Monday, March 13, 2017

Sturgeon Fishing Regulation Changes

Hope you are ready for a book!   Go grab a coffee, or a beer, depending on what time it is and have a read!

As has been the topic of many of my blog posts, this one is again about fishing for shortnose sturgeon.  Unlike other posts however this one isn't about gearing up for the coming Spring season, how to fish them or to show some pictures of anglers making memories.  Instead it is to provide local anglers with an information update regarding changes that are likely to take place with our fishery in the near future.

There was a public meeting today in our local area hosted by Mr. Greg Stevens, Senior Advisor for Recreational Fisheries for Fisheries and Oceans Canada.    As I understand it, Mr. Stevens is a key decision maker for many of the Federal recreational fishing rules and regulations under which our recreational sturgeon fishery in tidal waters lies.   Officers and officials from both our local DNR and DFO agencies were also present as were several recreational anglers like myself.

The discussion itself was very active with participation from most in the room and centered around our sturgeon fishery which has grown in popularity in recent years.   While everyone was in agreement with the end goal of protecting the population, not everything that was presented was done so clearly and not everyone was in agreement with every point.  As such, some of the changes that are being considered may not be well received by everyone.  If you are one of those anglers who does enjoy fishing sturgeon here on the Kennebecasis River, then you will certainly want to pay attention.

Shortnose sturgeon has been classified under the Federal Species at Risk Act a a species of "Special Concern".   What this means is that our population is only one step away from being classified as threatened, and if that were to happen there would be no more recreational fishery.   Obviously that would be the worst possible scenario to which everyone is in agreement.   Essentially anything that can be done to protect the species, while yet continue to allow the fishery to exist has to be considered.   The Federal officials did make clear they have no intention of closing this fishery and that they do wish to see people continue to enjoy it for which I am grateful.

The discussion which took place dealt with several facets of recreational fishing including reducing the number of foul hooked fish, eliminating the retention of shortnose sturgeon and ways to improve data collection.  Unfortunately the evaluation of the effect of legal recreational fishing as it exists today compared to the effect of other factors such as illegal poaching was not discussed to the level I feel it deserved.  It may be the cynic in me but perhaps this is because combating poaching is both difficult and expensive while tightening restrictions on law abiding anglers is relatively easy.

Out of this discussion there appears to be three main changes being considered.

Gear Restrictions

There is a strong likelihood that we will see a new restriction brought in, at least during the peak sturgeon fishing seasons (Spring and Fall) on the main stretch of the Kennebecasis where sturgeon fishing is most popular.  Exact details on what may be decided on time and location I cannot speak to.  Currently the regulations are the same as tidal fishing regulations in most areas, which are up to 5 hooks per rod, and up to 6 rods per person.   The new restriction would be to limit fishing to a single hook per rod, the 6 rods per person remaining.

The reason behind this is that for each additional hook that is on a rod, the chances of a foul hook increase significantly, at least according to anecdotal evidence and to which I agree.   I can't argue with the fact that there are a lot of foul hooks taking place, especially with a 3 hook rig as I tend to use.   It sounds ugly and unsportsmanlike and anyone who has foul hooked a trout or salmon would attest to the mortal damage being caused to the fish.   But will this change actually make any different to the mortality rate of sturgeon?  Comparing trout to sturgeon would be like comparing kayaks to cars, and I don't see us adding seatbelts to kayaks anytime soon.

Unlike trout, salmon, bass and other species, a sturgeon has a very tough skin, and the body is covered with 5 rows of bony plates called scutes which I would deem impossible for an angler to pierce with a hook while fishing.  When you foul hook a sturgeon, it is like putting the tip of the hook into a piece of pine wood.   While you can move the block of wood around with the hook, you almost never see the hook penetrate near to the barb and will often fall out in it's own when there is any slack or if lifted straight up.  The damage that happens to the fish is often times non-existent, even less damage I would contend than a hook fully penetrating the mouth.    Of the hundreds of sturgeon I have landed, only one has ever bled profusely, and that a few years back from a hook swallowed deep.   Since then I use slightly larger hooks to try to prevent such an injury from re-occurring.

All this being said, switching to a single baited hook (single shank, treble hooks still permitted not that anyone would ever fish sturgeon with a treble hook) should not affect the catch rate of sturgeon which are not foul hooked significantly.   There are a lot of anglers on the river who only ever use a single hook and they often enjoy great success.   So while I do not feel this regulation will have any measurable impact on the population as a whole, I am not particularly opposed to it.

