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reLAKSation no 953

Taking stock: In reLAKSation no 951, I discussed the Scottish Parliamentary meeting on wild salmon during which the angling sector demanded that the conservation of wild salmon be made a national priority. I also discussed the proposed west coast tracking project and then offered an alternative suggestion. Interestingly, the critics made no comment and neither did anyone from the wild fish sector. As usual, the wild fish sector has made a lot of fuss demanding Government help but are not interested in considering any alternative solutions but their own.

This week, conservative MSP, Peter Chapman asked the First Minister during FM Questions what she proposed to do to help safeguard wild salmon. He referred to Marine Scotland Scientist John Armstrong who had told the meeting that if nothing was done, salmon could be extinct in Scotland in twenty to thirty years. During his presentation to the Parliamentary meeting one of the solutions put forward by Dr Armstrong was riparian planting, except I am not convinced how this will help. The theory is that if trees are planted along riverbanks, they will provide shade for fish as they head upstream as climate change causes water temperature to rise. The problem is that fish are unlikely to swim upstream at all if hot summers mean water flows are reduced. At the same time, it could take many years for any trees to grow to provide sufficient shade to be of any real help.

Whilst riparian planting is perceived to be a solution it seems that there was no mention of the most obvious way to help protect salmon. This is because restocking is now considered to be a dirty word.

Yet, stocking does continue in some rivers in Scotland.

The fishing report from the River Tay in the January issue of Trout & Salmon magazine mentions that the fisheries board staff have been busy in the hatchery. However, the ambition for last autumn’s programme had to be scaled back. Marine Scotland have a new policy on restocking and this has impacted on how some rivers are stocked.

The River Tay fishing report states that Marine Scotland had determined that some of the stocking activity was enhancement stocking, not restoration stocking and thus would not be licensed. The consequence of this decision is that the fisheries board would no longer be able to restock the main stem of the River Tay.

To many, the difference between restoration stocking and enhancement stocking may not be apparent. I am fortunate to have had the difference explained to me by scientists from Marine Scotland. Last autumn, I was surprised, but pleased, to be invited to the Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory at Pitlochry at Marine Scotland’s expense. The intention was to detail Marine Scotland’s new stocking policy to me. Seemingly, the invitation was extended to me in order to bring me on board so that I wouldn’t be critical of them in reLAKSation.

I sat and listened intently but had more questions than answers. This was most obvious when considering the difference between restoration and enhancement stocking. These can be better described as stocking for conservation and stocking for fishing. Marine Scotland have decided that only restocking for conservation is acceptable. This means it is acceptable when wild salmon numbers are insufficient to maintain the stock.

I asked the Marine Scotland scientists the obvious question that if stocking is only permitted to conserve threatened stocks rather than to improve the fishing then why is fishing allowed? Surely, if conservation is the priority then fishing should be banned. The answer was that fishing generates the income to fund conservation. To me, this makes absolutely no sense. If fishing is required to fund conservation, then why not just restock for fishing? More fishing will generate more income and hence there will be more conservation.

Unfortunately, this is not going to happen as restocking now has such a negative image. This has not been helped by the promotion of the Artifishal film by Patagonia and Salmon & Trout Conservation in which they claim restocking is doing more damage to North American rivers than good, however, the film never explains why. The reason is simple. Rivers can only support a certain number of salmon. If restocking introduces too many fish, then the competition means that many will die including those that are naturally wild.

The perception of how damaging restocked fish can be has been enhanced by ‘research’ that shows that hatchery fish are inferior to wild fish in that they don’t do as well. I suspect that this view is encouraged by anglers who think that only truly wild fish can give them real sport. They claim that any contact with humans means that the fish have become domesticated.

Marine Scotland referred me to a paper by Kyle Young from the University of Zurich who had made a presentation about restocking to NASCO. Dr Young is against the idea of restocking unless it is for conservation in rivers that don’t have a viable stock. He mentions that the risks of stocking had been predicted long ago but the evidence to support the view was reported first in 1977. This was when Reisenblichler and McIntyre bred genetically identifiable hatchery and wild steelhead to create pure WW, pure HH and HW crossed fish. They found wild fish did best in natural streams hatchery fish did best in artificial ponds. They concluded that hatchery-imposed selection leads to the evolution of fish that are poorly adapted to the wild. I sourced the original paper and found that there was no information about the pedigree of the hatchery fish, so I tracked down the original authors and located Reg Reisenblichler and although now retired he was still associated with the research laboratory. Dr Reisenblichler was not able to confirm that the hatchery fish were a pure strain. In fact, he was unable to assure me that they were even a strain in that it was unclear how many generations had been bred. Reading the whole paper rather than edited highlights leads me to believe that the claim that hatchery fish are less adaptable to the wild is unproven.

There is another factor regarding hatchery fish which is rarely considered and that is the ability and methodology of raising hatchery fish can vary enormously from hatchery to hatchery. Just because a hatchery is operational does not necessarily mean that they produce the most viable fish. Hatcheries can vary enormously especially as some only produce unfed fry rather than growing the fish up to a larger size.

