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reLAKSation no 1147

In the past: I would like to have written that this year’s salmon fishing season has come to an end this week so that salmon are left undisturbed to do what nature intended and breed, but although fishing on the river Dee finished on the 14th (fishing on the upper river closed at the end of September) and the river Tay closed on the 15th, salmon fishing continues on the River Tweed until the 30th November. Every young salmon that can be produced is needed to safeguard salmon for the future.

Unfortunately, there is no information available to provide an indication of the state of salmon stocks this year. Catch data usually provides an estimate but whilst the angling sector continues to criticise salmon farming using data published by the industry every month, the state of wild fish populations based on angling returns continues to remain a secret and will do so until the Marine Directorate publish (limited) data in April next year. Why catch returns cannot be published weekly remains a mystery except for the probability that as the majority of salmon anglers are now males of the older age groups, (I know that women and younger men go fishing too but the sector is generally dominated by older men who constantly like to live in the past where angling is concerned), the introduction of new ideas and technology remains elusive. In this day and age, surely, it is possible to record and publish catches of wild fish on a weekly basis if not daily.

An example of living in the past appeared in Tweedbeats on October 8th with the posting of a picture taken 9th October 1981 of ten salmon caught on the river Tweed. The discussion was about the lack of any freshly run fish in recent weeks. Back in 1981, all these ten salmon were freshly run with the comment on the photo being “8 out of 10 had long tailed sea lice, the other two just ordinary sea lice.” Tweedbeats writes that no more needs to be said, meaning that the presence of lice indicates that the fish had just entered the river from the sea.  However, from my perspective, the fact that long tailed sea lice were present is an indication that sea lice do not have to be associated with salmon farms. In 1981, total salmon production had not reached even 1000 tonnes and I know from discussions with some of the industry pioneers, that sea lice were not even an issue for them at that time. Wild salmon and sea trout clearly have a natural infestation of sea lice but it seems that anglers are so busy attacking salmon farms that knowledge of the natural life cycle of this parasite has long been forgotten.

The closure of the fishing on the river Dee was reported by the Press and Journal, who say that for the last five years, the Dee District Salmon Fishery Board has recorded ‘very low’ numbers of salmon caught in the river and they now say that this year is ‘guaranteed to be the worst season on record’.

The newspaper continues that in order to safeguard the river Dee’s salmon population, the board has detailed two pioneering conservation projects. These come under the banner of conservation translocation. The first is to remove fish that have bred in the river before their weakened state following breeding leads to their death and place them to a rearing facility where they can be gently nursed back to full health. They can then be released back into the river to breed again the following year. The second project is to remove young fish from the river and grow them up in captivity.

Frankly, I do not think that either of these approaches will make any difference because the real issues for wild salmon are out at sea and whilst it may not be possible to effect any change, there needs to be an understanding of why fish are failing to return. Surely after 50 years of declines, we should know but we don’t.

Meanwhile, the anti-salmon farming lobby are already claiming that declines on the Dee and other east coast rivers could be due to smolts migrating from these rivers then passing by Orkney and Shetland where it is alleged, they are infested and infected from the many salmon farms located there. Yet, prior to 2011, when east coast declines became apparent, smolts from the same rivers passed by the same salmon farms without a word of criticism. In fact, the opposite was true with record catches from east coast rivers being attributed to the fact that there were no salmon farms nearby. Perhaps, the record catches may be an indication of rampant overexploitation. We only need to look at the photo from the Tweed to ask whether killing ten fish in one day was considered to be necessary.

We should also remember that the river Dee with its guaranteed worst season on record implemented catch and release over twenty years ago and this ‘conservation measure’ which is now widespread has absolutely failed to halt the declines.

As an interesting aside, the editor’s column in the November issue of Trout and Salmon expresses concern that Anglian Water who own four reservoirs have mandated catch and release for all stocked brown trout. These are farmed brown trout that are infertile and are bred for restocking. The editor writes that since catch and release is now encouraged for all wild fish if not mandatory, put and take fisheries have become the last bastion for hunter gathers. He now worries that the ban on killing brown trout might be extended to stocked farmed rainbow trout. He argues that the only reason for this new measure can be cost. He says that restocking has been reduced by 40% whilst angler fees have increased and consequently company profits have soared.  He now worries that many anglers might walk away from the sport altogether. In terms of wild fish, that may be one of the better forms of conservation available.

It is also interesting that given the focus on catch and release, Trout and Salmon magazine have reintroduced a recipe of the month to provide suggestion of how anglers can cook their catch. This month pan fired trout with mushrooms. I look forward to seeing their first recipe for salmon.

Whilst the focus on conservation is targeted towards the bigger east coast rivers such as the Dee, the smaller rivers are also suffering from declines but are rarely discussed, mainly because of the past prestige of fishing these rivers. After all, the Royal Family used to regularly fish the Dee at Balmoral.  This month’s Trout and Salmon magazine also includes a letter entitled ‘Bladnoch salmon RIP’.