Retention Size - Catch and Release Only

During the discussion with the group, the topic of the 120 cm minimum retention was raised by Mr. Stevens in that he seemed to imply the length was intended to be fork length and not tail length as everyone has been accustomed to.   It was expressed that the current regulation may be changed to either state retention size would be 120 fork length, or the 120 cm tail length would be increased.   Either would essentially eliminate all legal retention of shortnose sturgeon.   This is a position I am very disappointed in.

I asked Mr. Stevens directly after the discussion, if the intent is to eliminate all retention of the fish, why not make a no retention rule?   The answer was because that would be more difficult to do legally as a change in federal law required to remove the bag limit.  Changing the minimum size limitation on the other hand is something they can do very easily and is in essence a backhanded way of making the entire fishery catch and release.

Now I catch over 100 sturgeon a year, and I have several friends who catch as many or more, and the number of sturgeon we catch which are legal to keep is roughly around 2%.   I only witnessed two or three fish that large in total this past year.   Of those I have witnessed that were 120 cm or more, the vast majority are returned to the water (including my one 50"er last Spring).    I generally do like to keep one a year as a treat for my family, though I didn't retain any in 2016.   Going forward it looks like no one may be able to retain a sturgeon again.

Now I ask, what effect with this have on the population?   Currently, with only the very oldest sturgeon available to be retained (those with just a few years left in their lifespan), can the impact of recreation fishing really be significant?  Personally I feel recreational anglers legally retaining the rare 120 cm fish is not having a measureable effect and that preventing even the possibility of catching a fish that is legal to retain will have a detrimental effect on the participation rates for the fishery.  Look what happened the the salmon fishery participation rates in NB when it became catch and release only as an example.

Marine Recreational Fishing License

Finally the third significant change being considered, not for 2017 but perhaps soon thereafter is the introduction of a new Marine Recreational Fishing License.   The goal here, as stated by Mr. Stevens, is not to be a money grab, he did want to make that clear, it would be in the $10 range.  Rather, it would bring with it a possible mandatory reporting system for species not currently covered by provincial laws, for example sturgeon, stripers and mackerel.

The goal here would be to have a system where recreational anglers for species like this in tidal waters would report their catches and with that information the Federal department would be better able to assess shifts and changes in the population.

I am a science guy (degree in Computer Science, minors in Math and Physics) so I firmly believe that gathering more information is always a positive thing.   That is, of course, as long as the information is judged through sound scientific means and not political or other bias.   Statistics after all can be easily skewed are commonly used to re-enforce some of the biggest untruths we are told by political figures.

Would a new license and mandatory reporting scheme for fisheries like the striper and sturgeon fisheries on the Kennebecasis work?   Would it be effective for say recreational mackerel fishing?  Or would there be more effective ways for this information to be gathered?

So, there you have it, the three big changes that may be coming to our fishery.   What do you think?   I feel that targeting the recreational angler with new regulations and restrictions simply because the fishery has become more popular is a poor direction to take.   If protecting the species is really the ultimate goal then the focus should be on main threats, of which I would consider poaching and illegal fishing to be more significant.

Note, by the Federal Governments own 2016 report, that the threat level posed to shortnose sturgeon by directed recreational fishing has been deemed as 'Medium' but with a 'Low' level of certainty.  "Low:  there is a plausible link with limited evidence that the threat has stressed the population."   In comparison the threat to the population posed by illegal fishing in this same report has been deemed Low, meaning the Federal Government believes that recreational anglers are a greater threat to the species than poachers.   I personally find this absurd, but that is only based on my own experience and observations.     If more people reported poaching of sturgeon, perhaps it would become a greater concern to the Federal decision makers and more action would be taken there.

Instead of new regulations I would prefer the first course of action to be an increase the budgets for enforcement personnel and patrols both at the Federal and Provincial levels.   I would love to see a patrol boat in the water at all times during the prime fishing seasons on the Kennebecasis River (and other popular locations), either on patrol or ready to be dispatched should another angler like you or I spot an infraction and report it.  Spot checks at public launch points should be far more frequent to ensure anglers are not returning with poached fish, and a public awareness campaign be launched to encourage others to report offenses they spot on the water.

