Project to shore up salmon spawning area

April 30, 2024

The Margaree Salmon Association (MSA) plans to install 2,000 tonnes of armour rock this summer to help save one of the main salmon spawning areas of the Margaree River.

The project is the latest effort in the association’s ongoing Habitat Restoration Program, and the work is being done at what’s known as the Swimming Hole Pool, located near St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Northeast Margaree.

Bill Haley, past-president of the association, says there’s a 125-metre stretch of the riverbank that’s eroded, and that threatens the health of the river.

“The river becomes wider and more shallow,” Haley explains. “You can lose your current, and you can increase your water temperature. The soil that gets washed into the river becomes silt, and salmon can’t spawn in a silt-filled gravel bed. They need a clean gravel bed.”

He says it’s difficult to point to a single factor that may have caused the erosion.

“The river is always changing,” Haley says. “We have some pools that used to be exceptional salmon pools that no longer have a drop of water in them. The river decided to go in a different direction.”

“This river has been moving from side to side, from one side of the valley to the other, for thousands of years,” he adds. “It’s not going to stop because we put rocks somewhere. In the short term, we’re just trying to have a healthy salmon population and do what we can during our lifetime.”

The project was originally slated for 2023, but difficulty in getting the proper size stone pushed its completion to this summer.

“The stones have to be anywhere from one to two tons each, and most of the quarries in the area are focusing on small stone, clean stone and gravel for commercial purposes,” Haley notes. “We managed to find stone late in the 2023 season. It was too late to complete the project, so we paid to have the stone transported from the quarry up to the site where it’s going to be used.”

People standing in a field with fly fishing rods, learning the craft.
The Margaree Salmon Association holds a ‘Learn 2 Fly Fish’ event during the Celtic Colours music festival each year.
Photo: Margaree Salmon Association

The stone is being provided by Ocean Breeze Excavating of nearby Grand Étang, and the work will be completed as soon as the proper water levels are reached.

“We’d love to do it in June, depending on water levels,” Haley says. “You have to wait for appropriate water levels.”

The job comes with a price tag of approximately $155 000, and while the Margaree Salmon Association is providing the majority of that money itself, they’ve also received funding from the Nova Scotia Salmon Association, the Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources, the Municipality of Inverness County and several individual MSA members who combined to provide several thousand dollars.

In the past six years, the MSA has undertaken major work at the sanctuary at the Upper MacKenzie Pool, at Doyle’s Bridge in Margaree Forks, and Lake O’Law Brook. Haley says those efforts are paying off, as the Margaree River is “becoming the healthiest river in the Atlantic provinces.”

River shorn up by large rocks.
Shoring up riverbanks is one of the activities undertaken by the Margaree Salmon Association in recent years to improve fish habitat.
Photo: Margaree Salmon Association

“As far as meeting escapement – and that’s meeting the optimum number of fish in the river spawning and then leaving – we’ve met escapement since around 1987, every year,” he says.

Many people gathered to learn to fly fish.
The Margaree Salmon Association is grateful to Pat and John Stinson for offering their property as the site of the association’s annual Learn 2 Fly Fish event, which attracted 36 participants at its most recent event in October.
Photo: Margaree Salmon Association

“The La Have River — which rises in Annapolis County and runs through the town of Bridgewater to the Atlantic Ocean — used to be the most productive in the province, but now salmon have really suffered there from invasive species.”

“You take the Miramichi in New Brunswick,” he adds. “They had more fish going in and out of that river than any other river in the Atlantic provinces. Now, with striped bass predation, their population of salmon has gone down something like 40% in the last couple of years.”

Along with the ongoing efforts of the MSA, Haley points to several factors that have contributed to the health of the Margaree.

“We’ve never had heavy industry on this river, it’s never been dammed,” he says. “We have a very responsible First Nations harvest. The Mi’kmaq are very focused on conservation.”

“We have a hatchery that’s been operating since about 1902,” he adds. “They put 100 000 to 200 000 small fish in the river every year. The commercial fishery (which closed in the 1980s) didn’t decimate the stocks. When they stopped the commercial fishery, there were still sufficient stocks to rebound and populate the river with salmon.”

Complementing the MSA’s Habitat Restoration Program is a team of technicians who are hired each season to address other concerns that may affect fish stock.

“We have a crew of four technicians, and they are trained by the Nova Scotia Salmon Association,” Haley explains. “We hire them every year, from spring to fall, and they do work in the tributaries of the Margaree,” he says. “They put in structures that will benefit the fish that are in those tributaries.”

“It may be a digger log that will put in a little waterfall, maybe a deflector, and what they do is provide more depth, more current and potentially more shade for the small fish,” Haley explains.

“The reason we focus on the tributaries is that you have all these little fish in the big river where you have a lot of predators,” he notes, from minks and seals, to mergansers and striped bass. “But up in those tributaries, where those nurseries are for the small fish, you won’t find many of the marine predators you’ll find elsewhere in the river.”

“So they pretty well have a safe nursery, and we really attribute the health of the salmon population to those nurseries.”

Haley is quick to point out that while the efforts of groups like the Margaree Salmon Association are important, it’s still the fish who determine the direction of all that work.

“Humans think we know everything,” he says. “We say the fish can’t use this part of the river for habitat or for spawning. You go to the river in the summertime, and you see the water is low, and then you visit that same area in the fall, when conditions are different, and you see all the salmon that are spawning. So, the fish know what the fish need.”

“Regardless of our background and training, we’re not fish. Fish will go where they want to go.”