Atlantic Salmon and the Miramichi River

Mists dance above the water as the narrow cedar and canvas canoe skims down the river, pushed by the current and an outboard motor through narrow channels and over bubbling rapids. The Miramichi River, with its wide, sweeping turns below Doaktown, is almost deserted in the early morning light.

Marty Stewart, the chief guide at Old River Lodge, and his guest Don Senese, are motoring down to the Lower Pool to fish for the morning. Senese, from Victoria, B.C., is an experienced fly fisherman who has returned to New Brunswick for his second crack at fishing for Atlantic salmon. He is staying at a lodge owned by outfitters Alex and Vicki Mills, paying $385 a day, which includes fishing in private pools, meals, a room and a guide.

Stewart, one of the best guides and fishermen on the river, keeps a close eye on Senese, advising him about where to fish, tying the flies on his line, and making sure he doesn’t wade out so far that he disturbs the salmon. At the same time, Stewart works around the pool, cutting out a piece of brush here, placing a rock there. It’s like tending a garden. The river bank is spotless.

Upriver, Alex and Vicki Mills relax on the front porch of their lodge and look down the hill, where the Miramichi River meanders lazily past their wide front lawn and dock. Alex and Vicki run Old River Lodge, which houses eight fishing guests at a time. They have room to sleep 18 people, but they don’t want to crowd their fine collection of salmon pools – they own or lease eight on the Main Southwest Miramichi.

A river, like a living thing, moves in the spaces between stability and constant change. Friends of the river live their lives obsessed with the subtle nuances of their waters – the water levels in their pools, the water temperatures, the position of the channels, the lie of individual rocks, the holding patterns of fish, the rips of current, dark shadows and swirls.

Alex and Vicki Mills don’t invest in stocks or bonds; they invest every dollar they have in salmon water, the most expensive real estate in New Brunswick. Owning salmon water is risky because you can lose your investment in one Spring’s ice run. Salmon Pools move and disappear as the riverbed shifts and sends gravel and huge boulders downstream. The Home Pool in front of Old River Lodge (part of Alex Mills’s initial investment in 1976) disappeared in the mid-1980s when an island migrated downstream and buried it.

There are different types of salmon pools. Some have a deep-water holding area where salmon rest, with a run of swift water upstream or downstream. Other pools are called bar pools, where a gravel bar with shallow water partly blocks the river. The salmon will splash over a bar only at night, so they hold down in the water in front of the bar during the day. Pools surrounded by a ledge of rock are the most valuable because they don’t move.

Senese fishes through the morning along a long gravel bar. At the midway point of the pool, well back from the river’s edge., is a bench marked with a sign: Private No Fishing. This long, swift, curving pool is the private property of Old River Lodge

Private River Ownership

Like the rest of New Brunswick’s salmon rivers, the Miramichi is a mixture of private and public waters. This unusual and controversial system of private ownership of salmon waters has been a powerful conservation force for more than 100 years. "There’s fish left on these rivers because there’s been a lot of conservation by private owners, a lot of wardening by private owners," says Vincent Swazey, vice-president of the Miramichi Salmon Association. "You try to take care of what’s here, save what you have and manage it to the best of your ability, and hope it will always be there for your children and people in years to come."

There are more privately owned kilometers of river in New Brunswick than anywhere else in North America. Here, river ownership and exclusive fishing rights come in several different forms, all of which come from the fundamental concept of property rights.

A person who owns the land bordering a river in non-tidal water has what is called riparian rights, a series of clearly defined common law rights attached to the ownership of the bank, or the ripa, of the river. Along with riparian rights, a person can own the riverbed to the midway point of the stream and can have the exclusive right to fish up to that point. A person can also buy the exclusive right of fishing, which can be separated from the land. Or, a person can actually own the riverbed, an entire pool from bank to bank, and therefore the exclusive right of fishing These pools, the best of them, sell for millions of dollars.

