• An Atlantic salmon leaping in northern Newfoundland. Maritime salmon stocks have become seriously depleted over the past decade, and conservation groups say current catch-and-release policies don't go far enough. (Photo: Tom Moffatt/Atlantic Salmon Federation)

For the second year in a row, anglers casting for Atlantic salmon in the Maritimes will be operating under a federally regulated catch-and-release policy designed to prevent the already dangerously low population of the fish from decreasing further.

“Atlantic salmon is an iconic species and part of the culture, economy and history of Atlantic Canada. As such, conservation of Atlantic salmon is paramount,” said Fisheries and Oceans Minister Hunter Tootoo in an April 13 release. “This decision, which rests on sound science, is another step in our efforts to further contribute to the conservation and rebuilding of Atlantic salmon stocks.”

The Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF) welcomed the decision.

“2014 was a crisis year,” said Sue Scott, the ASF's vice-president of communications. “There were very, very poor runs, especially in the Miramichi River, the largest and most renowned in New Brunswick. None of the salmon population met their conservation targets — in fact they were well below.”

The ASF has reported a continual decrease in the number of returning salmon throughout different recreational fishing areas of the Maritimes, and in the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. One of the hardest hit recreational fishing sites is the Miramichi River.

According to the Miramichi Salmon Association, in 1992 the number of returning salmon was 189,000. This had dropped by almost 91 per cent in 2014, when only 17,000 returning salmon were reported.

Many factors have contributed to the depletion of the Atlantic salmon population, including overharvesting, changes in water temperature, food shortages and commercial fishing as far away as Greenland.

These issues had prompted the Conservative government to create a ministerial advisory committee to look into the problems. In July 2015, the committee produced a special report containing 61 recommendations.

Scott said she’s only the government take action on one recommendation: to reduce fish mortality from recreational fishing. She said that the other recommendations—which include habitat improvement and changes to commercial fishing practices—must also receive attention if salmon stocks are to recover.

“We’re very happy that the live release policy is happening,” said Scott, “but there’s a much bigger story here. The recommendations are a blueprint to solving the problems, and we have to look at all the issues throughout the fish’s lifecycle.”

Scott noted that a huge problem in the Maritimes is enforcing the catch-and-release policy.

“Poaching is a problem,” she said. “We need better enforcement, more officers on the river, better reporting methods.”