Establishing an Atlantic Salmon Research Joint Venture

The Atlantic Salmon Research Joint Venture is Canada’s first collaborative forum for bringing Atlantic salmon science and conservation communities together. Made up of experts from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Indigenous groups, provincial agencies, non-government organizations, academic institutions, and other stakeholders, the Atlantic Salmon Research Joint Venture will promote the sharing of scientific research with the goal of conserving and rebuilding the species. The Joint Venture held its inaugural meeting on September 29 and 30, 2016, in Moncton, New Brunswick.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada is providing approximately $600,000 to Atlantic salmon scientific and conservation experts to enhance our collective understanding of Atlantic salmon and to ultimately support their long-term recovery on Canada’s East coast.

Link: Collaborative Atlantic Salmon Research Projects

A Prospectus for Discussion
Prepared by Science Sector Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) - May 2016

Introduction

The Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) was dubbed the ‘King of Freshwater Fish’ by Izaak Walton in his 17th century classic, The Compleat Angler. This truly iconic fish reproduces in coastal rivers of northeastern North America, Iceland, Europe, and northwestern Russia and migrates through various portions of the North Atlantic Ocean. It holds tremendous cultural significance for many indigenous people throughout eastern Canada and has long captured the spirits and attention of recreational anglers, local communities, conservationists and governments throughout its range.

Unfortunately, despite the efforts of a broad constituency of actors committed to its conservation, Atlantic salmon population trends are unsettling. Throughout its range in Europe and North America Atlantic salmon populations have declined to historic lows. In Canada, while populations seem to have stabilized in Labrador, northern Newfoundland and parts of Quebec, there is little cause for optimism with respect to the rest of the current Canadian range with diminished populations or some, especially around the Bay of Fundy, with populations that are assessed to be at risk of extinction.

The reasons for the decline of salmon are complex and diverse in nature and likely vary from region to region. Deteriorating quality and quantity of spawning habitat, poor early life stage survival, fishing pressure, at-sea survival and changing ocean conditions are among the most commonly identified threats to salmon viability.

For decades, government and non-government conservation programs alike have sought to address these and other pressures through a wide array of activities. Laudable though these efforts have been it has become increasingly clear that their success has been less than hoped for and that much remains to be done. It is equally clear that if efforts to protect and recover salmon are to succeed, they must be based on the most up to date and relevant scientific evidence possible. While the “just do something” ethos has an important role in all fisheries and wildlife management, in a resource-constrained environment, it is critical that the energies of the conservation community are set to the greatest extent possible on a shared understanding of the root causes of the decline and upon evidence-based decisions and actions to address them.

The evidence base for salmon conservation is impressive. Over the years researchers from non-government organizations, academia, the private sector and government agencies have accumulated a vast knowledge base with respect to the species throughout its range. And yet the gaps in our knowledge remain quite wide. Broadly speaking, it is evident that we need to substantially expand the collective understanding of marine aspects of the species in areas such as migration routes; areas and causes of high mortality; ecological shifts such as increased predator abundance; and the impact of changing oceanographic conditions. Equally, it is clear that we need to know more about the fish itself, its population dynamics, its genetics and the effect of various environmental stressors, diseases or parasites upon its survival. We need to know more about the factors affecting its freshwater survival and what changes to freshwater habitat are most heavily impacting upon its survival. And we need to know which conservation activities have the highest likelihood of success and the greatest positive impact.

Addressing these needs is critical to firming up the scientific foundation for salmon conservation. In addition to the federal and provincial governments, there are many organizations whose mandate is focused on salmon and who promote, conduct and/or fund scientific activities; the Atlantic Salmon Federation and the Atlantic Salmon Conservation Foundation, which was established with a grant from the federal government, are notable players in this regard. And yet as the August 2015 report of the DFO Minister’s Advisory Committee on Atlantic Salmon noted there is no integrated salmon research and monitoring framework or cohesive plan to guide or coordinate the work of the many science players in the community. No clear venue exists for coordinating, prioritizing, and discussing research topics, for pooling ideas and project resources or for reporting out on research findings or program evaluations. Connecting Canadian research agendas and results to the international community is challenging as well. The proposal outlined below has been designed to address this situation by creating a venue and mechanism for bringing together salmon science and conservation community in a “joint venture” toward the common goal of advancing salmon conservation through the provision of knowledge.

Figure 1: Total abundance of Atlantic salmon in Eastern Canada since 1970.

