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reLAKSation no 1138

More gradings: In the last issue of reLAKSation I discussed the proposed new conservation grades for Scottish salmon rivers. I would like to begin this issue by further exploring this subject. I have previously mentioned that the Scottish Government consultation stated that 112 out of 173 stocks (65%) had been assessed to be of a poor conservation status. I suggested that this was nonsense. This is because how can anyone suggest that the River Lealt with an area of 4,000 mcan be compared to the River Tweed with an area of 1,618,7000 m3. One is over 4,000 times bigger than the other.

If the grading are measured in terms of their size then, currently 31.25% of rivers are of poor assessment with 17.3% of grade 2 and 51.4% attaining grade 1 status. Rather than there being 65% of rivers being assessed as poor, the reality is that just over half of Scottish rivers are of the highest conservation status.

As the consultation document points out, there are 173 assessed areas ranging from small streams to whole fishery districts. Initially, all the assessments were based on the 109 fishery districts but anglers started to complain that not all rivers in some districts could be classified as of the same status so the Scottish Government increased the number of assessed areas to 173. Of these 106 are located in the area of north west Scotland I describe as the Aquaculture Zone. Most are small in size with just a couple of exceptions. The river Lochy and River Awe are of a size comparable with some east coast rivers. However, I have made an interesting observation about these rivers and that is that the Lochy is 2,050,000 mand the Awe is 1,976,000 m3. For the 2023 gradings, the Lochy was 53,600 m3 larger and the Awe was 67,200 m3 larger. I currently don’t have time to compare all 173 districts but such changes could affect the percentage of rivers assessed as poor.  Could it be that climate change is drying up Scottish river catchments or is something else happening to them?

Meanwhile, I have been looking at the other river in the Aquaculture Zone that has now been classified as grade one. This is the Inverness-shire Leven, not far south of Fort William. This river has seen a meteoric rise in terms of salmon conservation. The consultation shows that the river was grade 3 in 2019, 2020 and 2021. In 2022, it was reclassified as grade 2 and again in 2023 and now has been elevated to grade one for 2024.


The fortunes of river Leven salmon changed forever when in 1907, the British Aluminium Company built a new smelter in Kinlochleven as well as damming the river to form the Blackwater reservoir, which took up much of the river’s length.  Although, angling commentators have suggested that the river is a shadow of its former glory, around 200 fish were taken annually from the fishery district during the early 1950s. Since then there has been a gradual decline through to present. This makes it elevation to a grade one river hard to understand.

Of course, I cannot ignore the salmon farm which opened in 1980. It is difficult to see that the farm has had any impact on wild salmon stocks. There is a dip in the 1990s but this is consistent with most rivers across the Aquaculture Zone and coincides with a reduction in angling effort brought about by misleading claims from the wild fish lobby that the west coast’s salmon fishing had collapsed due to salmon farms. There was a slight recovery since then followed by the nationwide decline of recent times.

The move to upgrade the river to a grade one river is even harder to understand when the data for the fishery district is broken down into individual rivers. The Leven fishery district is made up of the river Leven and the river Coe. Whilst the Leven is soon to be a grade one river, the Coe has been a grade three river for some time.

The graphs of catches for both rivers from 2018 are available from the Scottish Government’s assessment of their conservation status. From this data, the recruitment to the system is calculated. However, it is clear that the numbers of fish caught over the last five years, amounts to very little if not nothing. How can the river Leven have been classified as a grade one river? It makes absolutely no sense.

Leven Fishery District River Leven River Coe
2018 10 8 2
2019 14 4 10
2020 19 15 4
2021 20 14 6
2022 17 13 4


The river has never been a star river. Augusts Grimble writing in 1899 said that the average catch over the previous eleven year had been 30 salmon a year. He added that the fish are not as plentiful as they were in 1870 to 1875 when a friend of his landed 17 fish over three days.

Clearly the criteria for classifying rivers as grade one needs to be reassessed. The river Leven is not a grade one river by any assessment (or for that matter a grade 2 river). It should, if conservation is the deciding factor, like all grade three rivers, be closed to fishing.



There’s the catch: It has been interesting to compare the approach to conservation measures adopted against the salmon farming industry and against salmon angling. The salmon farming industry will be subjected to a complex sea lice risk framework that will require extensive and expensive monitoring, as well as an overcomplicated predictive model. By comparison, anglers have been asked to voluntarily avoid killing the fish they catch. The season is not yet over, and it is already clear that the voluntary approach is not working. However, you do not have to take my word for it.

Andrew Douglas Home, a proprietor on the river Tweed and author of the book ‘A River Runs Through Me’, who writes a blog under the name Tweedbeats has written about the need for voluntary restraint twice in the last couple of months (9th July, 6th August).

He writes that most fish have been returned during the last two years, but this was because the fish caught had already started to colour up and therefore were inedible. This year there have been a lot more silver fish in the Tweed, and he said in July that reports have filtered through that rods on some beats below Coldstream have killed a significant number of the fish caught to the distress and disquiet of other anglers. He said that it would be bizarre If the one thing that all anglers wanted – more fish to catch was being met with a response of killing the fish just because they are silver (fresh from the sea). In July he said that RESTRAINT was the key word.

However, his words clearly failed to reach those concerned as he again wrote in a similar vein at the beginning of August saying that there is nothing more demoralising for those who do exercise restraint in killing either to hear of or to witness, too many fish being killed and bagged up ready for the smoker.

He added that you might recall that the Government tried to impose mandatory catch and release last year but agreed not to on the grounds that the salmon community would self-police and maintain a high level of catch and release. He suggests that if the killing goes on as has happened then anglers risk the Government imposing something more draconian and Mr Douglas Home says and rightly so.

Either the Atlantic salmon is threatened or it’s not. The problem for salmon is much deeper rooted than can be fixed by planting a few trees or shouting loudly about salmon farming. The time has come for real change and that involves closing some rivers and reconsidering how anglers’ fish for salmon on those rivers that remain open.


Hookless: The latest issue of Scottish Gamekeeper magazine includes a piece reflecting on fishing with father. This is about memories of fishing from many years ago.

What is of interest is that the author relates how he once fished with a lady who after catching a salmon to take home, then fished with a fly with the hook removed. She said that the excitement is in the take, the moment when the fish bites on the fly.

I have also heard many times from anglers who say that the fishing is no longer the prime reason for angling; it is just being out on the river surrounded by one’s own thoughts and the wildlife. Whilst there is clearly a minority who require a trophy fish to take home as observed by Andrew Douglas Home, many just enjoy being at one with nature.

Why not adjust the whole sport of angling and only allow fishing with a hookless fly. If a fish shows interest, then the angler can still strike and get that adrenalin rush but know that the fish can continue its mission to create new life and safeguard the future of wild salmon.

For those who wish to catch and kill a fish, there are plenty of put and take fisheries where they can indulge their passion to their heart’s content. Sadly, as I have written many times before the current narrative is not about saving wild salmon but saving wild salmon fisheries so sadly, the chances of meaningful change are miniscule.