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NB Bald Eagles Spiral: a Bad Omen for Salmon

NEW BRUNSWICK, CANADA - The largest bird of prey in Canada is making a comeback in New Brunswick, Natural Resources Minister Wally Stiles announced last week. But the increase in bald eagles seen locally may be due to what amounts to bad news for the Atlantic Salmon.

Local eagles Bald eagles have been present locally in numbers rarely seen in the memory of inhabitants, reported the Campbellton Tribune earlier this week. The tribune reported that many were seen this summer along the Restigoughe River, particularly in the area of the Tide Head Marsh (old south boom) to the west of Boom Lane in Atholville. Most of the eagles have since departed for the winter, but there may be something unpleasant going on that causes them to spend their summers here.

Retired DNR biologist Alan Madden, who lives by the marsh, told The Tribune in the late autumn of 2008 that he at different times in the autumn had seen upwards of 25 to 30 eagles at the marsh and nearby river. But that didn’t necessarily mean all good things. Eagles enjoy eating carrion and dead fish. These eagles, he said, were feasting on salmon dead from the fungus saprolegnia, or “cotton fungus”. This is a white fungus that grows on the salmon in the river system, weakening the fish and often killing it, although contact with salt water will kill the fungus.

In 2003, Madden authored a report on how the fungus was killing salmon on the river, which he researched by calling his many contacts. Madden fears that the fungus is killing far more salmon than people realize, and that it is these dead salmon that are drawing the eagles to the area — just as they are drawn in large numbers to the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia because chicken farms put out dead chickens for them to eat.

Madden said that in 2008 he went out onto the marsh and sandbars in the river and confirmed that the eagles were eating salmon dead of the fungus. (The fungus is harmless to the birds.) According to the Campbellton Tribune, both the Atlantic Salmon Federation and a DNR spokesperson referred Tribune enquiries on the subject of saprolegnia to the Restigouche River Watershed Management Council, based in Matapedia.

David LeBlanc, executive director of the RRWMC, could not provide precise numbers and said that more funding for more research is needed on the subject of the fungus and how many salmon it is killing. The group is putting up signs at various places on the watershed asking people to report any salmon they find infected with the fungus. (The number to call is 418-865-1323) In the meantime, it looks like what is hard luck for the Atlantic salmon is a free lunch to our growing population of bald eagles.

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