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IN THIS SAD FISH STORY, THE NUMBERS SIMPLY DON'T LIE
Ted Williams is mad as hell, and he's not going to take it any longer. Or at least not much longer. Late last week, standing on the crest of the slope leading from his camp down to the Miramichi River in New Brunswick, Williams looked out over the tranquil waters and said he was getting out. For good. Williams hadn't caught a fish in six days.
"It's a disaster," he said. "The worst I've ever seen." He said that for almost 30 years he had watched his beloved Atlantic salmon—"the greatest fish that swims"—get "hammered" by commercial-fishing interests catered to by a Canadian government without a decent plan or, apparently, much desire to preserve "one of its greatest resources."
He said he felt like a man forced to stand idly by while an old friend got strangled to death, that he was tired of waiting for a millennium. So he was making plans to put his camp up for sale and get out. "It's awful hard to give it up, because there's nothing to compare with this fish," he said, gesturing at the river. "But it's just not worth the time anymore."
On Sept. 30 the salmon season on the Miramichi ended. Williams had been at his camp near Blackville since June, as has been his custom since his ballplaying days ended in 1960, and this season had topped all others for inactivity and frustration. "You hardly even see fish roll," he said. "It makes you sick."
Williams said that he arrived in New Brunswick this summer "hopeful" of improvement: "It had to be better than last year," when he caught 92 fish—and released all but six—in 90 days, a near low for him. But this season he caught only 28 fish, keeping only three. Williams said, "Roy Curtis [ Williams' guide since 1956] has been on this river 60 years, and he says he's never seen it so bad. There's been a 45 percent decline in 20 years. The numbers don't lie. Check 'em out."
The numbers do, indeed, check out, says Jack Fenety, president of the Miramichi Salmon Association. The Miramichi is the major Atlantic salmon river system in the world, with 500 miles of spawning water in its main branches and tributaries. Fenety says 1983 has been "the poorest season in the living memory of any angler who has fished here. And what makes it so dumb is that it was predictable. The required spawning runs are down 50 to 60 percent in some rivers, and as much as 75 percent in others. We've begged the government to stop [commercial interests from] killing so many fish, but they haven't. Now we've reaped the bitter harvest. It'll be the same in 1984. We've got ourselves boxed in."
Dr. Wilfred Carter, executive director of the Atlantic Salmon Federation, says, "Canadian governmental policy has always favored commercial salmon fishing over the anglers." The commercial nets take an average of "about 85 percent" of the salmon catch, and with the pounding the salmon took from the high-seas drift netting off Greenland in the mid-'60s and '70s—leading to a quota system still woefully inadequate—and Canada's failure to restrict fishing off Newfoundland, "the trend continues to go straight down."
Add to these excesses the lifting of the commercial ban in the Miramichi system in 1981, the extravagant allowances for "incidental catches" (salmon caught in cod and mackerel nets), the poaching, the Indian food-fishing dispensation that's really a commercial-fishing dispensation in disguise (the Indians peddle their catches blatantly), and you have a condition as predictable in its portent as crop loss after a devastating drought, says Carter.
With the battle lines long drawn and no corrective action having been taken, the future has arrived. The Miramichi no longer holds the charm it once did for American anglers like Williams; the sport-fishing industry is in jeopardy.