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reLAKSation no 1178

Total Exploitation: I’m continuing to analyse the 2023 salmon and sea trout catch statistics and have now added the salmon netting catches to the salmon rod catch. The parallel decline of catches from within the Aquaculture Zone and elsewhere screams out of the  graph. Perhaps, someone from the wild fish sector, SEPA, or the Marine Directorate might now like to explain how sea lice are considered a threat to wild salmon. Their silence is deafening

River fish: As I have discussed in the last two issues of reLAKSation, the rod catch of Scottish wild salmon was the worst ever recorded during 2023 at just 32,477 fish. In 2010, the catch was 110,900 fish so there has been a massive drop of 70% in the numbers of fish caught over the last thirteen years. It might have been thought that the alarm bells would have been ringing loudly prompting a call to action but instead, it is business as usual.  It is only necessary to look at the fishing reports posted on the Spey Salmon Fishery Board website to see what is most important to the wild fish fraternity. The May 20th report includes 27 pictures of anglers holding their salmon catch, some of which clearly show anglers not meeting the protocol for handling catch and release salmon.  Its not clear from the report how many fish were caught that week but one of my contacts has suggested that the catch returns to data have been extremely poor. Unfortunately, it will be another twelve months before any data about the state of river Spey catches will be published.  Maybe by then the alarm bells might be loud enough for the wild fish fraternity to actually act.

The river Spey is one of Scotland’s big four salmon rivers, not some minor stream on the west coast that salmon farming critics claim is extinct because of the presence of salmon farms. The river Spey is located far from any salmon farming activity. I have charted the salmon catches from the river Spey (as well as from every other one of the 109 fishery districts in Scotland) including the recently published 2023 data.

Examination of the graph would suggest that the Spey has been in trouble for many years. Like every other river, there is always annual variation, but the downward trend appears to stretch back for several decades and certainly to the 1980s.

My commentary has been promoted by two blogs, which were published this week. The first is from ‘Speyonline’ written by former ghillie, Ian Gordon. His latest blogs dwells on the lowest salmon catch that Scotland has experienced

With the lowest numbers of fish now being caught Ian ponders what is going wrong with salmon fishing on the river Spey. He looks to Iceland which is considered a dream destination for many anglers. Certainly, the Atlantic Salmon Trust think so since their prize draw prize is a trip for two to fish for four days in East Ranga. Maybe they consider East Ranga to offer better fishing than the Spey. Ian says that Iceland has a total run of just 60 to 80 thousand, which is far less than the 100 -150 thousand estimated around Scottish shores. (However, the salmon catch was always estimated as being around 10% of the stock so perhaps, the number of salmon in Scottish waters should be over 330,000 fish), Ian asks why Iceland is considered such a dream destination for fishing when there are fewer fish overall.  He says that the answer is that Icelandic rivers are run by well-informed fishery managers who understand the resource they are dealing with. According to Ian one rod per mile of river is normal ensuring the declining resource has as little pressure as possible. This means that there are about 350 visiting anglers in Iceland each day. By comparison, double that number fish the big four rivers alone which suggests that the emphasis is on high pressure fishing rather than properly looking after the resource.

Ian’s blog states that; ‘Everyone running the beats on the Spey, Dee, Tay and Tweed still run them the same way that they did in the 70s, 80s and part of the 90s, when they had ten times more salmon. Even a layman can see this cannot be good for the resource. Its also not good for keeping young ghillies in full time employment nor is it positive for the wider community. Four rods to one ghillie on each mile of river, rods fishing all day and, in the evening, too encouraged by managers whose only measure of client’s success is by catching more fish than their neighbours making their beat more desirable’.

Ian also points to the Game and Wildlife Conservancy Trust website which states that ‘The Missing Salmon Alliance including the Atlantic Salmon Trust, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, Fisheries Management Scotland, Rivers Trust, Angling Trust and Fish Legal are working together to ensure that our wild Atlantic salmon have free access to cold, clean water. In Scotland, Fisheries Management Scotland represent Scotland’s District Salmon Fishery Boards and Fisheries Trust and the River Tweed Commission. Ian asks how can it be that with 100s of experts working in the field particularly over the last ten years, when there has been a massive decline in salmon numbers, that no-one has thought that as with only 20% of what was there before, that maybe it’s time for a change as to how this declining resource is managed?

Ian says that the maths is simple, there are not enough fish now to keep the number of people now fishing happy. It really needs some change that embraces a new system based on numbers of salmon available in 2024 and not 1980.

