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Canada’s Wild Atlantic Salmon Conservation Policy


The Wild Atlantic Salmon Conservation Policy details how the Government of Canada will meet its responsibilities for the conservation of wild Atlantic salmon. It stipulates an overall policy goal for wild Atlantic salmon and identifies basic principles to guide resource management decision making. This policy is also intended to provide guidance for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to develop specific implementation plans and targeted programs and policies.

Policy goal

The goal of the Wild Atlantic Salmon Conservation Policy is to restore and maintain healthy wild Atlantic salmon populations. This will be achieved by rebuilding and protecting the biological foundations of wild Atlantic salmon while taking into consideration the social, cultural, ecological and economic benefits of wild salmon for now and for the future generations of Canadians.

This policy only addresses the wild anadromous (sea-run) form of Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar L.), found in the rivers of the Maritime provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island), Newfoundland and Labrador, and Québec.

Atlantic salmon are considered “wild” if they have spent their entire life cycle in the wild and originate from parents who were also produced by natural spawning and continuously lived in the wild.

In the case of live gene banking recovery actions to protect genetic diversity and re-establish populations listed as endangered or at risk of extirpation, the progeny of those recovery actions are given the same consideration under this policy as if they were “wild” salmon.

Importance of wild Atlantic salmon

Wild Atlantic salmon is an important icon for the people of Atlantic Canada and Québec. People care about and benefit from salmon for many different reasons. For instance, it is fished for food, social, and ceremonial purposes by more than forty First Nations and many Indigenous communities in eastern Canada. In central and coastal Labrador it is relied on for local community food fisheries. Moreover, salmon angling is a valued recreational activity by both local residents and non-residents. Salmon are considered an indicator of environmental quality, an animal of respect, an attraction for eco-tourism and have an importance beyond economic returns.

This species has in fact generated a rich cultural heritage of spiritual and emotional connections amongst peoples, the fish, and the environment at large. Indeed, the connections that people have with salmon provide a strong driving force for conservation of the species. It is important, therefore, to ensure that resource management and salmon conservation decisions always strive to recognize, maintain, and enhance the many ways in which people are connected to salmon.

Wild Atlantic salmon populations throughout the range have however declined. Between 1971 and 1985, the estimated abundance of North American, essentially Canadian, Atlantic salmon at one sea winter of age varied between 0.8 - 1.7 million fish annually. Since 1995 onwards, the abundance has declined to 0.4 - 0.7 million fish. The largest decline has occurred in adult salmon returning to Canadian rivers as two-sea-winter salmon. The most severe declines have occurred in the 32 rivers of the inner Bay of Fundy where Atlantic salmon are now listed as “endangered” under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

In response to the declining stocks, important changes in fisheries exploitation and management were introduced in 1984, including closure of the commercial Atlantic salmon fisheries of the Maritime provinces and portions of Québec and the introduction of mandatory catch and release in the recreational fisheries of large salmon in the Maritime provinces and insular Newfoundland. In subsequent years additional commercial fisheries were closed culminating in a full moratorium on all commercial fisheries in eastern Canada by 2000. Since then, more restrictive measures have been applied to compensate for declining marine survival and abundance levels, including reduced daily and season retention bag limits, expansion of mandatory catch and release of large salmon and in some cases all sizes of salmon, and in large parts of the Maritimes, the total closure of legally directed Atlantic salmon fisheries. Several Indigenous community fisheries have also been reduced and, in some cases, voluntarily suspended.

The Government of Canada recognizes that action is required to arrest the decline and to rebuild wild Atlantic salmon populations and maintain their genetic diversity in order to provide the desired benefits to Canadians. This policy sets the stage for various levels of government, Indigenous communities and non-governmental stakeholders to work together and in so doing contribute through shared stewardship to the conservation of wild Atlantic salmon.

Guiding principles

As the core framework of this policy, the guiding principles will govern future decision-making and facilitate the implementation of an adaptive approach to salmon management and conservation. The policy framework does not override existing legislation or regulations. Its objective rather is to define how these statutory authorities should be implemented.

As such, all decisions pertaining to wild Atlantic salmon will be guided by the following four principles:

Principle 1 – Conservation

The conservation of wild Atlantic salmon populations, their genetic diversity and their habitats must be given the highest priority in management decisions.

Conservation is the protection, maintenance, and rehabilitation of salmon populations, their genetic diversity, and their ecosystems in order to sustain biodiversity and the continuance of evolutionary and natural production processes.

Conservation must be given the highest priority in decision making to ensure the sustainability of salmon populations and any benefits derived from them. As such, the greatest threats to the future of wild Atlantic salmon populations should receive the greatest amount of attention and resources to ensure that the conservation objectives are met. An ongoing challenge is to ensure that human activities are conducted in a way that avoid or mitigate adverse effects on wild Atlantic salmon and their habitat.

Principle 2 - Sustainable use and benefits:

Management decisions must respect the rights of Indigenous peoples, reflect best available science, and consider local and Indigenous traditional knowledge as well as the biological, social and economic consequences for Canadians.

People desire to use and derive benefits from wild Atlantic salmon. Sustainable use and benefits is defined as the use of the Atlantic salmon resource in a way that does not lead to its long-term decline, thereby ensuring that the needs and aspirations of future generations can be met.