The private ownership of rivers has its roots in Europe, where water rights go back hundreds of years. When settlers first came to New Brunswick, they were granted exclusive fishing rights as a way of ensuring a food supply for their families. In 1894, the New Brunswick government began to reserve some fishing rights for the Crown along the shore of major rivers. In 1925, the province stopped granting fishing rights altogether, although some exclusive fishing grants slipped through after that date.

Who owns what along salmon rivers – what water is private and what is public – is an ongoing debate in New Brunswick, with as many as 50 requests for searches coming each year to the Crown Lands branch of the Department of Natural Resources. River ownership in New Brunswick breaks down this way: 44.5 per cent (1,078 km) is privately owned; 33.5 per cent (816 km) is Crown-owned open water with unrestricted public fishing; 8.1 per cent (197 km) is Crown Reserve water offered to New Brunswick anglers only through a lottery conducted each winter; 7.2 per cent (174 km) is Crown-leased; and 6.2 per cent (146 km) is Crown-closed water (sometimes open for hook-and-release fishing only) to provide a sanctuary for fish. To apportion Crown-leased water, the Department of Natural Resources holds a public auction every 10 years; the winners of the leases have exclusive fishing rights on those sections of river. These leases include the riverbed and one rod (16 feet) of upland. Strict conditions apply: The leaseholders must hire people to clean up along their stretch of riverbank and employ wardens to guard 24 hours a day against poaching and illegal fishing. Nineteen 10-year leases were auctioned off in 1989.

The headwaters and important spawning tributaries of the Miramichi system are privately owned and protected by two timber companies – J.D. Irving Ltd. and Avenor Inc., which own the river from 10 km above Boisetown to Juniper (about 80 km of river).The upper half is owned by J.D. Irving Ltd.; the lower half, once owned by the Canadian Pacific and International Paper, is now owned by Avenor. Avenor runs a salmon fishing camp at the mouth of Rocky Brook, an important spawning tributary. Access to the area and fishing are strictly controlled.

J.D. Irving Ltd. also owns and leases other Miramichi and Restigouche waters, including the Downs Gulch stretch on the Restigouche (a Crown lease) and the famous Big Hole Brook pool on the Main Southwest Miramichi. The Big Hole deep-water holding pool is an important fish sanctuary where thousands of salmon rest at the mouth of a cold-water stream during the dog days of summer. Irving wardens, based at a neat little camp on a high bank overlooking the pool, guard the salmon day and night.

The Irvings also have a camp and riparian rights on another stretch of river, a tributary of the Restigouche River. Once salmon make it there they are lightly fished; fewer than a dozen people will fish there during a season. "Once the salmon hit there, they’re safe," Gilbert says. "We know from experience that easily accessible streams and lakes, where fishing is uncontrolled, are soon fished out. If you want to kill a lake, put a road by it."

The Roots of Private Ownership

New Brunswick’s system of riparian rights can be traced back to Scotland, which has a long tradition of private ownership of rivers. Robert Williamson, Scotland’s inspector of salmon and freshwater fisheries, believes that property rights can be a powerful conservation tool. "The salmon is a migratory fish, and its movements are predictable. Because it returns to rivers, it comes to places where it’s easily accessible and as a consequence it can be relatively easily caught. The right to fish for salmon was particularly valuable. If access to a renewable resource is private property, then the proper, long-term management of that renewable resource is in the direct and immediate interests of those who have the right of access to it. Where there is a history and a natural development of private ownership of fishing rights, then there could be advantages in ensuring that you don’t lose it, or in making it work as well as you can."

One of the earliest pollution laws in Scotland was part of a salmon act in the 1850s. It was a private act promoted by the salmon fishery owners, who said noxious elements should not be allowed to flow into any salmon river. "That was promoted by the salmon fishery owners in order to protect their asset and they persuaded Parliament that it should be passed and it was passed," Williamson says.

Elizabeth Brubaker, the executive director of the advocacy group Environment Probe, says in her book Property Rights in the Defence of Nature, "In a system of secure property rights, ownership also promotes stewardship. Individual, corporate, or community owners have incentives to maximize their resources’ value, taking into account not just their current worth but their future value as well. The guardian of Canada’s fisheries – the federal government – has likewise overseen that resource’s destruction. Communities, firms and individuals who relied on but did not own these fisheries have been powerless to save them."

