It’s in the Genes

excerpted from Atlantic Salmon Journal, Winter 2004 / photography and text © Deborah Carr 2004

Conservation topics help us see with fresh eyes – this makes us more conscious of and connected with our environment.  We begin to understand that we are a part of, not separate from, our surroundings.

(excerpt from Atlantic Salmon Journal, Winter 2004 / photography and text © Deborah Carr 2004)

Birthed in an era that predates the Ice Age, the waters of the Upper Salmon River in Fundy National Park have tumbled over massive rock outcroppings, carved deep pools, then meandered along more gentle grades to the Bay of Fundy for untold millennia.

Standing on the bank of the river named for its once plentiful bounty, park eco-scientist Renee Wissink exhibits a curious mingling of sadness and optimism.  His quiet gaze traces the river’s current where clear water persistently polishes a riverbed of smooth multi-coloured rubble, the geological remnants of ancient mountains that once could rival the Canadian Rockies. The late summer sun filters through a canopy of green, casting dancing shadows on the rippled surface.

This should be salmon heaven.

“We’ve been told that in the not so distant past you could walk along this river in places like Jiggers Rock, near the Black Hole, and could see upwards of 100 adults in the holding pool,” Wissink says, his eyes scanning the shallows for movement amongst the pastel pebbles.  “This time of year, in this river, you should be seeing adult salmon in these pools.  Now you will not see any.”

Today, these steeply incised valley walls are thick with balsam fir, red spruce, yellow birch, maple, and poplar, but just over a century ago, the same craggy cliffs clung to only a few remnants of the forest’s wealth, the rest having been toppled and flushed through the river for a logger’s profit.

It was man’s quest for the spruce along these rivers that first destroyed the salmon habitat in the 19th century with spring logging drives scouring the gravel river bottom, dams presenting barriers to migration, and sawmills depositing great amounts of sawdust to clog the waterways.  Years later, man intervened to right his wrongs.  Fishways were constructed, dams partially opened, sawdust piled on land, and the hardy salmon returned to spawn once more.  But then in the mid-1980’s, they began to disappear.

When the Inner Bay of Fundy salmon population was listed by COSEWIC as an endangered species in 2001, it opened the door for the creation of a recovery strategy and an intensive two year population assessment.  The results were frightening.  “We are in an extinction vortex,” says Wissink.  “When populations get so low that the problems seem to compound and they spiral down to extinction, there becomes a point when you cannot stop it.  We are almost there.”

While all the Inner Bay of Fundy rivers are experiencing critically low returns of adult spawning salmon, monitoring efforts failed to detect any wild returning adults within the last two years in the Upper Salmon and Point Wolfe Rivers.

The discovery placed these rivers in a crisis situation.

“If we can get our adults back, we can grow salmon in these rivers without too much difficulty,” says Wissink.  “But the problem has been losing the fish out to sea and not coming back as spawning adults.  Finding the problem is a needle in a huge haystack and far beyond our jurisdiction.  Our big contribution to the recovery is to establish the in-river gene banks.  To capture what is left of the genetic diversity in both rivers and hold them in a state of suspended animation.”

Utilizing resources at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography and the Mactaquac Biodiversity
Facility, FNP embarked on a complex program involving DNA fingerprinting, captive rearing, gene banking, and cryopreservation; one that is designed to bypass the marine phase in the salmon life cycle and preserve the remnant population until the cause of marine mortality is discovered and rectified.

“It is cutting-edge conservation biology”, says Wissink…..

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