completed in 2013,” he said. “[We] then decided to focus on four main aspects within that report: habitat restoration; stock enhancement; water chemistry issues; and predators, including invasive species. Since spring 2015, our volunteers have been working hard on all of these aspects setting us on a path to salmon recovery.”

The kelt initiative involves volunteers in boats braving Guysborough County’s infamous April weather to cast their lines. Said Beaver: “SMRA applies for a special license from DFO that allows a spring window for angling.”

Once landed, the fish are carefully bundled off to Coldbrook where, “a geneticist actually analyzes each salmon and lays out a mating plan to ensure that sisters and brothers are not mating with each other; [the idea is] to keep diversity in the species as strong as possible.”

Scientists are also “very careful at the hatchery to make sure [our] salmon are kept separate from other salmon. This is another way the genetic profile of the St Mary’s River salmon stays true ... Milt (seminal fluid) from St. Mary’s salmon is cryogenically frozen and stored at the biological station in Saint Andrews, New Brunswick, just in case there is a catastrophe.”

The 30 kelt caught this year will join more fish – some of which were housed earlier at Coldbrook – from St Mary’s, “which will make up next season’s progeny,” said Beaver, who added: “We [also] release about 300,000 salmon fry (juveniles) back into the river each spring.”

Last year, results from a long-running research project by the federal government showed that the St. Mary’s River was home to 356 juvenile salmon in 2021 and 2022 – by far the largest tally observed in any of the 38 major Maritime rivers surveyed. “This puts the St. Mary’s leaps and bounds ahead of the others,” Deirdre Green, Nova Scotia program director for the Atlantic Salmon Federation, told The Journal last May.

In recent municipal planning consultations with residents, the St. Mary’s River has figured prominently as a centrepiece of sustainable economic and recreational development for the entire area. Said Beaver last week: “With cutbacks in federal project funding and limited DFO personnel, projects like ours cannot be successful without the volunteer aspect.”

Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Guysborough Journal