A Unifying Approach

The “Joint Venture” concept was initially forged by the North American waterfowl management community over thirty years ago. Today, over twenty-two habitat Joint Ventures uniting conservation partners around common regional goals and collaborative projects have been established across the continent. Three international science Joint Ventures have been established to forge similar alliances around common wildlife science questions and issues. This concept has also been adapted for fish conservation within the United States with 18 Joint Ventures being established under the National Fish Habitat Partnership.

An Atlantic Salmon Research Joint Venture would build upon this model by bringing together organizations actively engaged in carrying out or supporting salmon research and science. In general terms, it would formalize a partnership based approach to research through a non-binding collaborative agreement. The Joint Venture would serve as a venue for the identification of the priorities of the Canadian salmon research community and for coordinating collaborative efforts to address them. The Joint Venture would be led by a Board of Directors supported a Coordinator funded by DFO. Funding for science, research and monitoring activities would be sourced from existing budgets of partners and other established funding mechanisms. Membership in the Joint Venture would be open to all agencies or organizations with resources to devote to salmon research or specific salmon conservation responsibilities and could include DFO, provincial agencies, non-governmental organizations, private companies or academic institutions.

Among the first tasks of the Joint Venture would be to agree upon its overall vision and mission. For illustrative purposes, the “vision” could be:

Atlantic salmon conservation activities are undertaken based on the best available science produced in the most effective, efficient and inclusive manner possible.

The mission could be:

To bring the salmon science community together to identify common research issues and priorities, pool resources and foster collaborative research, science and data sharing that directly contributed to effective salmon management and conservation.

The scope of the Atlantic Salmon Research Joint Venture’s work would likely encompass the development of research and monitoring priorities, plans or frameworks for addressing them, providing venues to share science knowledge, and collectively funding research which provides relevant knowledge to advance salmon conservation. The Joint Venture would not coordinate or provide advice for management actions such as harvesting strategies, habitat, enforcement and so on. It would not in any way alter the existing roles or responsibilities of government agencies or other participants in salmon conservation.

The focus of the Joint Venture would be salmon populations that have natal rivers in Canada. However, partnerships with the United States and European countries may be developed over time. The initial focus would be on the issues of population dynamics, especially causes for continued long-term declines and low survival at various life stages, and other factors affecting the long-term health and sustainability of populations.

The JV Board once established would be responsible for developing an initial work plan with immediate and medium-term goals. For illustrative purposes, the Joint Venture could task itself with:

  1. Establishing a science strategy and action plan which focusses on advancing our understanding of critical issues affecting salmon from Canada.
  2. Coordinating efforts to implement the strategy and implementation through joint science activities and pooling of financial and in-kind resources.
  3. Acting as a facilitator to share and disseminate new salmon scientific knowledge.
  4. Coordinating the dissemination of research results across the partnership and to the public in general through a mix of Joint Venture-specific communications products and the various communications systems of the individual partners.

In terms of organizational structure the Joint Venture would be designed to be very process-light and action-heavy. The Joint Venture will be guided by a Board of Directors of around 15 members likely made up of senior managers from each of the participating partners. These partners would all have a current role in salmon research and science including the federal government, provincial governments, land claim governments, First Nations, universities, and major non-government organizations working with salmon.

It is expected that in the initial startup phase the Board might meet frequently but over time it would likely not meet more than twice a year. To kick start the Joint Venture’s formation and initial work, DFO would volunteer to chair the board and provide secretariat and logistical support for its work. In other science Joint Ventures in the wildlife domain, the partners have chosen to establish smaller issue specific technical committees and it is likely that this Joint Venture Board would choose to do the same. Member organizations of the Joint Venture would be expected to participate in its activities and contribute funding towards collaborative projects.

An Invitation to Participate

This prospectus is an idea and has been developed by DFO for collective consideration. The Department will continue to work with salmon scientists and the broader salmon conservation community regardless of whether a Joint Venture of this nature is established. But it is the Department’s view that a Joint Venture of this nature would substantially enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the salmon science community and maximize the support it provides to salmon conservation programming. The Department is also of the view that the partnership approach to research is the preferred one and there are important opportunities for spinoff benefits from the Joint Venture mechanism beyond just research as well.

For these reasons, the Department is committed to supporting the establishment of the Joint Venture and its initial operations through the provision of a coordinator and some funds for logistical support. Governments, First Nations, Agencies, organizations or companies which share the view that an approach of this nature has merit are invited to become part of the Joint Venture. The process for formalizing the establishment of the Joint Venture will necessarily be informed by the partners themselves but it is the Department’s view that it should be launched as possible in 2016 and begin its work immediately.

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