So what can you do if you feel strongly, one way or another about this subject?   Well I know from the discussions today that my blog here is closely followed by the major stakeholders.  Feel free to leave your comments below.   Keep comments polite, refrain from insults and profanity or I will remove your comment.   I welcome differing opinion to mine, but keep it above the belt.  Do not feel compelled to leave your name, though I suspect having your name behind your comments may help it carry more weight with those who may be watching.      If you do wish to contact Mr. Stevens directly, please e-mail me and I will try to assist.  


  1. Well said I believe Joe.... would there be any way that the province could work with acadian sturgeon to increase the reproduction/stocking rates to ensure a thriving population? I would hole heartedly agree that poaching would have a way higher effect on population than would respectable angling! Shane Kelly

    1. The sturgeon population is thriving already, at least for the size and resources of St. John river (carrying capacity). Restocking would be a mistake as it influences the genetic structure of the population. Restocking is the last thing you do when the population is really low or disappeared and there is no natural reproduction (as we help doing in the Baltic Sea)... The only good thing I see in those regulations is gathering of data by the fishermen. We need to participate in the management and stock assessment of the fisheries or other people who know nothing about the reality will "create" or assume data for us and take decisions that are not based on real data... Cheers, Cornel / Acadian Sturgeon

  2. It is just what it is... a money grab.... they are finally taken the last free thing away from us that we stinks of the tax man in my pocket again

    1. I was there, it would not be a money grab. If DFO knows how much is being spent on tidal water recreational fishing, anglers get a better seat at the table when it comes to managing fisheries and more money could be allocated to enforcement and enhancement of our fisheries. $10...hell that's two tubs of worms. One thing I should say, is the $10 licence fee should be entirely put back into protection and enhancement of our fisheries.

    2. Sorry but "I was there, it would not be a money grab" is not sound advice. If you work you already give bundles of your money to governments. The government gets to decide how they allocate the money they collect and a lot of it is wasted.

      The truth is:

      1) The government can increase the DFO budget whenever they want.
      2) The government can make it mandatory for anglers to report their catches and give anglers a "seat at the table" whenever they want.
      3) The DFO already does fish research and can study any species as much as the government decides they should.

      Another $10 fee here and there is simply more tax money paid. You work hard for every dollar you get to keep after taxes are paid. Never encourage the government to take more. Stand up for your fishing rights, your expectation of your government to protect fish and water, and the money you earn!

  3. Good synopsis Joe. Couple points.

    Agree with the others that this is targeting responsible anglers more than what would be the real problem if there is one. A foul-hooked tank of a sturgeon that's put back likely has a very high survival rate. The mortality rate of poached fish is 100%. Go after the poachers or those who are ignorant or uncaring of the regulations.

    The tail length versus fork length issue is a completely ridiculous argument. This isn't a salmon with an extra inch or two of tail. This is a sturgeon and this pic clearly shows how much of a difference there is within longer legal-sized fish.

    That's another FIVE-PLUS INCHES of tail on that baby, meaning 53" is now the legal minimum size limit. I've also caught over three hundred of these fish, and I've heard of ONE fish caught that's larger than that, and it was not by myself.

    Just avoid this meaningless and messy regulation change and make it a catch and release fishery altogether if you're going to do this. It's one more point of potential confusion for the angler.

    I'm really surprised that barbless didn't come up, if they're talking about foul hooking being a problem. The rare deep barbed foul-hook puncture is more difficult to extract and traumatic to the fish than a barbless, it reduces injury to the mouth, and the latter is standard in many fisheries.

    Ten bucks is nothing for a license, but it's adding trouble for those who police the fisheries because it's such a big new change. It's another piece of paperwork for me to forget and leave at home, and there's no way that price will contribute anything meaningful to the coffers, and it'll just raise an uproar when families at Beaver Harbour want to take their kid out for some mackerel and get caught.

    I don't fish salmon but I bet a tremendous amount of my freshwater license goes toward that fishery; add two bucks to my freshwater fishing license to make it cover tidal, extend the tidal portion so it's year around to cover post-October and a lot of the fee collection and paperwork issues go away.

    Hopefully they'll sink more thought into these changes before they're implemented.

    1. Chris, it should be a C&R only fishery, but DFO can not change the regulations easily. But if they make a variation order to increase the length limit, this effectively does the same thing without taking years to do. I brought up barbless hooks, but DFO felt it was not necessary as they feel current scientific knowledge doesn't show a clear benefit to barbless over barbed hooks. I still feel barbless is right for sturgeon and many other large fish. We are one of the few places that don't have a saltwater licence. Maybe if there was a licence, people would adhere to the regulations more and not have any excuse of ignorance.

