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reLAKSation no 1176

What’s the catch?: I’ve aged by nearly six months waiting for the 2023 Scottish salmon and sea trout statistics to be published. It’s a total mystery why it is necessary to wait so long and more significantly, the new season has already been underway for four months. Clearly, the catch data from the previous year has no bearing on the new season, yet perhaps it should. In this modern world, the wild fisheries sector remains firmly fixed in the past. There is absolutely no reason why catch data cannot be submitted weekly with totals being made available by early December. Instead, another six months passes by before the data reaches my desk. This is not how it should be.

Whilst, I have had to wait for six months for the final data, the Marine Directorate did provide a taster with the publication of provisional data on the 29th February. The rod catch data posted then stated that a total of 32,477 wild salmon were caught in 2023. The final catch data posted this week stated that a total of 32,477 wild salmon were caught in 2023. What have the Marine Directorate scientists been doing for the last nearly three months? The data is not so complicated that it could not have been published much earlier than May. It is just adding up fish numbers.

However, whilst the total catch remains the same, the way the data is provided differs significantly between the provisional and final catch data.  The provisional data included two tables – Table 4. East coast salmon and sea trout rod catch and Table 5, West coast salmon and sea trout rod catch, whilst the final catch data does not mention east and west coast catches at all. Why was differentiating between east and west coast catches considered relevant n February but not in May?  In February, much was made of the fact that the decline of east coast catches compared to 2022 was just 23% whereas the decline on the west coast was 34%. The implication was clear, wild salmon are in decline faster on the west coast and this must be due to the presence of salmon farming. Of course, it is well known that the Marine Directorate scientists are much more favourable to the wild fish sector than they are to farming. Earlier this year, I asked for the total sea trout catch from the Ewe fishery district but was told I had to wait until the full dataset was published in May. By comparison, Fisheries Management Scotland (FMS) posted the graph from the full dataset back in February.

This graph was not made public then so how did they have a copy? It might be suggested as the representatives of the fisheries sector submitting the data, they would have access to all the data anyway. The answer is of course they do and in past years, they used to produce their own graphs and not use those from the Marine Directorate.  Regular readers may remember that a few years ago, I highlighted that the data published by FMS was significantly different from that posted by the Marine Directorate. In response, rather than explain the discrepancies, FMS simply stopped publishing their own data. This used to appear in their annual review, but no longer does so. You can imagine the outcry if the salmon farming industry took a similar approach.  The Marine Directorate were just not interested and clearly are happy to support FMS by providing material, excluded to anyone else prior to official publication.

The full dataset includes catches from all 109 fishery districts which I will eventually process but meanwhile I have extracted some details which I hope readers might find of interest.

The first comes from Loch Ewe and relates to the sea trout catch data. The wild fish sector has continually blamed the salmon farming industry for the collapse of the Loch Maree sea trout fishery. They say this was due to the introduction of a salmon farm to Loch Ewe in 1987. The fishery collapsed from 1988 and whichever way their claim is considered the collapse cannot be blamed on the presence of the farm. Firstly, as the farm wasn’t registered until November 1987, it wasn’t stocked until the following spring and even the wild sector appears to agree that sea lice only become apparent in the second year of production. In addition, there is not a single other example of a fishery collapse due to the presence of a salmon farm. Finally, no-one considered the withdrawal of the three-mile limit as a possible cause despite a strong correlation between the collapse of sea trout and that of local marine species at the same time.

The Loch Ewe farm was removed in November 2020 after being run at a very low level of production for some time. There are no other farms for some distance. This closure provided a unique opportunity to monitor what happens when farmed salmon production ceased. Sadly, there was no interest in following what happened to the fishery. I can only presume that any evidence produced might not support the existing narrative so therefore collecting any evidence would be best avoided.

It is now three years since the farm closure and whilst any recovery may take some time, so far, the shoots of recovery are not yet apparent. The following graph shows that catches remain at a very low level.

Of course, it is possible that fishing effort remains extremely low (although the Scottish government were supposed to be recording catch effort, no such data appears in the latest catch statistics – yet it does for netting).

It is also worth looking at what has happened to salmon catches from Loch Ewe. Although the wild fish sector has downplayed the relationship between salmon farms and wild salmon in the Ewe System, the reality is that salmon catches increased throughout the period when the farm was operational. Former Salmon & Trout Association director Andrew Graham Stewart wrote in Trout and Salmon magazine that highlighting salmon catches was a red herring as salmon smolts don’t hang around to be infested with sea unlike sea trout so avoid the high levels of mortality sea trout suffer, The better explanation is that the salmon farm had little impact if any on the wild fish catch in Loch Ewe but such claims are met with cries of tobacco industry like data manipulation etc.