One well-documented example of hatcheries is on the River Tyne in northern England. The hatchery was built after the opening of the Keilder Reservoir and is now the subject of a book – ‘Swimming Against The Tide’ by the late Peter Gray. Subsequently, there has been a great deal of debate as to whether the Keilder hatchery has been effective. Critics say that improvements in the River Tyne catches are the result of improvements in the River Tyne itself rather than as a consequence of the hatchery. At the same time, critics argue that the number of fish returning is extremely small and therefore a waste of time. However, it is worth remembering that over 95% of migrating salmon, irrespective of whether they are wild or hatchery fish, are dying at sea. Numbers of all returning fish are small.

As I mentioned, there is a lot of negativity to restocking, but it can work. Unfortunately, as the prevailing view is against restocking, the success stories are rarely promoted. In reLAKSation no 950, I discussed the fact that whilst catches from east coast rivers appear to be much reduced, catches from the west coast River Carron are bucking the trend with numbers well above the ten-year average. This is despite the fact that the River Carron empties into the sea around Scotland’s largest aquaculture hub. If you listen to the critics, west coast rivers have almost no salmon populations because they have all been wiped out as a consequence of salmon farming activity. Yet, the latest salmon catches show otherwise.

What makes the River Carron stand out from the rest is that for the last twenty years, the river management have been operating a restocking programme. This has been under the care of Bob Kindness. I remember Bob when he first moved over to the west coast to run a training centre for Inverness College. Bob is a keen angler and was dismayed to find that the annual catch when he arrived was just two fish a year. At the time, the ten-year average was just 16.8 salmon and 6.5 grilse. Numbers were so low because the Carron is a very aggressive spate river and when conditions are bad, eggs and young fish can be washed away along with gravel beds and even boulders. Bob thought it would be possible to restore stocks to the river using a very basic hatchery and this is exactly what he has done. Bob’s efforts are the sole reasons why catches this year have been as high as 317 fish. The best ten-year average prior to the stocking programme was just 150 fish compared to 246 now, so clearly the stocking programme has had a significant impact. There can be no other reason for such a dramatic improvement, especially given the location.

Given the results of Bob’s endeavours, it might be concluded that the wild fish sector would be desperate to hear how he has produced such remarkable results. Far from it, the wild fish sector chooses to ignore what he has achieved simply because it doesn’t fit in with their current narrative. At the same time, Bob has had help with funding from local businesses but because these local companies just happen to be fish farmers, Bob has been tarred with the salmon farming brush. Fisheries Management Scotland are having their annual conference at the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh at the beginning of April. I would very much hope that they invite Bob to come and speak. After all they were sufficiently concerned to organise a special meeting at the Scottish Parliament to make wild salmon a national priority. Why would they not want to hear about the radical improvements that have been made to the River Carron?

However, Bob Kindness’s story and the River Carron restoration programme is taking an unexpected turn. Marine Scotland Science have introduced a new restocking policy. It was to hear about this, that I was invited to Pitlochry but when I left that day, I was under the impression that there would be a full consultation. This did not happen. It seems, as the River Tay hatchery staff have now discovered, that they will not be allowed to restock if the intention is to provide more fish for angling, even though it is argued that angling generates the income to conduct conservation.

In simple terms, restocking will be allowed for restoration, but only using eggs and unfed fry. It will no longer be possible to actually rear fish to restocking at a larger size. This new policy will sound the death knell for the River Carron as in many years, eggs and young fry are often washed away.

The back door approach to implementing this new stocking policy has not been universally welcomed by the wild fish sector. The Strathspey and Badenoch Herald recently reported that a number of ghillies under the auspices of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association’s Fishing Group had initiated a Parliamentary Petition to demand a full consultation on the new restocking policy and why not?

It seems to me that if anyone like Bob wants to run a hatchery then he should be free to do so. Salmon numbers are at an all time low, so any help is justified, whether the intention is restoration or fisheries enhancement. I believe that there is too much negative thinking when it comes to wild salmon and consequently nothing gets done that might actually help restore stocks. In my opinion, if Marine Scotland Science are convinced that planting trees is the answer, then they are free to organise as many tree planting events as they like. However, it must be recognised that tree planting alone is not going to bring back wild salmon to Scottish rivers.

Our world is now changing rapidly. Wild salmon are not the only species in decline. Species of animals are vanishing are an increasingly rapid pace, yet the angling sector looks as salmon as being outside these global changes. For far too long I have heard that only anglers know and understand wild salmon and only anglers have the solutions. It is clear now clear that despite all this knowledge and understanding wild salmon are in decline on their watch. The prediction is that wild salmon might have vanished from Scottish rivers within twenty years. The wild salmon sector cannot expect politicians to come up with instant solutions, especially as the writing has been on the wall for a long time. The wild sector have just not been looking.