      I believe Greg mentioned something about only having ONE Federal licence as well. That may be another option down the road for DFO.

  4. Thanks for writing this up, Joe. I meant to go and completely forgot about it.

    Gear Restrictions
    I actually mostly agree with the gear restrictions. 6 lines and 30 hooks goes beyond the "recreational" label use if you ask me. I'm okay with a single hook, though ideally I'd prefer to be allowed 2 or 3 lines, each with a single hook. Foul hooking might not hurt the sturgeon the way it does trout or salmon, but it shouldn't be a "strategy" that anglers employ to catch fish.
    Would this restriction apply to all species in tidal water?

    I agree with you, Joe. This does seem to be a way of making the fishery catch and release only, without actually making it catch and release. As you and others have said, there are currently very few fish caught that are retainable as is.
    I do have some additional thoughts on this though. Will this make it easier for enforcement officers to catch poachers? Essentially anyone noticed to be retaining a sturgeon is almost assuredly poaching. With limited enforcement personal this might make it easier to identify those who we believe to be the real threat.
    Finally. regarding your idea that retaining only the big ones just removes a few near the end of their lives. That may be true, but sturgeon are long lived. From what I have read, females can live twice as long as the males, so I am guessing that pretty much all the fish that we can retain are females. Since the number of eggs they produce when they spawn is a function of their weight, then these same females would also be the most productive spawners. However since they only spawn every 3 years or so, I’m not sure how many more times they would have spawned if not retained.

    It always surprised me that we didn’t have to have a license for tidal waters in NB, considering just how much of the province is tidal. If they introduce such a license, there would need to be a significant amount of advertising it because so many people are used to not needing it.
    Would you need the license for all species, or just shortnose sturgeon? I’m assuming all species because otherwise it would be a nightmare to try an enforce.
    Would an effort be made to keep the rules for other species in line with the provincial regulations, or would the angler be required to know two sets of rules?
    What would be the goal for having the license? Would the money just go to analyzing the stats provided by the anglers, or would some go towards more direct conservation methods? (such as more enforcement officers)
    And of course, how fast would the licence fee grow over time? Nobody can answer that, unfortunately.

    In general I’m okay with the suggestions personally, even if I think they could be better. But then I’ve never kept a sturgeon, nor wanted too. I do agree that it does seem like they are trying to make the legal anglers pay the price for conservation than combating the poachers. Unfortunately, I don’t expect to see any increase in enforcement officers anytime soon. With the current state of the economy and the provincial/federal governments budgets, we can’t expect much in the way of increased funding for this. So those of us who do want a sustainable fishery will all need to chip in a little bit. So will these measures help at all? Maybe some. I also think we need to make sure that we report any suspicious poaching activity, and hope that the enforcement officers can catch them.

  5. (single shank, treble hooks still permitted not that anyone would ever fish sturgeon with a treble hook)

    Correct me if i am wrong joe but im quite sure you at least used to use a treble on the end of your line. As well as taught others in your groups to do the same. Sounds very hypocritical to me.

    1. Actually Anonymous, I have been using a double hook at the end of my rig, not a treble hook. The double hook I use is not connected in the center and allows bait to be threaded completely down both halfs of the shaft allowing for a greater amount of bait to be used. It also helps to prevent a severely deep swallow of the hook where it could potentially cause more damage.

    2. You also posted an article on your blog some time ago, demonstrating this treble hook technique while stating that with that rig you stood a better chance of hooking a fin, etc. I know that it was legal from a fisheries standpoint but i feel it was wrong and if you cant catch em with 1 hook then you shouldnt be fishing them.

      I know leaving this anonymously is upsetting to you however i am not a confrontational person but felt your hypocritical stance needed to be voiced non the less.

    3. I have never used a treble hook for sturgeon fishing, or for any kind of bait fishing. I will use trebles on lures such as rapalas, but never for bait one would thread onto the hook. I am sure the dozens of people I fish with through the year would be able to attest to never having seen me employ a treble hook while sturgeon fishing.

      Differing opinions and healthy debate on any of these topics are welcome. Throwing out words like words like hypocritical might cause the type of confrontation you seem to want to avoid. Perhaps re-read my comments above on the topic of foul hooking sturgeon, go back and find the post you are referring to and try to be more accurate in your points about what other people may or may not be doing.

