The number of adult wild Atlantic salmon that spend two years at sea before returning to home rivers numbered about 900,000 in the mid 1970s. According to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), in just over two decades, salmon numbers fell by almost 90% to about 100,000. For those salmon, called grilse, that return to home rivers after only one year at sea, the decline in the same period has not been as steep, falling from 800,000 to about 400,000 to 500,000. Wild Atlantic salmon face daunting challenges to their survival throughout their traditional range. Over-harvesting in fisheries, dams, impacts from industry such as forestry, salmon farming, and changing environmental conditions in the ocean have resulted in a decline in populations to only 20% of their historic levels.
The decline in salmon numbers has not occurred evenly across eastern Canada. Many rivers, primarily in the southern range, have suffered the greatest losses. All wild Atlantic salmon in Maine have been listed as endangered under national legislation. In Canada, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) recently recommended endangered status for additional southern populations of wild Atlantic salmon, including the outer Bay of Fundy.
In 2010, anglers throughout Atlantic Canada raved about the amazing fishing, especially for grilse. Rivers like the Exploits in Newfoundland, which has a predominately grilse run, broke all-time records. This year, the rivers have been alive with both large and small salmon. Even the Penobscot River, one of the rivers listed as endangered in Maine, has seen the best run since 1986, with more than 3,000 returning fish. What’s making the difference? There are as many explanations as fishermen out there, but we can rest assured that a significant influence on the strength of runs comes from a conservation agreement with Greenland fishermen that has suspended their commercial fishery since 2002. The Atlantic Salmon Federation of the US and Canada and the North Atlantic Salmon Fund of Iceland established a fund that helped get the Greenland fishermen involved in alternative employment and fisheries, such as that for lumpfish. Certainly it stands to reason that when a fishery that had a quota to kill 60,000 large salmon in 2001 is stopped, then more salmon will make it back to their home rivers to spawn.