by Ches Loughlin
Almost 25 years ago in 1984, DFO introduced the two-grilse limit. I was president of SPAWN at the time and presided over the largest annual meeting we ever had. It was held at the Arts and Culture Centre in Corner Brook and was called to advise members and other anglers of what was afoot for the 1984 salmon angling season.
The hall was jammed and the meeting was interrupted when a Grand Falls angler made a presentation citing that the basic rights of anglers were being ruined and went on to say that anglers should not have the privilege of killing a large salmon taken from them. He was not concerned that the Atlantic salmon stocks were in serious jeopardy but felt anglers had a right to keep them the same as they always did.
I explained to the assembled anglers that really there were only two choices: catch and release or a complete shutdown of Atlantic salmon angling. Here is a part of my presentation:
The large, prized Atlantic salmon is in danger of extinction in most of our rivers. Anglers who fish regularly and have 20 years experience or more say they have not caught a large fish in years. However, they can remember when large runs of big fish were nearly as plentiful as grilse in rivers like the Gander, the Humber, the Codroy and Bay St. George rivers. Where are they gone? Research has shown that the smolt (young salmon leaving the rivers) from all countries of the world destined to become salmon stray far from their home rivers to winter off Greenland. Others feed in the Labrador sea.
Distances travelled are so great that they must, of necessity, stay two or more winters before returning to their streams of origin. Grilse (one sea winter fish) on the other hand tend to feed closer to home and stay at sea only one winter, weighing only 3 to 5 pounds when returning compared to the 8 to 30 pounds of their longer-wintering cousins.
When the Greenland commercial fishery started originally the slaughter of these large fish was enormous, and stocks of salmon all over the world declined sharply. While the Greenland fishery has been on a quota system for some years, salmon have not been able to rally. (The Greenland fishery is now closed thanks to ASF).
North American salmon (including our own) had been further hard hit by the commercial fishery off Newfoundland which had been taking too many large fish, and as a result a major decline has taken place in our stocks. (NL fishery now closed.)
Large salmon are vitally important for spawning purposes since most of them are females and produce large numbers of big eggs. The fry from these eggs are particularly strong and vigorous and produce smolt with a higher survival rate. A 20-pound salmon will produce from 15,000 to 20,000 superior eggs compared to about 2,000 to 2,500 smaller eggs from a four- pound grilse. The solution proposed to overcome this problem was to make adjustments to the commercial fishery on the front end of the season to permit more of the large salmon to come into our rivers. (The large salmon come in mainly in the early runs.) To protect these large salmon and allow them to spawn they also had to be protected from angling kill.
While it was not an easy decision to make for anglers who lived for the big trophy our board agreed they had no choice but to support the 2-grilse limit. It was a decision that was unpopular with many anglers and still is today.
Back to the meeting, when the issue of whether or not the membership would support the board’s decision was put to a vote the decision was strongly in our favour. The two-grilse limit became the law here and in the other Atlantic provinces as well. Did it help? I remain convinced to this day that this was the decision that saved the Atlantic salmon in this province.
Is C & R universally accepted here now? Far from it, there are still many anglers who feel they should be allowed to keep everything they catch regardless of the state of the stocks. However it is interesting to note that approximately 55% of all salmon hooked in NL are now being released. This translates to about 20,000 fish released each year in NL alone.
Is catch and release perfect? Far from it, but the situation is improving. More and more anglers are releasing fish without touching them or removing them from the water. DFO need to take a hand here and advise proper procedures. The Angling Guide would be a good spot! Despite all the good reasons for releasing you still have the bitter types who are sneaking big fish up through the bushes or childishly releasing them roughly. They probably fall into the same category of those who keep opening their tags and use them over and over exceeding the catch limits by large numbers.
In this province there will always be people who circumvent the laws, all the rest of us can do is keep the faith, limit our catches while enjoying the fishing to the fullest. The young people coming after us will be the beneficiaries of our efforts.