  6. Are people really going to by the new Fed license . Are they not going to say they are fishing perch or, some other species. Are they not going to say the same when it comes to strippers In tidal waters when do you need a license ?. You need none to ice fish in tidal. When the Salmon tags went to the way side over half of the fisherman on Salmon waters just bought a simple Trout License. Yes they have to wait to May 1 in some rivers but not in all to start fishing and end Sept 15 but to many it was not worth the extra dollars.
    Sam Daigle Clarks Corner N.b.

    1. Hi Sam,

      Looking forward to the Shad derby again this year. I think I may have both boys coming this time!

      As per the license, my understanding is that it is still a work in progress. I believe the direction it is taking is to be applicable to all marine recreational fishing in tidal waters not just in NB but possibly throughout Atlantic Canada. No comments were made as to the West Coast.

      The intent would be more of an information gathering tool with mandatory reporting for certain species and essentially not be applicable to other species. How this is rolled out and implemented exactly I have no idea.

      I did ask specifically how this would affect a family going out to fish for say perch, and it was said that such a group would not require a licence and would be unaffected. It would only be applicable to a certain set of defined species.

      My impression is that if they have another means of getting anglers to report their fishing logs without having to implement a licensing system and new rules they would do it, but really, if reporting isn't mandatory, there are a good chunk of anglers who would never participate.

      Knowledge is key and DFO is trying to gather as much as they can, and I do applaud them for that. I really don't think adding restrictions or roadblocks for anglers in tidal waters is the reasoning behind this.

      Stripers, sturgeon and mackerel were specifically mentioned. I really don't think they would add perch, smallmouth, smelt, or other common 'baitfish'.

    2. Joe you and a small group have worked so hard to develop a interest in a species that very few really targeted, being accountable is very important but keeping the interest of a very underutilized game fish is also very important. It is highly unlikely that the fishing pressure that they receive on the Kenny is the True problem of their dwindling numbers . It always seems that the sport fisherman is the first to receive any restrictions on a impacted species when they are really the least of the over all problem but yet most easily targeted for Change.

    3. We are all looking forward to the Shad derby this year again, and as there arrival gets closer each day so does the intensity of the smile of my face increase. Tight Lines Joe and bring them young lads along. The reason Ralph and I put the Derby on each season , we just want to develop a interest in a species that takes the pressure off our normally targeted game fish especially at that time of year.. and quiet frankly fishing them is the most fun you can have with you pants on!

  7. Interesting discussion. If nothing else, I'm glad the powers that be are concerned about the fishery and seem to genuinely be interested in ensuring it's continuation.
    As someone who has fished for sturgeon across Canada, I can say that NB is by far the most liberal in their regulation of the fishery. The number of rods per angler and hooks per rod seems way excessive. Does any one person really need to have 6 rods in the water? Especially given that the fishery is largely C&R due to min retention size.
    As for retention, I think that having a tag-based system with a slot limit would be best. Those who wish to eat sturgeon would be able to purchase a tag which would allow the retention of a sturgeon between (hypothetically) 36 and 40" overall length. This would ensure the largest fish are kept in the population and allowed to spawn and pass on their large genes. Ideal slot size would need to be determined by biologists. Harvesting fish in the top 2% size of the population is a recipe for smaller fish in the long term. The tag system would give the DFO a better idea of how many sturgeon are being removed from the system in a given year, and allow them to control the number being removed year to year by limiting the number of issued tags if need be.


  8. I think this will all backfire on the government - as soon as they add regulations like the ones they have carefully "thrown" out there, most of the Sturgeon fisherman will go away and few will consider getting into it. The fees and data they hope to glean won't pan out. It will be a disaster with nothing to show but more regulations.
    I won't fish for Sturgeon if we're going to have DFO breathing down our necks. I also won't teach my kids to if it's going to cost more and have disproportionate government attention. Currently tourism dollars related to the NB Sturgeon fishery are increasing but I'll predict it'll go into decline if more regulations are imposed.
    At first it won't be a money grab but 5 years in, it'll be a money grab. You can be sure of that. Trudeau has promised to balance the budget so it won't be long until these types of fees skyrocket.

  9. Are people really going to by the new Fed license . Are they not going to say they are fishing perch or, some other species. Are they not going to say the same when it comes to strippers In tidal waters when do you need a license ?. You need none to ice fish in tidal. When the Salmon tags went to the way side over half of the fisherman on Salmon waters just bought a simple Trout License. Yes they have to wait to May 1 in some rivers but not in all to start fishing and end Sept 15 but to many it was not worth the extra dollars.
    Sam Daigle Clarks Corner N.b.