Snizort: The West Highland Free Press reports that the Skeabost Hotel in North Skye has appointed a new ghillie following the retirement of Derek Dowsett, who managed the Hotel’s Snizort seven miles of river for over 15 years. Mr Derek Doherty takes over as the new season opens on Tuesday 15th February. Mr Doherty told the WHFP that it was such an honour to be appointed as the new ghillie for a river that has such a rich angling history and is arguably one of the best for trout and salmon fishing on Skye. He added that the role is not just about fishing as the hotel has worked over the years to open up the river and celebrate the treasure it has on its doorstep.

The hotel’s website describes the river as being the most celebrated river on Skye with twelve beats running down to the sea loch estuary. The sea trout and brown trout are game to attack anything from a 22 hook to a full-grown salmon fly and follow salmon all the way up the river and even up the seven-foot jump at the Falls. The hotel website continues that the salmon are up and down the river all year, but the big runs go from the end of June or beginning of July to the end of the season in mid-October.

Of course, the hotel’s description of the fishing is aimed at attracting anglers to come and stay. The 2019 Fisheries Management Scotland Annual Review includes a report from the now retired Mr Dowsett about the fishing in 2018. The total number of salmon caught was 88, the largest of which was 16lb. The 10-year average is 112. Twenty-nine sea trout were also caught, the largest of which was 4lb. Mr Dowsett, reports that the river has been much drier than usual in recent years which may account for the lower catch but he still says that catches have much improved over the long-term. He says that sea trout continue to be caught in fewer numbers although the 4lb fish is the largest fish caught for some years.

Finally, Mr Dowsett says that the fish caught showed little evidence of sea louse infestation and all appeared to be well-fed.

The graph that accompanies his report only covers the period from 2000 onward. Instead, the catches from 1952 are shown as follows:

   

Sea trout catches have declined but they were in decline across the west coast long before salmon farms arrived. As yet, no-one has ever ventured any other reason for the ongoing decline because it is too easy to blame salmon farming despite a lack of any hard evidence.

Salmon catches show an overall increasing trend, which fits in with Mr Dowsett’s comments that the average catch over the past decade exceeds that over previous years. Catches do show a dip during the 1990’s which some attribute to salmon farming activity but is replicated across the whole region. This dip is actually the result of campaigning against the salmon farming industry. At that time, the wild fish sector claimed that salmon farming had wiped out wild fish stocks and consequently anglers avoided the region – why spend good money on fishing the west coast if there are no fish to catch. Eventually, anglers began to realise that salmon had not vanished from the west coast and began to return. In fact, the Snizort is graded as a category 2 river which means that the river has a probability of between 60-80% of meeting its conservation status. Whilst the river authorities may impose catch and release, they are not obliged to. Such is the conservation status of the Snizort that anglers could in theory be allowed to kill the salmon they catch. This is very different to the impression given by Salmon & Trout Conservation in the petition to the Scottish Parliament which led to the REC Committee investigation into the impacts of salmon farming.

Whilst the River Snizort is now a grade 2 river and the last published reports highlight the lack of sea lice damage, there are in fact two salmon farms in close proximity to the river estuary. There is one farm at the mouth of adjacent Loch Greshornish. The other is Loch Snizort East located near the mouth of the estuary. Both are sited less than 4km away from the river estuary and according to informed wild salmon interests should have decimated local wild fish stocks. Except they haven’t.

Once anyone digs down into the data, it is clear that the claims made by the wild fish sector about the negative impact of salmon farming don’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s simply easier to blame salmon farming than accept any responsibility themselves. Since 1952, anglers have caught and killed 7,196 salmon and grilse from this short river and its locality as well as 26,704 sea trout.

 

Big Offer:  Fish Farmer website reported recently about ongoing bilateral discussions between Fisheries Management Scotland (FMS) and the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO). This is aimed at establishing a fund to help halt the decline in wild stocks.

However well-intentioned, I would argue that this would be a massive mistake on the part of the salmon farming industry and I sincerely hope that they see sense and withdraw from any such arrangement. It is a fruitless exercise aimed at demonstrating to the Scottish Government that the farmed and wild sectors can work together. There is absolutely no reason why the salmon farming industry and the wild fish sector cannot work together without an exchange of money.

The idea of the salmon farming industry giving cash to the wild salmon sector is not new. Serious discussions began under the auspices of the Prince of Wales’s sustainability unit and took place at Dumfries House in Ayrshire. The Prince of Wales visited a salmon farm in 2016 as a consequence of the talks.

At the time, it was suggested that this funding would be seen as ‘Blood Money’ in the form of a reparation for the damage caused to wild stocks by the impact of salmon farming. The problem I have with this is that I have yet to be convinced that salmon farming has that much of an impact on wild fish. Even if it had, it would relate to stocks around the area where salmon farming takes place. This accounts for about 10% of the total Scottish catch. My understanding was that FMS wanted to decide to who the money would be distributed, and this would include east coast rivers. However, whilst catches elsewhere have been in serious decline, the rivers from which these catches were made are nowhere near any salmon farming activity. Why should the salmon farming industry pay money towards the restoration of rivers where they have absolutely no impact?

I believe that during the course of varying discussions over intervening years, the possible arrangements for funding have been amended several times. The current idea is for a fund to which anyone can apply. The merit of each application is then judged separately. At one time, it has been said that the fund was set at £5 million over a ten-year period but I understand that this was felt to be unacceptable.

