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The Business of Salmon Fishing

The end, or a new beginning for the “Business” of salmon fishing in Scotland!?

Back in the 1990s, I began to see the decline in salmon numbers having an impact on the people who fished for them here in Scotland. Factors such as the growth of Salmon fishing in unspoiled places like Russia, greater disposable income, less holiday time, and cheaper travel began to have an impact, so gradually, potential income began haemorrhaging from the economy of Scotland. Turn the clock forward to 2018, and, as the numbers of returning salmon hit an “all time” low, so the amount of money being spent by Salmon Anglers in Scotland will be at its lowest since commercial angling began in Ernest here in the 1970s. Other than a few experts talking about cycles, telling us all will be good another 40 years from now, there’s not really much to suggest this will change until the “business” as we know it, finally succumbs to the pressure brought upon it by reduced runs of fish. What I have to make clear here is, I’m talking about “the business” of salmon fishing and not the biological state of salmon in Scotland, which broadly speaking, most fishery biologists seem happy with. I make this point because, as the number of salmon in our rivers declined, so relations between Anglers, Ghillies/Boatmen, some Proprietors (AGBP), and those managing the salmon stocks have hit an all time low. But why? Well, basically, the Remit of the fishery biologist is very different to that of the “AGBP”. In fact, from this moment on I will refer to the biologist as just that, a biologist. Simply because, at a time of extremely low returns of salmon, they no longer have a link to “fishing”. The Fisheries Manager and AGBP on the other hand, are involved in the “business of salmon fishing”. At the present time, because of the lack of salmon, the remit of one is to look after those salmon remaining, whilst the roll of the other is to attract anglers and so money to the river. The biologist requires “just enough”, whilst to the fisheries manager and AGBP, “enough” is no longer acceptable to his paying clients. So we now we have the conundrum. Having placed so much faith in the Biologist, AGBP are now becoming more disillusioned by the day.

We now have two camps, those who want to spend more money researching why, fund long term projects like planting trees providing shade and bringing back insect life, opening up under-utilised spawning potential above man made obstacles etc etc. And, those who have seen fisheries enhanced by the introduction of hatchery fish and better protection against predation, particularly from fish eating birds. The former is a long term approach from those adamant there are no short term solutions, the latter a short term approach to keep our fisheries and angling viable in the short to medium term. Or, at the very least give anglers something to cling to and stop them taking their business elsewhere. Obviously, we need both, however, without the latter, the former will have to be funded from outside angling, which interestingly, is happening more and more.

A Lovely Norwegian Salmon Caught on the Aunan Beat River Orkla in 2018

A Hatchery Fish on the Bayelva

An 18lb Hatchery Salmon, one of Hundreds that return to this river each year.

So what’s going on? Well, let’s turn the clock back a little. The banning of drift, sweep and stake netting, prawning, shrimping, worming, spinning, treble hooks, and finally, catch and release have all failed to arrest both the decline in numbers of fish, and save the “business” of salmon fishing as we know it. So it begs the question – Was/is the “business” as it has been over the past 50 years (expensive, employing full time Ghillies) ever really viable, or is this particular business model only viable during times of plenty!?

Whilst we all know that over the past 30 or more years, overall populations of salmon have shown a general decline. It’s also well known that during this period of decline, populations of Sea Trout (which we know don’t travel so far in the ocean), have declined in manner similar to that of salmon.

The “fact” of the matter is, all measures to protect have failed the Atlantic Salmon and the”business” of salmon fishing in Scotland, which for me, without intervention will cease to exist as we know it in a very short time.

Thousands of anglers now chase a few salmon around our rivers, the vast majority of which, this year, were caught as old red fish at the end of the season. Is this the model of a sustainable business? Asking anglers to keep putting their hands in their pockets to fund projects that never seem to provide answers, and we know, won’t produce any more salmon in the short term, is this good for business?

“Knowing” the decline would lead to this point and doing nothing “constructive” to potentially save the “fishery” is this good business?

The bottom line is, the bubble has now burst and this business is creaking, those coming fishing here will simply not continue to pay top dollar for what they are being offered.

All the information we have, and have had for many years, points to the decline continuing, so, inevitably, the business, which was developed during a time of plenty, will change too.

Most salmon will being caught, not by high spending visiting anglers, but local guys who can pick and choose their times to fish, when the few fish remaining actually turn up in the river.. Many now follow the fish on the internet, I.e. looking at where fish are being caught and following them to the most likely part of the river. Can anyone be blamed for this?? Well, not really, it’s simply about adapting to the decline and changing technology that now drives the business. However, that’s not to say visiting anglers cannot do this too. For my personal fishing, this is actually perfect, as I can now access many beats I’d never have done in the past because no groups want to fish them anymore.. Finding fishing on top beats here on the Spey in the past was impossible, dead man’s shoes, but now, more and more weeks are becoming available, and, It will not stop there! If my personal fishing were my priority and I didn’t worry about salmon fishing in the long term, then I’d say great, as, for sure there will be many anglers, particularly local guys like me who will take the positive from this “final” part of the decline. Although this would appear to suit me and others, particularly those more new to salmon fishing or involved in selling it on the Internet, personally, I don’t see this as good “business” for either the the community here on Speyside, or the economy of Scotland in general. Leaving the “Fishery” in a similar, or even better status than how we found it must be the “main” priority for all involved! A fishery that, for at least “some part of the year”, can attract high spending customers that keep jobs and the economy of the valley viable. Ensuring those running our rivers provide at least some “reasonably” priced fishing for others, including youngsters to enjoy too.