Defending Their Own

Some New Brunswick residents have resented the fact that there are private pools on their rivers. They think that for the cost of a salmon license ($17.12 in 1996) they should be able to fish anywhere they want all season long. Swazey says, "Most of our local people feel that they should be able to fish for nothing, It isn’t the way of things. It costs a lot to have private pools for your guests to fish in, both in taxes and leases. You can’t go golfing for free. I don’t know of anything that you can go and enjoy that isn’t going to cost you something. Fishing shouldn’t be any different from anything else. It’s entertainment. There isn’t room enough for everybody who wants to go salmon fishing. And I don’t know where you draw the dividing line unless it’s the people who can afford to pay their way. There’s got to be somewhere to draw the line."

Riparian owners in New Brunswick have taken action to protect their waters when the federal government seemed to be overseeing the extinction of the Atlantic salmon. In the early 1980s, when the ocean commercial salmon fishery was threatening to wipe out salmon runs to New Brunswick rivers, riparian owners like Alex and Vicki Mills organized themselves to defend their waters.

Commercial fishermen, who had no ownership stake in the resource other than a fishing license, were killing 88 percent of the fish and generating only 15 percent of the Atlantic salmon revenue. Commercial salmon netsmen had seen their quotas cut back in 1972 (Ottawa paid them more than 13 million in compensation during this period), but they were sill allowed to keep "incidentally caught" salmon, fish that they happened to catch while fishing for other species, and fishermen continued to make good money off salmon landings. In 1981, then-federal fisheries minister Romeo LeBlanc (now Governor General) lifted the salmon ban, allowing netsmen to catch 100 salmon each. This fishery guaranteed widespread poaching, because the low number of salmon per fisherman didn’t allow a netsmen to pay his expenses. In the summer of 1983, baseball legend Ted Williams, who had been a fixture since 1961 at his fishing camp near the town of Blackville on the Miramichi, suggested that LeBlanc’s picture be added to the display of the salmon’s natural predators – the otter, merganser and osprey – at the Atlantic Salmon Museum in Doaktown.

In 1983, commercial fishermen were given a quota of 114 fish each. Some fishermen publicly boasted that they were averaging 350 to 400 salmon each. That’s when the riparian owners and people who had stakes in the river took action. Vicki and Alex Mills, Vincent Swazey, Herb Wade of Wade’s Fishing Lodge and Keith Wilson of Wilson’s Sporting Camps went to Ottawa in the winter of 1984 to present their case. Ottawa listened to them and to the demands for action from riparian owners throughout New Brunswick. In the 1984 season, commercial netsmen in New Brunswick saw their season reduced and the incidental catch rules eliminated. Anglers were limited to killing only grilse; large salmon had to be released alive, a regulation that is still in force and widely accepted today.

The Role of Foresters

Forestry companies have been directly involved in managing salmon rivers. Fraser Inc. leases salmon waters from the province the operates fishing lodges for its guests. Avenor Inc. operates a camp at the mouth of Rocky Brook, an important spawning tributary on the Miramichi system, and owns a large section of riparian water on that river. "They have been great conservationists," says Jack Fenety, president emeritus of the Miramichi Salmon Association and the dean of salmon conservationists in New Brunswick. "Rocky Brook is the greatest experimental laboratory for salmon in the world." An early run of salmon comes to Rocky Brook every year, filling the pools in May, but Avenor allows only limited fishing there. The Miramichi Salmon Association’s satellite rearing program – where camp owners raise young salmon in streamside tanks – began at Avenor’s camp in 1983.

The Irving family owns or leases fishing rights on more salmon water than any other single group in the province. J.D. Irving Ltd. Leases water from the province at Downs Gulch on the Restigouche River, owns fishing waters at Boston Brook on the Little Main Restigouche, and owns a large tract of land in the upper headwaters of the Miramichi River system.

