Scotland has always been acknowledged as one of the top salmon fishing destinations and non fishing visitors identify the salmon as one of the iconic symbols of Scotland. Thousands of anglers travel to big salmon rivers like the Tay and the Tweed in the hope of landing the highly prized gleaming bar of silver. However, salmon numbers are continuing to decline, some suggest the decrease started more than 30 years ago. The days of catching 40lb leviathans are a rarity and anglers look for alternative fishing destinations outside the UK.
According to the Salmon and Trout Association (Scotland), marine survival of the salmon used to be 24% – 30%. Currently it is single figures. Fish will spend one, two or more years at sea before making their way back to their river of origin. The association has identified an ‘inexorably downward’ trend in fish numbers starting in the early 1970s with data showing a ‘severe fall’ from the late 1980s.
Salmon have to cope with threats in both freshwater and seawater environments but experts are suggesting global warming is responsible for the decline. The world is on track to reach a record high temperature this year, the past 12-month period has been the warmest on record. Along with land temperature, the sea temperature is rising and making the salmon’s food source move further north to cooler waters. The fish have to swim further to feed, and in doing so, they extending their time out at sea, battling against other competitors for food and being exposed to predators. The salmon are no longer surviving at sea and no one knows precisely why. Global warming was highlighted more than a decade ago in 2004 when scientists blamed it as as possible reason for fish decline.
The lack of effective predator control is a continual issue. Seal numbers are no longer controlled effectively and rogue seals are travelling further up the rivers following the run of salmon. In 2001, 3 beavers escaped from a wildlife park, survived and bred in the wild. Numbers are now thought to be in their hundreds, they can fell trees and block major tributaries overnight. Sawbills like cormorants, megansers and goosanders, which hunt fish in packs, are also growing in numbers. Scottish Natural Heritage can grant licences to permit the killing of ‘wild birds for the purpose of preventing serious damage to fisheries’ under section 16(1)(k) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Applications for licences may be considered to shoot sawbills although they are only issued if non-lethal methods have proved to be unsuccessful or considered impractical. A license may be issued to shoot, for example, 4 goosanders however a goosander will successfully raise a family of 12+ young.
Fishing consultant Bill Drury says fish populations have been dwindling for years and if it continues it will have a major impact on every aspect of the fishing industry including all businesses working in tandem. Bill said, “I think people have allowed themselves to be misguided in regard to the salmon numbers. We have a good year, numbers are up, people mistakenly assume all is well then when we have a bad year they look around and usually blame the river saying something must be wrong with it. It seems the peaks are keeping everyone’s hopes up but they are just peaks and not consistent. There has to be a time when everyone exhausts their hope about the next season being better but why should it be? They are doing nothing different.”
“There are people coming into fishing now who do not actually know what a good day is like,” said Bill. “If you have been around fishing for two or three decades you will remember the days of catching many big fish.”
Tay ghillie Bob White caught his very first salmon in October 1978, said: “The fish are going out to sea but not coming back, we do not know what is specifically is going wrong but we need to do what we can to support the fish in any way we are able. The major thing a river can do is to produce young salmon, every fish going out to sea is critical. We need to be improving the habitat so the fish thrive and their survival rate is increased with more going out to sea, and hopefully, more coming back. We can do this by opening areas up, trees can be coppiced to allow the sunlight in and areas can be fenced to stop cattle getting onto the river bank and ensuring there are no blockages or weirs. If a particular area has little or no salmon we should introduce some.”
Andy Murray has been involved in the fishing industry for more than 40 years, he has fished and guided all over the world, spending the last 10 years on the River Tweed. He said; “I think the decline started a few decades ago and it is still going down however it is difficult to accurately measure because there are twice as many people on the river than 30 to 40 years ago and the fishing tackle is more efficient. The rivers have never been better. The problem is out in the big ocean.”
TV Actor and presenter Paul Young said: “We can look after salmon in the nurseries up to a point, but once they go to sea, we are powerless to protect them. We know not whether global warming is affecting their feeding habits, or if illegal fishing is taking migrating smolts and returning salmon. The legal netting of salmon round our coasts is deplorable and NOT helped by present legislation.”
“Anglers are playing their part by implementing catch and release but how long will they pay the sometimes very high price for some fishing and if, like many have done already, more anglers go abroad for their fishing, how will proprietors in Scotland maintain the present level of employment of ghillies and other jobs connected with salmon fishing.”
Over the last 5 years job opportunities for ghillies have been scarce. Jobs are at risk. On the bigger beats where they typically employed three ghillies but are operating with only 1 or 2, and some on part-time hours. Something needs to be done to stop the decline and give anglers a reason to fish in Scotland.