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The Romans named them "the leaper." We have renamed them "endangered." Where have all our wild salmon gone?

For two centuries of European settlement, and 10,000 years before that, the annual spawning runs of millions of leaping silver salmon to natal rivers constituted a spectacular natural event, from Labrador south to New York.

In 2001, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada listed the Inner Bay of Fundy stocks of Atlantic salmon as an endangered species. More than 40,000 Atlantic salmon from 33 rivers draining into the bay simply disappeared after 1985. The collapse of those stocks has been absolute.

The rivers of Nova Scotia that drain directly into the Atlantic were once a Mecca for anglers from around the globe. Now, they no longer have sustainable runs of Atlantic salmon and have been closed to sportfishing-perhaps permanently.

Other areas of Atlantic Canada and Quebec have seen less dramatic declines, but Atlantic salmon are in very serious trouble indeed. In New England, the species is all but extirpated.

By the late 20th century, we had taken 200 years to reduce their original numbers by approximately 70 per cent, to 1.6 million.

Since the mid-1980s, however, we have seen their numbers plummet a further 65 per cent to a mere 565,000 individual fish. In several systems we are reduced to gene-banking in a desperate, last-ditch effort to prevent loss of those stocks forever.

The Government of Canada, through the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, has presided over this ecological disaster with little more than token remedial effort, and has declined to invest in either the science or the restorative efforts required.  Yet salmon sportfishing is directly worth more than $200 million annually to the Eastern Canadian economy. New Brunswick alone has an estimated $200 million in capital investment tied up in the sport.

The cynical political rationalization is that those funds will not be lost to the Canadian economy even if salmon are. Recreational spending will simply switch to activities like golf. The numbers of votes directly related to Atlantic salmon conservation are insignificant.

The cheap and plentiful salmon you see in your local grocery store are genetically manipulated (and chemically and ecologically controversial) pen-raised fish. Only aboriginal Canadians may now harvest wild Atlantic salmon-and that is also controversial given the plight of the species.

On the other side of the Atlantic, wild Atlantic salmon stocks have fared equally poorly.

Why?

Atlantic salmon are anadromous fish, meaning they return from the sea to breed in fresh water. They have been assaulted in both habitats.

For two centuries we have dammed rivers to generate power and diverted water otherwise, denying salmon access to their spawning grounds.

We have poisoned fresh water with all manner of chemical pollutants, including the acid rain that has utterly devastated rivers in Nova Scotia and Norway (the Norwegians are taking remedial action; we are not).

We have destroyed fresh-water habitat with poorly regulated forestry and farming practices and by highway construction and urban sprawl.

We netted on a commercial basis until there was almost nothing left to harvest. (In one particularly bizarre case of poor management, salmon from the Miramichi system in New Brunswick were being stocked in Cape Breton's Margaree River in order to try to sustain its lucrative sports fishery, while seven estuary nets continued to ravage the remnants of the river's own run.)

Disease and parasites directly related to open-sea salmon farming are known to have decimated wild salmon stocks in Norway, western Scotland and British Columbia (where, ironically, pen-raised Atlantic salmon are damaging wild Pacific stocks). The timing of salmon farm development in the Bay of Fundy and the subsequent decimation of wild salmon stocks is suspect, but no solid scientific case has yet been made.

Global warming is the most recent concern with rivers now regularly showing summer water temperatures fatal to spawning salmon.

Even more worrisome than the known causes, however, are the unknown contributing factors to salmon mortality at sea. We simply don't know.

Jim Gourlay, editor-in-chief of Saltscapes magazine, is a past president of the Nova Scotia Salmon Association and former editor of the Atlantic Salmon Journal.

Bill Curtsinger is a widely respected photographer who specializes in natural history, marine archaeology and underwater images.

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