The reasons for this decline are down to the activity of man, over fishing, change in land/water use, and his lack of action with regard protection of the species. This, along with “assumptions” made by, and depending on, incomplete data masquerading as “science”!

Some will promote this as a great opportunity for everyone to fish for salmon, something that also fits very well “politically” in Scotland at this time. However, unfortunately, this will not keep Ghillies in jobs, hotels/B&Bs full, the tackle business buoyant, the service industry busy. All of those have already felt the financial squeeze of not having enough salmon and the change this brings. For anyone who thinks this modal works, look at salmon fishing in France!!

Selling fishing on the internet has had a hand in changing, “cheapening”, or some would say, “positively redressing” the price of salmon fishing to something more reasonable, and, given the number of fish available to anglers at this time, this sounds about right, ist natural progression during any decline and not before time. Some will say, yes, it’s about time, as young people can’t afford to fish for salmon, simply because it’s too expensive. Well, whilst there’s a good element of truth in this, the fact of the matter, and main reason for the lack of youngsters salmon fishing, quite simply, is the lack of fish and sound “fisheries” (not biological) management. Unlike us, “mad” salmon fishermen, there’s no way on gods earth 21st century youngsters will be happy casting over stones, without seeing or touching a fish every day and keep coming back for more. Remember how you were yourself at this age? Those guys have so much more to occupy their minds and time.

For those who want to continue burying their head in the sand and think this is all part of a cycle and somehow it will all come back, I’d say, look at the “facts”. Look at all the “measures” (banning every legal but efficient form of fishing) put in place by those above. Similarly to the devision and hatred our government continue to incite here in Scotland, salmon anglers themselves have caused massive division between themselves with those to spin, worm, etc being ostracised (unfairly and for no good reason) by some traditionalists and manipulative managers, whilst all the time the same fate awaits the fly fisher further down the line. What’s that you say; you don’t believe this? Well, you know what, that day has come. On the west coast of Canada steelhead rivers are being closed through lack of fish and anglers beginning to fish “without a hook”, “the tug is the drug” being the buzz word. Can you imagine!? Closing rivers is being muted by some here too. Believe me, the antis and their supporters in the Scottish Government will use this as yet another tool to undermine the currant “business model” of salmon fishing. They have their eye firmly on you!!

40 years of the same old, led by biologists has produced zero result to our “fisheries”, so, to try and save the business of salmon fishing and jobs depending on it we “must” now look at more drastic options.. There are many things that could be done that “definitely will” help. No more mights, could or possibly. Controversial yes, but It’s time Anglers, Ghillies and Business owners got their heads together and made their voices heard, leaving those failures/losers behind. The “them and us” attitude simply “must” end if we are to move forward here. People like myself, who for 30 years have seen this day coming, are seen as an antagonist/defeatist, when all I’ve ever done is say it as I see it, ask questions of the decision makers and point out that what I see in the river is very different to what they see. All across Scotland the present system has totally failed and if they want to survive, the business of salmon fishing and those service industries reliant on it MUST change. People with egos need to be moved on, kicked into touch. No one should be made to feel uncomfortable “questioning the science”, especially if it fails to properly answer the questions. Hiding behind statements like, “It’s not an exact science”, is simply not good enough, especially when they (River Biologists) themselves question any anecdotal evidence provided by people living and working on the river. If “exact” answers are unavailable and science fails to provide answers, then anecdotal evidence must be used and precautionary measures put in place. The Scottish Government love and play on the notion that Salmon Fishing is for rich people only. This is a huge barrier, but one that would be so easy to deal with if only people could see the big picture and not simply their own business.

We must look at taking in fishery experts with a proven track record!

To all those involved, I’d say to watch this space, for me, it’s make or break time in this business and we need to act now. If I were thinking about myself I wouldn’t be writing this, as the current Scottish Government model I know will lead to cheaper fishing and more opportunities for me personally, however, the big picture of the economy’s of rural Scotland and welfare of everyone involved is by far the most important thing here. Salmon fishing has the potential to provide Scotland with a massive half a billion pound a year injection to our economy each year, instead of which we fiddle around with a pathetic 100 Million!

The thing to remember is – At this moment in time the “Biologist” is not the “Fisheries” Biologist, he or she are simply Biologists. At this stage, with such poor runs of salmon in our rivers, the two are very different. The role of the Biologist is to protect the longevity and genetic integrity of those wild fish remaining, promoting a greater understanding via further research. Anglers, Ghillies and Some Proprietors, on the other hand, must have something to cling onto in the short term, without this all the business will disappear elsewhere.

Playing a lively fish on the Ponoi River in Russia. The best Salmon Fishery I know.

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