Proverb defied: In the Petitcodiac River, maybe the salmon can go home again

September 4, 2013

“You can never go home again.” The message in this proverb is that you can’t recover the past. More literally, it conjures up images of returning home, only to find that everything has changed.

That’s what happened to the wild Atlantic salmon that once inhabited the Petitcodiac River. In 1968 a newly constructed causeway cut off access to their spawning grounds up river, almost completely. And those that did make it through the gate found a drastically altered environment on the other side.

While people can accommodate change, fish aren’t always so adaptable. Since the final stage of almost every salmon’s life is to return to the spawning ground where it was first hatched, it didn’t take long before the Petitcodiac’s salmon were entirely extirpated. Gone.

This turned out to be a serious blow to salmon stocks in the inner Bay of Fundy (iBoF).

“Petitcodiac River salmon at one time made up 20 percent of the iBoF salmon population,” says Tim Robinson of the Fort Folly Habitat Recovery Program (FFHRP). “Considering that there are 31 other salmon rivers in the iBoF, the Petitcodiac river system was obviously an important contributor to that stock.”

After years of study, and lobbying, and negotiation, the gates of the causeway were finally opened, permanently, in April, 2010. Many thought it was too late for the salmon, though . . . but was it?

Not in the minds of those who are looking forward to the causeway’s complete removal. The open gates allowed not only the river’s water to flow and rise, but ideas and hopes, as well. The FFHRP and other members of the Petitcodiac Fish Recovery Coalition (PFRC) immediately seized the opportunity. With financial support from ASCF and others, in the spring of 2011 some 341,000 iBoF salmon fry were released into one of the Petitcodiac’s tributaries, the Pollett River. That fall, electrofishing surveys were conducted to gather information on the fry’s survival.

ASCF funded the project again in 2012 with a grant of $10,000. This allowed the FFHRP and partners to again release fry into the Pollett and again follow up with fall monitoring to see how the fry had survived the summer. The group also installed a rotary screw trap (RST) and assessed its location and functionality for counting fish in the river. This latter initiative looks to the future, when some of the smolt from the 2011 fry release will start to leave home. In the years to come, the hope is that those smolt will make it to maturity and, contrary to that proverb, that they will be able to come home again.

But even when they do, there’s still the proverb’s other message, that you can’t restore the past. Those involved with the recovery program for the Petitcodiac’s salmon aren’t so sure about that one, either, although they do admit that they shouldn’t count their fry before they’re hatched.

“There are still many obstacles to be addressed, and there’s still plenty of work to be done,” says Robinson. “Hopefully at some stage the causeway will be replaced with a new bridge. In the meantime, the hope is to continue the fry release program. And to better assure the stock’s survival, we’re looking further up the river and in the tributaries, conducting habitat assessment and planning restoration initiatives.

“Our long-range hope is to see the Petitcodiac once again become a contributing part of the recovery of the iBoF salmon stock.”

If that happens, if wild Atlantic salmon can actually return to the Petitcodiac River, they will have defied that “You can never go home . . .” proverb on both fronts: by, indeed, recovering their past and, yes, by literally going home again!