The business of Salmon FIshing in Scotland could and should be an amazing asset to the Scottish economy. However, in 21st century Scotland, for many reasons, we are losing the battle to keep this asset and the 2500 rural jobs relying on it a viable one. However, I know for a fact that this is a battle we can win!
Moving forward into the 21st Century, Scotland needs to make the best of all its amazing assets. Businesses need to collaborate with a common goal of attracting more people to spend money in our wonderful country. This, Instead of creating yet more publicly financed jobs, all of which lead to an ever increasing tax bill and don't represent value for money to the taxpayer, we need to fully understand and make the absolute best of the assets we have. Salmon Fishing Tourism, worth around £80m annually at this time, I know, has the potential to be worth 300m, and not 2500 jobs, but 6000 or more. I know for a fact, collectively, we can put Scotland back to the top as a salmon fishing destination.
But whats went wrong in the interim??
1. BACKGROUND The 1980s saw the first fishery biologists make an appearance on the big rivers of Scotland. Their remit or goal, was to understand more and ensure the long term sustainability of the fishery. As someone with a deep interest, Personally, at the time, I thought this could and would be a good thing for the future of salmon fishing.
A. What has happened in the meantime:
The species has depleted to levels never seen before.
After more than 30 years of input/research, our/their overall understanding of stock levels are based around pure guesswork using catch stats as a base.
Biologists feel Juvenile numbers are generally in good health on most rivers. However, most living and working on the river feel the opposite.
Numbers of Predators such as Seals, Dolphins, Goosanders and Cormorants have increased to levels never seen before. The demise of herring fishery around the coast will have exasperated their move toward salmonoids.
Over the past 20 years the scientific community has offered nothing but more of the same. Unfortunately this has made no difference to the overall decline.
Catch and release. To those informed this was only ever going to buy time. Rational/logical thinking would lead anyone come to this conclusion. From the early 1960s on we have continuously banned every effective method (drift nets, net and cobble, prawning, shrimping, spinning, worming etc, etc) for catching salmon, so how anyone can C&R do anything but slow the decline, we’ll, just think about it?
Stock assessments are based on a rod catch of between 10% and 15%. Given that rivers in Canada and Iceland, anglers regularly catch 50% - 70% of all fish entering them with rod and line, this is seriously dangerous and very misleading. It has also to be said that rivers in those countries are very well fished with extremely experienced guides using the best legal methodology [Making the best of their asset]. Many rivers/beat in Scotland have no guides! A problem that will only get worse.
Whether Einstein said it or not, “The definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a "different result”. 20 years or more of the same on all our rivers with nothing positive to show must mean time for change! Especially given that the business of Salmon Fishing appears to be in free fall!!
2. WHAT CAN BE DONE TO “PHYSICALLY” HELP?
Firstly, we must accept the problem! Unfortunately, all through the 1990s and 2000s this is something our managers didn't seem willing to do. However, their hand has now been forced because they know change has to come and the following will be a good starting point:
Accepting that we have been catching nearer 50% of what’s there will bring us much closer to the number of fish actually in the river, particularly in the last 10 years where the average catch will be nearer 8k than 10k. So, a year with 6k caught will be nearer a total of 12k in the river, well below Dr Butler’s critical figure of 20k. (see point 5 below).
Accept that C&R has distorted catch stats, and with this, our understanding of how many adults are actually present.. We know that a great many fish are recaptured suggesting the problem may be even worse than even the worst case scenario!
Use divers to physically count the fish in our rivers. This method is accepted by both the Norwegian and Canadian Government to evaluate the stock in a river system.
Once this is done and we finally have an accurate figure, compare this with what our experts have told us.
Take this “revised” figure and work back to find out whether we have enough juveniles or not. With regard the Spey, former Director, Dr James Butler, maintained that juvenile output would be compromised should adult numbers dip below 20,000. My own belief is, with the possible exception of the years 1995-6, we have not seen 20,000 in the Spey since the nets were taken off in 1993. Many will argue this, unfortunately, they are the ones who have had their head stuck in the sand, and, for the future of salmon fishing in Scotland, need to move aside with immediate effect..
If we take this figure (The one we find via the divers) as worst case scenario then we will “know” both juvenile and adult fish are in trouble and we are way below the point Dr Butler and many others felt would be “critical” for the fishery.
Having established a major problem for the fishery, what options do we have?
A restocking programme is an absolute must. For years now the run of adult fish to salmon rivers of Scotland, the Spey included, have declined to the extent they no longer produce sufficient juveniles to sustain a viable fishery. Like the river Jokla in Iceland, this gives the river a boost and will see the river once again producing, not just enough, but an abundance of juveniles. Only this will be enough to counter what is obviously be going on at sea.
Lobby government using historical data and video evidence to have predators, particularly fish eating birds, dealt with properly.
Have a detailed look into the relationship between the Herring fishery and abundance of salmon and sea trout.
Goosanders onto general licence for a period of time and have
Use the power of the media to bring the plight of the Salmon to the hearts and minds of more of the greater public.
Video is a great tool here. Also, the “story” of the decline itself. As an emotive campaign, it must be led by passionate people, those involved day to day and whose lives are affected by the decline. The historical stereotype of salmon fishing being only for the wealthy and well-spoken is not only inaccurate, but divisive. Now, more than ever, we need salmon fishing to be seen for what it is, a sport enjoyed by people from every social backgrounds. Stereotyping it as "elitist” makes it too easy for the Scottish government to ignore the current problems, issues and local concerns. We must Challenge this with facts. Interview local business owners, Ghillies and fishing clients to build a more realistic picture of what salmon fishing means and perhaps more importantly, what it could mean to 21st century Scotland.
If Scientists, guided by Marine Science Scotland [Or whatever they call themselves now] are so confident the return of hatchery fish will be so small it won’t impact in the least on wild fish, I’d ask them this - Put your reputation where your mouth is and, as scientists, use the money to “properly” answer the questions above, once and for all, with a national case study funded by interested parties, anglers and business owners, all of whom are willing to fund the project and have “wanted” in the past, but now are “demanding” those questions are properly answered. The project would be overseen by "independent" experts with a track record in this field. The reason for this is - our scientists focus on every negative they possibly can when dealing with the subject, painting as bleak a picture possible to the uneducated. It would seem those people simply don’t want the questions properly answered. But why should this be? Well, in the first instance, it’s because they worry more about that old chestnut, genetic integrity, because they know the return from the “properly run and managed hatchery” will be greater than the figures they feed the uneducated. They simply don’t want to know how many fish are in the river as it will prove the figure of 10-15% rod caught fish is total nonsense, again damaging their professional reputation. Personally, I’d love to be “proved” wrong in all of this, but I know for a fact I wont be.
The answer to counting is to get the divers into the river ASAP. We desperately need this information. It’s up to fishery owners, Ghillies, and business owners with an interest from across Scotland to make this happen. Already I’ve had information back from a fishery owner who snorkelled his Beat and was flabbergasted at what he saw, or didn’t as the case may be. Given the water height right now (low water at the right time of year) we have never had a better chance to actually find out what’s there and have the information to set the ball of change rolling. Stop talking and get in there and gather the information. If anyone knows any Divers who would be willing to do this please get in touch with me here or simply get into your Beat and count.
Ian Gordon August 2018.
Now we are in 2023 Im in a better position to try and put together a proper campaign to help the business of salmon fishing but need support from across UK based salmon fisheries to do this to do this.
Please let me know if you would like to be involved in a proper campaign to deal with this problem on a political front. Please Please share this as widely as possible as to be frank I see it as last chance saloon.