Dr. Alex Bielak, a salmon biologist, conservationist, and former director of fisheries management for New Brunswick, welcomes the idea of local conservation groups helping to manage our rivers. "We can’t manage the whole continent. We can’t say that what is good here is going to be good there. We need individual river management."

In New Brunswick there is already an example of the type of river management that Bielak advocates. Every 10 years the province leases stretches of our rivers to private individuals and clubs. They pay for the privilege of using the waters, and they must do the work to sustain the resource. As for the question of whether local management can work for natural resources, river leases are examples of private control of public resources that are already working well.

The River People

The fortunes of the Miramichi River’s working families rise and fall with the numbers of Atlantic salmon that return from the sea to spawn. Two men whose lives are intimately connected to the Miramichi, and to the Atlantic salmon, are Keith Wilson, an outfitter whose family has had more than 150 years of history on the river, and Ernest Long, a fishing guide who has a long history at Wilson’s.

The Wilson’s are based in McNamee, a small village just upriver from Boiestown, and they own 16 private pools along a five kilometer stretch of the Main Southwest Miramichi River.

Ernest Long lives in a bungalow just up the hill. He started doing chores for the Wilson’s when he was 13, then began guiding fishermen when he was 16. He joined the army when he was 17 (lie lied about his age) and served for more than 20 years, participating in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War (on an international commission with the Canadian army). On every leave he’d end up back at Wilson’s, guiding fishermen on the river. When he left the service in March, 1973, he started guiding one month later, on April 15, and since then he has been on the river for 22 straight years. Wilson’s is Long’s second home.

The history of the Wilson’s on the Miramichi began in 1803, when John Wilson arrived from Scotland. In the mid-1800s, Robert Barnacle Roosevelt (an uncle of United States president Theodore Roosevelt) wrote a book entitled Game Fish of the Northern States of America and British Provinces. In the book, he described a trip to the Miramichi where he visited the Wilson homestead.

The modern history of the Wilson fishing operation begins with Willard Wesson Wilson, who was running a sportfishing camp at McNamee in the 1920s. Willard’s wife Sarah did the cooking on an enormous wood stove, which still stands today in the kitchen of the camp. When their oldest daughter, Marie, went to New Hampshire to become a registered nurse, she forged a link between the Wilsons and the United States. Sportfishermen continue to come to Wilson’s year after year, more than 90 percent of them from the United States. Some of them have left orders in their wills to have their ashes scattered over Wilson’s salmon pools.

Keith Wilson is one of a generation of young entrepreneurs who will help shape the future of this river. He is also trying to open up his private waters for New Brunswickers to fish. But they are going to have to pay – $50 a day per rod, and space is limited. "There’s a percentage of the population that does resent private ownership," he says. He understands their feeling that their resource is being used by non-New Brunswickers, but he points out that there are economic and conservation considerations. The Wilsons have 16 private pools and fish 12 rods a day. If it were all public water, it would be fished much more heavily than that. He is booked solid for his $370-a-day package that includes fishing, guides, accommodations and meals. He employs cooks, guides and wardens.

"People have to realize that we have to pay to keep this resource," he says. "I was all for it when they raised the fee for trout fishing and then they cut back the limit – they should have doe that a long time ago." Long says the money raised should go right back into the river, not into the general government revenues. "If we’re going to get fish back in the rivers, we can’t do it for nothing. It’s going to cost a lot of money." Wilson will test whether New Brunswickers are willing to pay a daily fee to fish when he markets his campground. "I want to offer that as a service to New Brunswickers. Naturally, I can see an economic opportunity there, but I really, genuinely want to improve relations with New Brunswickers [to repair] that perception that I’m hogging the river and they don’t have an opportunity to fish here. I really do want to do something to fix that, so that they can come fishing, that they can feel welcome to come fishing and don’t have the perception that it’s a rich man’s sport. You just can’t use something for free without putting anything back into it."