It is all well and good for Ian to make such a suggestion but there is no regulation to manage the resource. Fishery managers can allow as many anglers onto their beats as they like, although clearly many anglers would not be happy paying out large sums of money to share the fishing with other anglers. Unlike Norway and Ireland, Scotland has decided against closing rivers to fishing if fish numbers are too low. Instead, these rivers are subjected to mandatory catch and release. Yet, as I have pointed out the increased move to catch and release has not halted the decline in fish numbers. Meanwhile, the big four rivers are classified as Grade 1 rivers, not based on the number of fish in the river but on the number of eggs estimated to have been deposited. The fact that fewer than ever fish are being caught doesn’t affect the fishing effort which can continue unabated. There is nothing to stop fishing taking place in any river regardless of how poor the stock assessment. This is not surprising since it is clear that the Marine Directorate favour the wild fisheries sector and are not in mind to impose any meaningful restrictions on them to help safeguard salmon’s future. This can be seen from the catch data. It would be extremely helpful if the salmon catch for individual rivers were published rather than just at district level. However, the Marine Directorate consider the provision of such data as an invasion of the privacy of river proprietors. As Ian suggested earlier, the wild fisheries fraternity are not keen that the public are made aware of where salmon are, or are not, caught in a river because it would potentially encourage or discourage visiting anglers. Clearly, the interests of wild salmon are a secondary consideration taking second place to the interests of the proprietors. Unless this changes, the future of wild salmon in Scotland is extremely bleak.

The second blog is Tweedbeats, a blog I have previously mentioned from time to time. In the latest commentary, Tweedbeats discusses the change in IUCN status of wild Atlantic salmon in Scottish waters to endangered. It is well known that the change was funded and encouraged by Wild Fish as a way of heaping further pressure on the Scottish Government to increase the regulation of the salmon farming industry, but their actions have had unforeseen consequences for Wild Fish’s angling membership.

Tweedbeats suggests that it is extraordinary that anyone could contemplate killing any species that is considered endangered by IUCN, yet this is exactly what anglers continue to do, seemingly with the blessing of the Scottish Government who allow the killing of a ‘harvestable surplus’. Tweedbeats asks whether the Scottish Government’s conservation policy is at odds with IUCN ratings and is it ever sensible or morally defensible to deliberately kill an endangered animal.

The blog says that in 2023 there was a minimum of 366 salmon reported as killed by Tweed rods. The word minimum is stressed because Tweedbeats acknowledges what others won’t, that there are anglers who will kill a fish and do not report it because who would ever know. In addition, a further 246 were killed by the Tweed nets which is fewer than killed by anglers. The Tweed rods killed I in 3 of salmon in 2023 in the whole of Scotland.  If nets are included, then 1 in 2.5 of all salmon killed in Scotland were killed from the Tweed.  Tweedbeats also points out that the 93.6% of released salmon into the Tweed in 2023 is worse than the figure of 96.1% for 2022.

Tweedbeats says that the Tweed still catches mor salmon than any other river in Scotland and the scientific view (presumably Marine Directorate scientists) is that killing 612 Tweed salmon Is not critical to the spawning effort however as a species under threat, even endangered, Tweedbeats says that it just looks pretty awful, allowing, tantamount to condoning, any deliberate killing.

I would point out that these two sets of views are not mine but those of people respected in the wild fish fraternity. My views are always immediately dismissed by the wild fish sector claiming that unless I am an angler, I cannot understand wild salmon. However, what I do understand is that Scottish Government scientists are only interested in regulation to protect wild salmon if it concerns the salmon farming industry, the one sector that has actually very little impact of any on wild salmon.

Of course, just as any view I have on wild salmon is dismissed as irrelevant by the wild fish sector, they equally dismiss my view that salmon farming has little or no impact on wild fish. I would like to remind readers of the catch history of the river Spey, the second longest river in Scotland.

I have included a trend line which shows a clear decline over the many years.

I would like readers to compare the Spey’s catch history with that from the river Ewe, one of the shortest rivers in Scotland and more importantly from 1987 to 2020 in close proximity to the most contentious salmon farm in Scotland.

How is it that catches from the Ewe have increased over a similar time period, especially when located close to the salmon farms blamed for the collapse of the adjacent Loch Maree sea trout fishery. The increasing catch trend from the Ewe should actually be even stronger than it is. This is due to the dip in catches during the mid-1990s to early 2000s, In 2016, Scottish Government scientists claimed that this dip is consistent with the presence of the salmon farm but interestingly, this dip is present on many other west coast rivers as well as the numbers of the total catch. The reality was that the negative publicity about salmon farming promoted by one angler’s representative organisation with claims that salmon were extinct in many west coast rivers, meant that anglers stopped fishing the west coast rivers and sought better fishing elsewhere. The dip is simply the result of a reduction in angling effort. The salmon farm was still present through the 2000s and 2010s when catches clearly increased.

The evidence is clear that salmon farming is not the reason why wild salmon numbers have declined. Unfortunately, the wild fish sector and the scientific community have buried their heads in the sand and refuse to face truth.

Earlie this year, I offered to give a presentation on sea lice and salmon farm interactions to Marine Directorate scientists. My offer was refused. I have to ask what they have to be afraid of if they are so convinced that their science is right. I would have thought that these scientists would be interested in hearing a different view to their own, but apparently not. After all, isn’t that what science is about, the exchange of different views.