Upstream struggle: we are running out of time to save Britain’s salmon

In a few years’ time, there could be no more wild salmon in Britain

24 January 2020

10:00 PM

24 January 2020

10:00 PM

In October 1987, Hugh Falkus, the most famous name in salmon fishing, and I, with three other friends, caught 124 wild salmon in a week’s fishing on the Junction Pool of the River Tweed. This included several fish over 20lb. Today, you would be lucky to catch a tenth of that number, and there would be no big fish among them. In the 1980s there were approximately nine million salmon swimming in the Atlantic. Now there are roughly two million. The situation has become so dire that earlier this month the chief executive of Fisheries Management Scotland announced that the future of salmon is now at a ‘crisis point’.

What are the possible reasons for this tragic decline? The main problem, I believe, is simple: apathy. In the 1980s when we had our wonderful week on the Tweed, we all thought that the days of plenty would never cease and we did little to ensure that they continued. We killed every fish that we caught (I am ashamed to say that I have a photograph of that amazing catch laid out on the floor of the Ednam House Hotel in Kelso), and it would never have crossed our minds to release any back into the water, which is common practice today. We didn’t look after the redds, the salmon nests the females dig into the gravel river bed to deposit their eggs in the autumn or winter. The gravel needs to be raked once a year to stop it becoming compacted. Meanwhile, downstream, salmon nets were allowed to flourish in the Tweed’s estuary, as they were on every river.

Yet despite restrictions to fishing (fisher-men have been banned from catching salmon in Scottish coastal waters since 2016), it worryingly remains the case that for every 100 salmon that leave our rivers for the sea, fewer than five return — a decline of 70 per cent in 25 years. The effect of modern life on our rivers is likely to be contributing to this problem. Over the past two decades farming equipment has become much heavier and more capable of working on much steeper inclines. Fields that before were only used for livestock are now ploughed and sown. Because of the weight of the equipment, the ground quickly becomes compacted. The fields are then freely sprayed with herbicides and pesticides. Because they are on a hillside these quickly run off into the river and poison it. The effect can be diluted by rainfall, but at times of drought the river will be toxified. Salmon have a very highly developed olfactory nerve which guides them, not just to the river of their birth, but to the actual spot within that river where they hatched from the egg. Pollution can severely damage the salmon’s very necessary sense of smell.

Well-meaning plans can have damaging unforeseen consequences. The dwindling salmon population in the Exe in Devon has been greatly exacerbated by the Exmoor Mires Restoration Project, which decided to try to bring back Exmoor’s ‘natural hydro-logy’. This idiotic idea involved the blocking of 50,000 metres of ditches, thus stopping many millions of tons of fresh water from reaching the river during the summer, when it is most needed to dilute the effects of farming chemicals on the river. The summer, of course, is also when the salmon return from the sea. They have enough to contend with without this type of man-made stupidity.

There are other obvious threats to the salmon that we are currently unable or unwilling to take action against. Predators in the form of cormorants, mergansers and goosanders scoff large amounts of the parr and smolt (young salmon migrating to sea) and yet are on the protected list so they cannot be shot. Last year I taught Michael Gove, then the environment secretary, to cast a fly. I found him to be a highly intelligent man who was doing his best to do a good job, but when I suggested that these predators should be removed from the protected list he replied, with unthinking townsman’s logic: ‘I’m afraid I rather like birds.’ Yet these birds he likes so much are helping to push salmon into the endangered species category.

The same is true of the seal. Seals are also protected, and there has been a large increase in the seal population in recent years. A seal will gobble huge amounts of salmon in a day. In the estuaries of all the main Scottish salmon rivers, there is a harem (isn’t that a glorious collective noun?) of seals waiting to intercept the salmon when they come in from the sea. But of course they aren’t culled. Seals, with their big eyes, are too much loved by the general public.

Last spring, the Atlantic Salmon Trust set up a three-year scheme in the Moray Firth, as part of its Missing Salmon Project. Eight hundred smolt have been tagged in seven different rivers flowing into the Moray Firth. Sensors have been placed at various points to track them. Preliminary findings have shown 50 per cent die in the rivers and a further 10 per cent in the estuaries. What we do not yet know is the reason why, but the scheme aims to find out by next year.

In the meantime, my own theory is that they starve. Most of us can well remember a time when our car windscreens were covered in dead flies during the summer, particularly on roads near rivers. Nowadays, you see hardly any because so much fly life has been killed by farmers’ insecticides and pesticides. These flies, and their nymphs and eggs, are the smolts’ food.

I have been fishing for salmon since I was a boy, and I love the sport, but if I have to stop, that would be a small price to pay to save the species.

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Mike Daunt teaches Spey casting and trout fishing. If you do not catch a trout on his trout course, he will return your money.

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