Ernest Long keeps meticulous records of the numbers of fish his guests have caught, the size of the fish, the flies they used, and water temperatures. When the fishing gets tough, he refers to his book. Long’s log illustrates how the fortunes of the salmon are reflected in the fortunes of the people along this river. In 1982, when the commercial net fishery was pounding the resource, Long guided 68 days and landed 25 fish. "That was almost the end of it." In 1983, he worked 75 days and landed 26 fish. That was the year the river people organized and protested to the federal government to stop the commercial netting. In 1984, the commercial fishery stopped and the killing of large salmon was forbidden. But United States fisherman already weren’t returning. Long worked 55 and a half days and landed 52 fish. "From there on it started going up."

In 1985, he worked 69 days and landed 79 fish. In 1986, 77 days, 79 fish. In 1987, 91 days (the fisherman were starting to come back), 149 fish. In 1988, 89 days, 121 fish. In 1989, 97 days, 137 fish. In 1990, 112 days, 108 fish. In 1991, 91 days, 59 fish. In 1992, 77 days, 111 fish. In 1993, 98 days, 131 fish. In 1994, 107 days, 150 fish.

"As you can see, whatever they did was all good. That’s all on account of hook- and-release and no commercial salmon fishing. That’s the only answer to it." The Miramichi River has come a long way back, but it has by no means come even close to reaching its potential: runs of fish that number in the hundreds of thousands. Ernest Long and Keith Wilson are just waiting for that day.

The Miramichi

The Miramichi River system could become an Atlantic salmon angling paradise that produces more fish each year than all of Iceland’s fabulous salmon rivers combined. This is no pipe dream. In 1995, Iceland produced about 34,000 salmon for anglers, while the Miramichi, in a terrible, low-water year, with stocks in fair shape but nowhere near their potential, produced about 25,000 fish for rods. Thirty years ago, with a booming commercial salmon fishery in the ocean and the river system’s salmon runs numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the Miramichi produced 60,000 fish for anglers.

"There were big years in the 1920s and 1930s," says William Hooper, the New Brunswick government’s senior salmon biologist. "I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the river was producing a million fish." A million fish! "People have forgotten what fish abundance really was like," Hooper says. "There’s a whole new generation out there who have no idea what large numbers of fish in the river can really look like or feel like or sound like, because as you know they jump and constantly thrash and roll."

Hooper understands the true potential of the Miramichi. He says 1967 was the last really good salmon year on the river. That year, about 16,000 licensed anglers on the river caught approximately 60,000 salmon, and fly fishing is known to take 10 to 15 percent of the fish in a river. "We know that after everybody got done catching these things there must have been at least a quarter of a million left to spawn," Hooper says. Altogether, these estimates total at least 600,000 Miramichi salmon – and there were probably more. In the 1930s, in the really big years, commercial fishermen caught as many as 300,000 salmon every year in Miramichi Bay alone.

The main Miramichi river divides into 27 large and small salmon rivers and thousands of fingers of salmon water, with no dams and very little pollution. The multiple tributaries and feeder brooks, which offer a wide variety of fish habitats to nurture the dish throughout their life cycles, have a combined spawning area of 60 million square meters. "That’s an enormous area," Hooper says.

The Miramichi system has a great potential to accommodate anglers. There are 1,280 km of angling water in the Miramichi system, compared to 400 km on the Restigouche, 28 on the Nepisiguit and 25 on the Margaree in Nova Scotia. Each of the Miramichi salmon rivers has distinct runs of fish that enter the river almost every day from May until November. Some branches have many different salmon runs. The Main Southwest Miramichi, for example, has separate runs in June, July, August and September. Many of the strains of early-run fish, heavily exploited over the summers in small tributaries, are now extinct. But Hooper says there are still hundreds of strains of salmon in the Miramichi, all of which spawn on or about October 21 or 22, just like clockwork.

The Day Has Come

The Miramichi River is bridging the distance between the movers and the shaken. In the 1980s, when commercial netting threatened to destroy the river’s salmon runs, Miramichi people came together to fight for their future and convinced the federal government to stop the slaughter. Today, with the salmon resource still threatened both at sea and in fresh water, and governments talking about pulling out of the salmon-management business, the people of this great river system have come together again and taken a giant step towards taking control of their watershed.