A Mr McCreadle writes to pay his final respects to this once prolific litter river as he without doubt has witnessed its deaths at least as a viable salmon fishery. He says that decades of dwindling runs have culminated in the recent seasons being the poorest in living memory with 2021 producing a catch of 25. This improved slightly in 2022 with less than 40 fish whilst this year the catch has been around a dozen fish. He says that anglers like himself have warned for many years of impending collapse but his and other voices were ignored.

Mr McCreadle points out that the local fishery board was the first to introduce a local fisheries trust in 1988. They believed that the scientific approach and appointment of professional experts would safeguard the river for the future but clearly this has not happened. He says that despite the protective SAC designation and more than 30 years of guidance, direction and the resources of the fisheries trust and its fisheries biologists, Bladnoch salmon are for all intents and purposes an endangered species as was predicted by local anglers. Perhaps if they foresaw the problem then they should have acted and stopped fishing for salmon, long before they became endangered.

Whilst Mr McCreadle says that the Bladnoch was once a prolific river, the graph of salmon catches since 1952 shows that for all the 1970s, catches of wild salmon from the river were very low and only peaked in 1988 from when catches have been in decline. It is likely that the low catches in the late 1960s were caused by UDN but why the low catches persisted and then rose from a low of 50 fish to a peak of 550 is unclear. Certainly, the 1970s cannot be described a prolific time for this river.

Back in the 1990s, the demise of the river was often blamed on salmon farming with claims that young fish were being infested with lice and failing to return. Yet, in the later 1990s and 2000s most of the rivers in the southwest of Scotland saw increased salmon catches despite their salmon smolts swimming past salmon farms too. Declines of catches in these rivers only began after 2011 in line with declines across the whole of Scotland.

Mr McCreadle implies that the expertise of fisheries biologists has failed to halt the decline of wild salmon. This is not an isolated claim. My own impression is that if wild salmon are to be safeguarded for the future, there needs to be new thinking outside the box. The established wild fish narrative has failed to address the issues, preferring instead to attack salmon farming.

The Press and Journal article mentions the possibility of restocking the river Dee, but the Dee Board say that stocking could damage wild stocks because human interference could compromise the genetics. Sadly, if the genetics were compromised, it happened long ago with the removal of excessive numbers of salmon genes from the population gene pool. This has happened over many decades both by netting and rod catch. Since 1952, about 5.9 million wild fish have been removed from the gene pool and this cannot have happened without an impact. I would suggest that it is better to have stocked fish with alleged compromised genes than to have no salmon at al. However, the narrative against stocking has dominated sector thinking for far too long. The idea that different river populations of salmon have different genetics has not been proven. Certainly the 2012 FASMOP study failed to find such differences. This is not surprising given that river straying is a feature of salmon lifecycles.

There are examples of animal populations being brought back from the brink despite a very small gene pool. For example, the Northern Elephant seal was thought to have been wiped out by hunting by the 1880s, but a few animals were discovered in 1892 and were protected. The current population is estimated to be in excess of 170,000. The gene pool may not be the same as before, but they are the same animals and have survived.

The problem with the angling sector and wild salmon is that only they think that they know what’s best for Atlantic salmon, when clearly, they don’t. Otherwise, wild salmon would not be in such crisis.

Such misdirection of the best way to help wild salmon is ably illustrated by the conservation charity Wild Fish better known as the representative group for salmon and trout anglers. Even their CEO has admitted that their membership is made up of old aged male anglers. Wild Fish believe that the best way to save wild salmon is to remove salmon farms from Scottish waters. They have yet to come out and demand the end to killing of wild fish for sport because it would be contrary to the ideals of their membership. Instead, they are trying to persuade restaurants not to serve farmed salmon. I was therefore interested to read of their campaign in the Observer newspaper which highlighted their poster restaurant, the Palmerston in Edinburgh. Chef Lloyd Morse has said he won’t serve farmed salmon because of the effect it has on wild salmon. He says that instead he prefers to serve wild sea trout when in season. Clearly Wild Fish Have not told him that sea trout are allegedly more threatened that wild salmon by salmon farms and by serving the fish he is hastening its demise.

Finally, it was announced that Atlantic salmon are to feature prominently as part of a new set of UK coins that are about to enter circulation in the UK. Salmon will feature on the 50p coin highlighting concerns surrounding river pollution and their habitat loss. Presumably as King Charles will feature on the other side, there will be no mention of over-exploitation of salmon by anglers because the idea is that the coins reflect the King’s passion for conservation.

One ‘ambassador’ of the angling sector wrote on X that at least the King gets it. The future of salmon is in the balance now and whether the entire species survives or not (outside of toxic fish farms) is the flip of a coin. He also says that 50p is roughly about how much it costs aquaculture to grow a salmon fillet. Sadly, how much this ambassador knows about salmon farming can be written on a 50p coin. Like all such ambassadors he is happy to criticise salmon farming as long as there is no one present who could challenge his blinkered view.

Note: In the last issue of reLAKSation I suggested that the authors of the book The New Fish had omitted Gyrodactulus as a reason why salmon stocks in the river Vosso collapsed. I have been reliably informed by the good people at Aquablogg that the Vosso collapse can be actually attributed to the aluminium poisoning between 2004 and 2007.