Salmon catches did increase in Loch Ewe from the 1980s onwards until the wider salmon collapse after 2011. Yet, examination of catches from 2004 show that salmon catches actually did increase until 2018 and have subsequently fallen. In fact, as the following graph clearly shows, the most recent declines have occurred after the closure of the salmon farm.


One of the reasons I remain puzzled as to why it takes so long for the catch statistics to be published is that other than the main graph of salmon catches, there seems to be little analysis of the data.

For example, whilst the provisional data showed that east coast catches had declined by 23% and west coast catches by 34%, implying that salmon farms had some impact, comparison of the catches from the aquaculture zone and elsewhere in Scotland shows a completely different picture.

Catches from both coasts are in almost parallel decline. Any minor differences can be attributed to the very different nature of east and west coast rivers. Where are the impacts of salmon farms on catches?  (answers on a postcard please). This graph alone shows that SEPA’s sea lice framework is a complete waste of time and will do nothing to help protect wild salmon.

Let us not also forget that whilst anglers bemoan the state of salmon stocks, even now registering them as a species under threat, the unnecessary killing of the fish for sport continues. 1188 salmon and grilse were killed in 2023 with 38 killed in and around the salmon farming area, the other 1150 being killed elsewhere. A further 263 sea trout were killed in the Aquaculture Zone and just over a thousand elsewhere. Comparatively these are small numbers to what used to be killed but given that 2023 was the worst year ever for wild salmon catches, common sense would surely suggest that every fish killed is a further nail in the coffin that is wild salmon’s future and killing of fish should be banned.

However, whilst the wild fish sector claim that they are taking positive remedial action by putting most fish back that they catch. The increasing percentage fish released can be seen in the following table.


Yet as can be seen from the official catch statistics, returning the salmon to the water has not stopped the decline in the number of fish caught. It is only necessary to look at the catches from the river Dee, the famous river fished by Royals as it passes through the Balmoral Estate. Anglers were asked to return all fish around 1994/95 which means that the river has been returning all the salmon for about thirty years. Yet, returning all fish does not seem to have halted the decline in numbers.  The catch data from 1952 to present can be seen in the following graph.


The latest catch data for all Scotland confirms that catch and release is not having any impact on the decline so is not the solution to wild salmon’s current position. Before I leave the river Dee it is worth pointing out that the river is classified as Grade 1 which makes a mockery of the current conservation regulations.

Another Grade 1 river is the Tweed. The catch data for the Tweed is shown in the following graph. It is very different to that of the Dee.

I mention the Tweed because last week, the Tweedbeats blog made some interesting points about current methods aimed at promoting the recovery of wild salmon stocks or at least halting the decline. The author attended a fund-raising event in which the Atlantic Salmon Trust detailed some of the measures adopted to try to rescue the ‘poor old Atlantic salmon. He says that he has been a proprietor on the river for over 40 years and that he has attended many such events all of which were excellent and well-meaning, but he detected that any optimism that the audience used to have has evolved into an atmosphere of resigned determination. However, he also said that over the four decades, the river authorities have bought out all the commercial netsmen; they have removed most of the blockages in the rivers and in the 1990s, they engaged in major fencing, habitat and planting work and this was long before similar work has been recently undertaken by many other rivers. The sad fact is that none of it has worked. Salmon catches from the Tweed continue to decline. The author of Tweedbeats concludes that the warming juggernaut of climate change is gathering pace and may have been rolling on doing its worst.

My own view is that it is all too easy to blame climate change just as it has been far too easy to blame salmon farming. The reality is that the declining numbers of salmon that have led to the worst salmon catches on record have done too little to fuel any real attempts to understand what is going on with salmon. Instead, it is just business as usual with anglers out trying to carry out their sport. Yes, the AST are conducting long-term studies on key rivers but as Tweedbeats suggests similar measures have failed to stem the decline on the Tweed.

Of course, the necessary research would be extremely difficult, especially at sea, but unless we can recognise why salmon are in decline, we will never be able to instigate any solutions. I have written previously about how King Charles told those attending the AST’s 50th anniversary dinner that we don’t know why salmon are in decline. That was seven years ago. What has been done since then aside from continuing to blame salmon farmers. The answer is nothing.  When salmon disappear from Scottish rivers, it is not the salmon farming industry that the wild fish sector should blame but themselves for the lack of any concerted effort to understand what really caused salmon’s decline.

Interestingly, since the publication of the catch data for 2023 this week, I have not seen even one reference by the wild fish sector to its publication. To me that says everything anyone needs to know,