Man’s influence on fish stocks. The use of modern technology when fishing has a significant impact on many species, strangely enough, both in a negative and positive way. It just depends which side of the coin you flip. When managing any species, it’s important that we understand their abundance, reproduction cycles, and their relationship with food and predators. As we are the biggest and most efficient predator on this planet, our relationship with and understanding of any target species becomes ultra important.
Lack of a proper understanding of stock levels and subsequent regulation will undoubtedly, have a negative effect on any target species, leading to a slowing of the reproductive capacity of the said target species, and thus a decline. We know that unregulated overly efficient fishing disrupts the delicate balance of nature resulting in decline or, as we saw in the Cod Fishery on the Grand Banks, destruction. However, unregulated overly efficient fishing, comes in many guises. It is not just a factory ship hoovering up all in its wake. If there were only 100 salmon remaining in a river which once produced 10000, this could also be a particular form of fishing with a rod and line. The industrial removal of a sizeable portion of the target species from an ecosystem has a knock-on effect on other species, particularly those nearer the bottom of the food chain, leading to imbalances and potential collapse of the entire ecosystem. I remember my Granda, a man who spent his whole life at the sea, fishing the moray Firth and west coast of Scotland in his 40 foot Seine net boat, talking about this near his retirement in the mid 1970s. Around the time he was particularly scathing of a new fishery, that of salad eels and what he referred to as Pout. “They’re even fishing for pout (small bait fish) now”, pay attention, that is going to have an enormous impact on all fishing in years to come”! Although he and many others could see this for what it was because there was money to be made by a few, the warning signs were ignored. Particularly politicians and their advisors. The same was the case in the 1970s, when along with the industrial fishing of their food, Herring, Haddock and Cod were being overfished by a fleet using rapidly developing technologies. A classic case of failure to understand the abundance or overall biomass of the target species and its relationship with the top predator, namely, MAN! Power with no control! Because bigger fish are more commercially valuable, modern fishing tends to target those, and the removal of bigger fish affects the species ability to reproduce and recover as younger and smaller do not have the same capacity to replace the bigger ones. The lack of bigger fish in the net is a sure sign of change and should have the alarm bells ringing. My Granda saw it but was dismissed as being an old man with no idea of “modern fishing” his views were seen as being “anecdotal” by scientists. With the benefit of history and hindsight we now know what happened to this once thriving industry. The results of failing to listen and understand are a byproduct of 3 things below. 1. A lack of understanding of the size of the stock we are dealing with.
2. A lack of regulation to combat technological advances.
3. Greed. Interestingly, one of the byproducts of this white fish collapse was a huge increase in the prawns and shrimp, surprise, surprise, the food eaten by those fish now in decline [Yin and Yang]. Those fishermen who saw, recognised, and adapted to this change have done very well from this new “Manmade” bounty, whilst others bemoaned the lack of Cod or over regulation. I remember some years ago doing an open university course focusing on Changing communities, one of which was the fishing community of Grimsby. In the 1970s more cod were landed here than any other port in the UK and the town was booming. However, as the target species declined fishermen struggled to catch enough fish to sustain their livelihoods, leading to job losses, reduced incomes, and economic instability. In order to survive, this once thriving fishing community had to diversify, adapt, and change. And change it most certainly did. History teaches us that, in the face of adversity the people of Great Britain are extremely resourceful. Grimsby completely reinvented itself by becoming a centre for food processing, renewable energy, and tourism. A combination of Technology, Mismanagement, Greed and Apathy had a serious negative impact on traditional fishing practices and cultural traditions in Grimsby, which for decades had relied and thrived on sustainable fishing practices. Many would bemoan the loss, but unfortunately not enough people paid attention the warning signs to prevent the collapse. How does all this impact on the decline of Salmon and Sea Trout? The decline of herring and overfishing of sand eels not only has a significant impact on migratory species such as salmon and sea trout, but it also impacts on a great many others too. Both fish and birds rely on those species at the bottom of the food chain. It is plainly obvious to anyone with even limited knowledge that, as pointed out by my Granda all those years ago, “This will have a n enormous impact in the future”! A lack of understanding coupled with a lack of regulation and in the case of the salmon, greed and apathy, has led to the changes now evident for all to see. A friend of mine and ex superintendent of the Spey, Jimmy Grey, once said, “The salmon need just 3 things to survive and to thrive -
I would add a fourth to this. They also need food, especially at the most vulnerable times of their lives, one of which is when they arrive in salt water, otherwise. What we are dealing with here is the law of the jungle, if they can't find their ancestral diet, they become food themselves, especially if there is an increase in predators. Like it or loathe it, as the apex predator in all of this, we are the custodians of this potential balance; understanding and regulation is the only way we can deliver a salmon bounty in a sustainable way for future generations. The notion of all this happening “naturally” is nothing but a pipe dream borne from a lack of understanding of you guessed it, the three reasons above. That ship sailed with the advent of technology coupled with ignorance and greed. If the goal is to harvest and enjoy what those species bring to us, we must understand and manage them properly. In the short term at least, we are now the only hope for both the salmon and all those other important species such is the natural imbalance of all species mentioned. Biodiversity is a word we here lots in the 21st century this is all about balance and counterbalance, Yin and Yang. The main problems for salmon, we know, are found close to home, before they reach the open ocean and again at the far end of their range. My good friend, Orri Vigvasson recognised the latter and did an amazing job over his short lifetime to try and do something physically about salmon being caught on their feeding ground. This work “MUST” carry on. But back to our shoreline. Once in the deep blue yonder, salmon are both off our radar and out with our ability to control or help. Irrespective of what we may think, once they leave the shallow water of our coastline there is nothing, we can do to help them. But could we give them more help whilst here? I believe we can and should. Salmon and Sea Trout are the most amazing and special species, in that, unlike any other fish species, their requirement to return to land and fresh water means they have a direct link to us! It is like they have a spiritual attachment to humans. Depictions of salmon are seen in various Pictish sites throughout the UK, such is the centuries old strong link between the two species. We can and should care for and nurture them whilst here before sending them on their way in the best of health. As a conservationist with a passion for our history and heritage, I believe we have an obligation to do this. Our lack of understanding of numbers the three things mentioned above has done the salmon a massive disservice, leading them and all those reliant on their “abundance” to the same fate as those good people of Grimsby and all other fishing towns around our amazing island. How could we do this to a species so engrained in our heritage? What are we like? How could we let this happen to something with such amazing cultural, historical, and spiritual value? Who has let this happen?
Although Change is an inevitable part of the circle of life, legislation based on available knowledge and good planning can help cushion much of the social and economic turmoil that comes with the decline in any species. As someone from a generation who saw the economic, cultural and spiritual value brought to all of us by prolific returns of salmon each year, I despair at the lack of awareness regarding the plight of the salmon in 2023. Like the wise old fisherman, the salmon has tried so hard to educate us about how the ocean works, showing us as many signs as it can, but we continue to choose to ignore him!
We live in an era where, spurred on by a lack of full understanding and desire to do something about the problems we do know about, those involved management of salmon sell fanciful notions about turning the clock back and living in the past, a time where lynx and wolves roamed a tree lined Scotland and everything was wonderful. I’m sorry, but history teaches us that we cannot turn the clock back, we can only learn from it and if the goal is to enhance our stocks of fish, then history tells us we need to listen to those who know and act on that information!