Whatever way this fund would be managed, it would still be a major mistake. This is because giving money to FMS would not stop the constant flow of negative criticism against the salmon farming industry. It might be expected that co-operation with the wild fish sector would reduce the amount of criticism but in fact, it will undoubtedly increase. Already, anti-salmon farming campaigner and self-proclaimed salmon farm expert, Corin Smith has written on his Facebook page that ‘Quango is on the verge of selling out wild salmon in Scotland’.  He said FMS would sell out the prospect of increased regulation in favour of money for a small number of fishery boards and this would betray the work of many people who have campaigned against open cage salmon farming. He says that FMS do not represent the wild fish sector. They represent only a small part of it – the salmon fisheries boards. Mr Smith says that FMS do not have the support of anglers, conservationists and local community groups. He adds that it is no wonder that wild salmon are in decline if this is who is meant to be saving them. He tells FMS to get some backbone and see it through or else let someone else take the lead who will!

I am not the only one to share such concerns. Over a year ago, columnist Nick Joy wrote in Fish Farmer magazine that he had never heard a worse idea than the salmon industry funding the wild fish sector. Whilst a long-time salmon farmer, Nick also sat on the local fisheries trust. He draws attention to the fact that during his tenure, the number of times a national representative visited could be counted on one hand whilst the big hitters never bothered to visit at all. Nick points out that the best collaboration works when only local interests are involved. He also mentions that some local river systems have performed well in terms of wild fish catches yet have salmon farms located within the system. Such examples are never highlighted because they do not support the view that salmon farming is deleterious to wild fish stocks.

This is something I would raise from my own perspective. It is always a puzzle to me that if the wild fish sector were so concerned about the state of wild stocks, then they might be expected to want to speak to anyone who can offer another view. This is certainly not the case from my experience. I have approached FMS a couple of times asking if I can come and speak to them. I’m still waiting. I have also offered more than once to make a presentation at their national conference. I have yet to appear on any conference programme. Could it be that their reluctance to talk is because my views might damage their attempt to extract money from the salmon farming industry?

Regular readers will know that I have written a book on the impact of salmon farming on wild fish stocks. The book Loch Maree’s Missing Sea Trout is available through Amazon. I have also distributed a few hundred copies to those with an interest in wild fish. What is most interesting about this generosity is that I have not yet received one single comment from anyone in Scotland about whether they think that the content of the book has any validity. It seems that there is a general opinion that if the wild fish sector does not acknowledge the book, then its content doesn’t exist. The wild fish sector has a narrative that salmon farming has damaged wild stocks and they are unwilling to let anyone try to undermine it. Interestingly, Corin Smith, who likes to negatively comment on anything to do with salmon farming, was sent a copy and has never mentioned it on his social media accounts despite his readiness to make personal attacks. The only comment I have actually seen is from another social media-based critic – Niall McKillop who wrote that he received a copy and immediately threw it in the rubbish bin. It’s good to see how those against salmon farming are so willing to listen to and engage with the other side of the debate.

Sadly, the only ones to be hoodwinked by the wild fish sector seems to be the SSPO who continue to progress talks no doubt in the hope of being seen by the politicians to be co-operating with the wild sector. If they do decide to create a fund to help restore stocks of wild fish, then I will be first in the queue. So far, all my research has been self-funded. I have some out-of-the-box ideas that I wish to explore but my resources do not stretch that far. I would hope that FMS would be just as willing to fund me as they would some other attempt, but I suspect not. That would simply show concern for wild stocks of wild salmon and sea trout has more to do with money than safeguarding the future of these iconic fish.

The news that FMS is continuing its attempt to extract money from the salmon farming industry to help improve the habitat of rivers and estuaries, comes as the BBC report that one of the fishery boards has begun a £5.5 million project aimed at tackling the decline in salmon numbers. They intend to plant one million trees to provide shade on tributaries of the River Dee. Such riparian planting seems to be the ‘in’ thing at the moment. The idea is that increased tree cover will shade the river is to give young fish a better chance of survival.

I am not so convinced. The real problem for wild salmon appears to be out at sea and spending £5.5 million on planting trees will do nothing to stop marine mortality. Increasing river temperatures may also be associated with drier periods and therefore there is the possibility that adults may not be able to get up the river to breed, regardless of the presence of trees or not.

In addition, I would suggest that if this one river board can afford to spend £5.5 million on planting trees, then they don’t really need financial help from the salmon farming industry.

There are other things that can be done to safeguard the future of wild fish that don’t even require funding. I have previously suggested that reducing the length of the season might give fish a better chance of recovery. At the same time, the killing of fish for sport should be stopped. I have just seen on Twitter that angling advocate Wynn Davies has responded to the news that new byelaws have been introduced to protect wild salmon in cross border rivers between England and Wales.  Mr Davies writes that ‘Is it not about time they introduce a bye-law prohibiting the lifting of a fish out of the water? It would immediately stop all the grip and grin brigades’ pictures on social media and magazines and enhance the prospects of the fish at the same time’.

I was reminded of a video posted by ‘Scottish Gamekeepers’ on the opening day of the River Tay this year. It shows one of the first fish caught in 2020 https://twitter.com/i/status/1217420506489552897. The fish was landed straight onto the grassy bank rather than kept in the water. It seems all those watching didn’t think that such landing technique was anything out of the ordinary. The comment accompanying the video states ‘fish released back into the river straight after’.  Of course, by then, the fish was probably stressed to high heaven! Is this what the salmon industry will be supporting.

I have written previously that if the salmon farming industry wants to invest in interactions between farmed and wild salmon then it now has a unique opportunity to see what impact farms have on wild fish and the wider environment. The removal of the salmon farm from Loch Ewe should be the subject of a major study, which the industry could fund. The wild fish lobby seem to expect the sea trout fishery in Loch Maree will be naturally restored. The evidence suggests otherwise but if the industry wants to give money away, this is where it should be spent, not on some questionable tree planting exercise or the like.