Renous native Bernard Duffy is the driving force behind this movement. He is a man who suits the character of this salmon river – "a great working river," in the words of David Adams Richards. Duffy, 41, is not a politician or a millionaire angler. He’s not a very good flycaster and doesn’t really care if he ever catches a salmon. He is the son of a woodsman and river guide, a welder by trade, who wants future generations to be able to enjoy these waters as much as he has.

Duffy has boundless energy and simply refused to quit when people told him that it would be impossible to organize the diverse group of people who live and work along the Miramichi. "Bernie Duffy is the closest thing to perpetual motion you’re ever going to see," says Jack Fenety. In September 1995, Duffy was elected president of the first Miramichi Watershed Management Committee. This committee has great potential for the Miramichi, and its example could be followed on every watershed in Canada.

The creation of this watershed committee is no small accomplishment. Duffy has formed a group that involves all of the people with a stake in the river: the powerful Miramichi Salmon Association, which represents many riparian owners on the river; three native tribes – Burnt Church, Eel Ground and Red Bank; the outfitters and the guides; all the smaller river associations along the river; Heath Steel; and forestry giants Repap, Avenor and J.D. Irving. The committee operates in the most simple way possible: Its members all sit around the table as equals, each stakeholder gets one vote, its monthly meetings are open to the public, and the future of the river is always on the agenda.

"This river is one of the greatest resources that we have," says Duffy. "We have the one river system that has lots of fish and very little pollution. If it’s looked after, it’s something that’s always going to he there." If the watershed committee is to succeed there must be give and take on both sides – governments must step back and river communities must step forward. "How do you get it out of the hands of politicians?" Duffy asks. "That’s going to be the stickler."

The federal and provincial governments have said that they are willing to step back from the day-to-day river management. Just how far they are willing to go remains to be seen. Atlantic Salmon Federation president Bill Taylor says New Brunswickers should seize the day. "Community watershed management holds the best future for our salmon rivers. We have collectively been criticizing governments for decades about how poor a job they have been doing. Now we have been presented with an opportunity to step forward, grab hold and demonstrate that we can do what the government could not do, and that is efficiently and effectively manage our rivers as we see fit." Taylor says watershed management committees should bring together river communities – people directly involved in the salmon industry and independent voices from outside the fishery.

Bill Taylor says the Atlantic Salmon Federation is planning to assemble a group of professionals that can provide advice to watershed management groups and help them develop a plan for their rivers. River communities should be working towards taking complete control of their watersheds, he says. This would include everything from licensing and protection to habitat restoration and stock assessments. All of this will cost money. "That means, in some cases, the organization may feel they should be charging daily rod fees and reinvesting the money that is generated back into the management and the rehabilitation of the resource. In some cases it may mean just a season fee to fish that particular river."

Bernard Duffy argues that the river-by-river management system could be a major source of new jobs for New Brunswick if the provincial government pushed the program forward and launched a major salmon river preservation campaign. This conservation program would create employment for river guides, wardens, road builders, cooks, biologists and general laborers. The program would not cause pollution or require any government investment. "The day has come for river management."

This case study is excerpted and adapted (by permission) from Home Pool: The Fight to Save the Atlantic Salmon by Philip Lee. Lee is the editor of the New Brunswick Reader and the Atlantic Salmon Journal and a well-known journalist who has worked throughout Canada. Home Pool is based on Watershed Down, a series of investigative reports that appeared in the Telegraph Journal. He has won two Canadian Association of Journalists awards for best investigative reporting, including one in 1995 for Watershed Down.

Home Pool: The Fight to Save the Atlantic Salmon was published in 1996 by Goose Lane Editions (469 King St. Fredricton, NB Canada E3B 1E5). Copies may be ordered by calling (506) 450-4251.

The Center for Private Conservation is supported by the William H. Donner Foundation.