Text: Nathalie Landry
Editing: Monique Arsenault
Photos and video: Georges Brun, Marco Morency
Music: Phil Flowers
Most people seem unaware that the murky waters of the Petitcodiac River are teeming with fish and aquatic life. Ever since the opening of the causeway gates, fish stocks are gradually improving thanks to restored fish passage and restoration efforts led by the Petitcodiac Watershed Alliance, Petitcodiac Riverkeeper, and Fort Folly First Nation.
Edmund Redfield may be more familiar of the current status the river’s various fish species than almost anyone else. After obtaining his Masters in Restoration Ecology from the University of Alberta, he chose to make Moncton, New Brunswick his home. He soon became involved with Fort Folly First Nation’s Habitat Recovery program. He also started contributing to many Petitcodiac Riverkeeper initiatives, such as the Humphreys Brook Restoration project.
“Lots of people were leaving New Brunswick to go to Alberta and here I was, going in the other direction”, he recalls with a good laugh. “But there are many opportunities here people don’t often realize.”
Edmund is now in his 4th year managing the Petitcodiac Fish Recovery
Coalition’s fish trap in its 5th season documenting the presence/absence and counts of individual fish species. The trap is located in the main channel of the Petitcodiac River just upstream of the “Old Train Bridge” in Salisbury. He also helps operate Fort Folly’s smolt wheel, designed to catch a portion of the springtime juvenile salmon migrating out to the sea, to document and study them. Smolts are also collected in order to breed and reintroduce the species and are tagged so that they can be tracked to help monitor their population. Edmund has thus seen first hand how the river’s evolution since the opening of the causeway gates has affected its fish species.
“We monitor the arrival and movement of fish into the upper reaches of the river. Many species are increasing in numbers. For example, in 2010- the year the causeway gates were first opened, we did not catch a single Striped Bass. In 2011, we caught 158 and in 2012, 706. Tomcod is another example. We only caught only one in 2010. The next year, we counted 1,316, and by 2013 we had 3,155. This is a species, which, for many years before the opening of the gates, had completely disappeared from the upper reaches of the river.”
Perhaps the most abundant fish species is the Gaspereau. Hard to imagine, but Redfield says the fish trap once caught over 40,000 Gaspereau in one singleday during the height of spawning season.
We’re also seeing populations of invasive species diminish. Anglers had introduced Smallmouth Bass back in what used to be the Petitcodiac Lake. Since the opening of the causeway gates in 2010, their numbers have declined yearly, to the point that by 2013, we did not catch a single one. So while it might be premature to say that smallmouth bass are gone, we are able to say that they look like they are on their way out. With the return of free tidal flow, the river is no longer a favorable environment for them, and as competitors with (and in some cases predators of) native species, they won’t be missed.
The most prized species people would like to see in the river is of course the famous Atlantic Salmon, which use to abound in the river. “I’ve heard lots of stories of people fishing Atlantic Salmon in the Petitcodiac River. Unfortunately, they were already on the decline due to overfishing and other factors even before the causeway got constructed. Working together with DFO we’ve been stocking the river with Salmon and hopefully one day, we’ll have a healthy self-perpetuating population again. In addition to fry from the hatchery we’ve released adults during spawning season, and found redds (egg nests) in the riverbed that indicate that they spawned successfully, and we have followed up by monitoring their offspring through electrofishing. Unfortunately, so far the only salmon we see are ones that we’ve put in the river, either as young fry or as adults ready to spawn (and their offspring). It will be a very big deal if we ever catch an adult at the fish trap on its way upstream to spawn in the fall, because that would be an example of a salmon which had entered the river all by itself, rather than with our help. That would be a major sign of recovery.
Other than his fascination with aquatic life, Redfield is quite the naturalist and is currently awaiting publication of his first book – a field guide to native and non-native plants in Atlantic Canada. Profiling over 150 species of plants, he hopes to help people learn about the flora around them. “People care more about things they recognize. Only when you know more about something in nature, are you likely to care enough to want to protect it.”
Why is the river so important to him?
“I guess I’ve always had a fascination with water, especially moving water. I live in Pré-d’en-Haut and have a lovely view of the river. I’ve seen the tidal bore become bigger, the river becoming wider; I see signs of the river becoming healthier. My father-in-law used to fish Salmon in the Petitcodiac and one day, I’d like it to have healthy enough populations so that my son can fish them here like his grandfather used to.”