• Atlantic salmon are considered an indicator species, letting researchers know when things are going right — and wrong. (Photo: SaltWire)

Along the Nunavik, Labrador, Newfoundland and eastern New Brunswick coasts, purple colour coding — for “species status: unknown” — dominates river systems. In the Bay of Fundy and Nova Scotia’s South Shore, the situation is known all too well: thick networks of red and black rivers highlight high-risk and extirpated populations.

This map shows, for the first time, the scope of the threat status of Atlantic salmon spawning rivers in northeastern North America — a powerful tool for helping conservationists better understand the continent’s 17 Atlantic salmon populations, which travel each year from salt water to their natal rivers to spawn.

“Atlantic salmon are an indicator species,” says Neville Crabbe, a spokesperson for the Atlantic Salmon Federation, the New Brunswick headquartered organization leading the creation of this map. “Their presence often indicates that we’re doing something right, and they are often one of the first species affected when we’re doing something wrong.”

The international North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization and Fisheries and Oceans Canada brought together a range of previously collected information on the fish’s status to create the dataset. The ASF then tasked Ontario-based
cartographer Chris Brackley, of As the Crow Flies cARTography, with giving that population data shape by attaching it to GIS river datasets, colour-coding 1,100 wild Atlantic salmon rivers by conservation status to create the first comprehensive visualization of everything we know about the species. In its coming digital format, the map will provide conservationists, anglers and scientists with a snapshot of the stability of each river: population patterns, places where salmon are at risk of
collapse and areas that still lack much-needed data.

(Map: Chris Brackley/Can Geo; Atlantic salmon threat status provided by Atlantic Salmon Federation)

Atlantic salmon, which are a source of food and hold cultural significance for more than 40 First Nations and Inuit communities across these regions and for people across Canada, have declined by roughly half since the 1970s. Overfishing, industrial development and other habitat degradation caused the extirpation of the species from many river systems. Salmon no longer return to the majority of the 32 historical spawning rivers in the inner Bay of Fundy, for example, and the population is
listed as endangered under Canada’s Species At Risk Act. Commercial salmon fisheries in the Maritimes were closed in the 1980s and ongoing recovery efforts in a handful of locations are promising, but overall, as the SARA report holds, “there is no likelihood of rescue.”

“At one time, this area had one of the largest runs of wild Atlantic salmon in the world,” says Crabbe. “But it’s now basically blocked by three main-stem hydroelectric dams that severely impede fish passage.”

One of ASF’s goals is to determine where gaps in knowledge prevent conservationists from protecting this critical species: “The bottom line is we don’t really know how most of the rivers in Canada are faring when it comes to wild Atlantic salmon,” says Crabbe. “I think that comes out loud and clear on this map.”