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Exploring the Impact of the Wild Atlantic Salmon Conservation Policy on Indigenous Communities

Claire Posno

January 28, 2024


Wild Atlantic salmon living in the freshwaters of Atlantic Canada are meaningful animals to many people. To Indigenous communities, such as the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet Peoples across Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, salmon strengthen spiritual and cultural ties through traditional fishing and harvesting practices. Unfortunately, wild Atlantic salmon populations have been diminishing since the 1970s. Warming of freshwater rivers, unreported fishing and invasive species challenge the health and sustainability of wild Atlantic salmon. The Wild Atlantic Salmon Conservation Policy was implemented in 2017 in response to these matters. My analysis aims to outline this policy and recommend ways for improving it so wild Atlantic salmon are effectively cared for by various stakeholders.

Restoring and maintaining healthy wild Atlantic salmon populations is the anchor of the 2017 policy. Four principles guide this goal, informing all decisions surrounding this species. Firstly, the conservation of wild Atlantic salmon, their genetic variation and their ecosystems are given the highest priority in decisions. Secondly, all decisions regarding wild Atlantic salmon must respect Indigenous Peoples, utilize scientific knowledge and acknowledge Indigenous teachings and traditional knowledge. Thirdly, precaution, inclusivity and trust must be appreciated when making decisions. Lastly, protecting wild Atlantic salmon must include stakeholders such as provincial governments, Indigenous Peoples and volunteers.

Progress has surfaced because of these principles. For instance, the Government of Canada granted $30 million to the Atlantic Salmon Conservation Foundation. This helped kickstart 52 research grants and improved 1.4 million square metres of Atlantic salmon habitat quality. Despite these advancements, we cannot ignore that salmon populations continue to decline. Specifically, wild Atlantic salmon are listed as endangered across 32 rivers in the Bay of Fundy. Furthermore, the theory and practice surrounding this policy have been at odds. In terms of implementation, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) differs from Indigenous Peoples in their conservation efforts of wild Atlantic salmon. When members of the Canadian Government authorized the growth and sale of genetically modified salmon to address the issue of overfishing wild Atlantic salmon, consultation with Indigenous Peoples was ignored. Failure to consult with Indigenous Peoples violates the policy’s second, third and fourth principles.

How can the policy exercise its objective of interdisciplinary and inclusive salmon conservation? What steps are needed so the policy’s intentions meet in practice? To address these questions, I will analyze the diverging views of stakeholders involved in the protection of wild Atlantic salmon to suggest ways the policy can be improved.

Stakeholders engage with salmon differently, affecting how it is protected and interacted with. Governmental policies, such as the one in question, rely on Western-informed research and development, with scientific knowledge being the dominant lens for sharing information about the natural world and its connection to other systems. These views are exhibited in the DFO’s catch and release mandate across Atlantic Canada, which contradicts the Mi’kmaq worldview of respecting salmon. In other words, catching salmon and releasing it with potential injuries is risky and at odds with traditional knowledge. Netukulimk, is a lens present in Mi'kmaq communities, conveying sustainability. “Take only what you need” and “avoid not having enough” are at the centre of Netukulimk and guide Indigenous Peoples’ interactions with salmon across Atlantic Canada. Certainly, Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian Government have a shared perspective of protecting wild Atlantic salmon. However, each group approaches conservation in diverging ways. As argued, Mi’kmaq’s perspective of balanced fishing, traditional practices and catching communally does not align with the DFO’s mandatory catch and release measure. Additionally, the role of salmon lives beyond human needs for Mi’kmaq communities, while the question about how salmon exist to provide Canadians with benefits informs Western perspectives. The nuance of these different worldviews matters when a policy is implemented to address a shared concern.

I have two recommendations for the Wild Atlantic Salmon Conservation policy to improve its function across communities. Firstly, the policy should adopt Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall’s concept of Two-Eyed Seeing. This refers to “learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Western knowledge and ways of knowing.” Incorporating this practice could improve the responsibility of both groups to develop solutions jointly. Secondly, the policy must anticipate the movement of wild Atlantic salmon into the Arctic as water temperatures rise from climate change. As global temperatures increase, geopolitical issues in the Arctic develop, so the migration of wild Atlantic Salmon cannot be overlooked amid these dynamics. Each issue is interconnected. Thus, policymakers must turn to Indigenous-led organizations, such as Arctic360, to gain knowledge on the relocation of Atlantic salmon. Indigenous Peoples beyond those in Atlantic Canada must be included in these conversations. For example, the Inuit of Nunavut value fish for subsistence, cultural and spiritual reasons. We can expect that when Atlantic salmon migrate north, Inuit communities will value these fish deeply. The policy needs to understand these relationships and adapt accordingly. Therefore, reforming the policy now is essential if the wild Atlantic salmon policy seeks to inform conservation efforts in the future.

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