Resource management processes and decisions will therefore consider the consequences from both ecological and socio-economic perspectives, and aim to provide the widest range of uses and benefits possible, subject to conservation requirements, and the principles of precaution and sustainability. Decisions that affect human use will also account for the constitutionally protected rights of Indigenous peoples to priority access for food, social and ceremonial purposes.

Principle 3 - Precautionary approach and transparent decision making:

Management decisions must apply the precautionary approach and must be made in an open, inclusive, and transparent manner.

The precautionary approach is widely applied in fisheries management and the protection of marine ecosystems. The approach implies that a lower risk tolerance will be chosen in management decisions, when stock status information is more uncertain. To garner trust and public support, management decisions will seek to accommodate a wide range of interests in the resource; and will be based on meaningful input with clear and consistent rules and procedures. Furthermore, resource management decisions will be exercised in a way that is consistent with the principle of shared responsibility between the Government of Canada, provincial and territorial governments, First Nations, Indigenous organizations, and other stakeholders.

Principle 4 - Shared stewardship:

Conservation initiatives will be optimized with the active engagement of provincial governments, First Nations, other Indigenous organizations, volunteers and other stakeholders in the development and implementation of management decisions.

The Government of Canada alone cannot address all the challenges facing wild Atlantic salmon. The driving force for conservation in fact comes from all the people who care about wild salmon. In this context, the promotion of and compliance with management measures is most effective when the users of the resource are directly involved in the development and implementation of the measures, including monitoring for compliance.

Shared stewardship means the active participation and inclusion of all government, Indigenous, and non-governmental stakeholders in decision-making to sustain and where required rebuild salmon populations.


Given the complexities involved in conserving wild Atlantic salmon, the Government of Canada will use this policy as a basis to develop implementation plans. These plans will account for differences in the status and threats of salmon population. The implementation plans will be flexible and responsive to address emerging issues and public concerns. To ensure that they remain current and relevant, the implementation plans will be reviewed every two years.

In general terms, the plans will incorporate the most recent science based information available, update the status of threats on the wild Atlantic salmon stocks, and outline the actions taken towards salmon management and conservation in the previous two years. This will provide a reporting framework on past actions and initiatives. The objective is to build on past activities, develop and incorporate new scientific knowledge, and to set the course for subsequent series of regional and national initiatives.

Legal context

Although inland fisheries are a shared responsibility between the federal and provincial governments, the specific elements of the division of powers are set out in the Constitution Act, 1867. Accordingly, the Parliament of Canada has exclusive legislative authority for all matters relating to “Sea Coast and Inland Fisheries”; and the federal Fisheries Act gives the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard the authority to manage and protect the resource, to provide access to the resource, and to impose appropriate conditions on harvesting. However, each province may exclusively make laws in relation to “property and civil rights in the province” including riparian rights.

Provincial governments have powers with respect to the fishing of salmon in inland waters, to issue licences for recreational angling for salmon and other species, and to collect fees for these licences. The Quebec government has additional delegated powers with respect to fisheries administration, which apply to the management and control of fishing for freshwater fish, as well as anadromous and catadromous species of fish in the waters of the Province and in tidal waters. The management of wild Atlantic salmon is also shaped by court decisions respecting Indigenous and Treaty rights. These rights are affirmed in Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, committing the Government of Canada to manage fisheries such that Indigenous fisheries for food, social and ceremonial purposes have priority over other fisheries.

The Species at Risk Act (SARA) was proclaimed in 2003, as a commitment under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. Its purpose is to prevent aquatic wildlife species from being extirpated or becoming extinct, to provide for the recovery of aquatic wildlife species that are extirpated, endangered or threatened as a result of human activity and to manage species of special concern to prevent them from becoming endangered or threatened. Under SARA, the Government of Canada is responsible for activities such as enforcement of contraventions of prohibitions; development of recovery strategies; critical habitat protection; and undertaking consultations within specified timelines.


Live gene banking:The process to maintain a genetically diverse collection of individuals representative of a population for use in selective breeding or as part of a population conservation program.

Diversity: refers to the irreplaceable lineages of salmon that have evolved through time, the geographic distribution of these populations, the genetic differences and life history variations observed among them, and the habitats that support these differences. Diversity also represents the potential to adapt to future changes in climate and habitat.

Habitat: Spawning grounds and nursery, rearing, food supply and migration areas on which fish depend directly or indirectly in order to carry out their life processes.

Biological foundations:This term references the full and broadest range of biological parameters necessary to produce and support healthy wild Atlantic salmon populations. These include but are not limited to, genetic integrity and diversity, accessibility to high quality water and physical habitats, appropriate water flows and temperatures, predator/prey balances, and general ecosystem integrity.

Precautionary approach: In the context of harvest decision-making the term refers to a specific set of science and management components and general rules that are required to implement a harvest strategy consistent with the precautionary approach, as described in: “A Fishery Decision-making Framework Incorporating the Precautionary Approach, (DFO, 2009)”; and “A Harvest Strategy Compliant with the Precautionary Approach. (DFO CSAS, 2006/023).” Used generally, the term refers to being cautious when scientific information is uncertain, unreliable or inadequate and not using the absence of scientific information as a reason to postpone or fail to take action to avoid serious harm to a resource. It is intended to promote actions that would result in a low probability of harm that is serious or difficult to reverse.

Healthy: refers to wild Atlantic salmon populations that are considered to be in the healthy zone as defined by the precautionary approach.

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