The Atlantic Salmon has been coming home to spawn in it’s native waters for many thousands of years. Over the last hundred, this great fish has become highly prized for it’s sporting prowess. There can be no greater freshwater fishing sensation than the feel of one’s first Salmon as it turns to take your fly. Salmon fishing in Scotland is hence much sought after and anglers generate some £500 million to the Scottish economy each year.
A Fresh Salmon is also good for the table and as such has become a valuable commodity and much sought after by net fishermen, either on the open seas, or at the river estuaries as the fish return to spawn.
It has been realised many decades ago that unless our Salmon Rivers are properly managed and if exploitation is not controlled that native Salmon stocks will decline. When the ‘In River’ factors are optimized by preserving Salmon access, spawning habit and imposing sensible catch and release policies this can make a huge difference. The success of many river systems, where all of these activities are controlled by one organization, for example the Rivers Thurso, Naver and Helmsdale, bears testament to this notion.
Unfortunately, despite a reduction in netting activity on our river estuaries, the number of Salmon returning is still falling. There are additional high seas and feeding ground factors that are less easy to control. The influence of Mixed Stock Fisheries which intercept Salmon along coastlines where Salmon are returning to multiple rivers are particularly damaging and we have welcomed the Scottish Government decision to impose a 3 year moratorium from 2016 on such fisheries until their impact on residual Salmon stocks have been further assessed. Furthermore, all UK rivers have been graded according to their health and sustainability and this in turn has imposed specific direction in terms of conservation policy. We all need to take this very seriously and unless there is a combined action to preserve this great fish, the numbers of Salmon in UK waters will continue to decline.
There is little doubt that the main problem does not lie within the river itself. Our rivers are cleaner and better policed than at any time in the last forty years, though we need to remain vigilant in this respect. The current main threats are smolt infection and infestation around fish farms, marine mortality, drift net fishing and predation by seals along the coast.
Salmon anglers can act in a number of ways to preserve this marvellous creature. Firstly, we should all very seriously consider the benefits of catch and release. Although the proportion of Salmon in any river system, which are likely to be caught by an angler is less than 10%, we should all be releasing fish on a regular basis. Certainly, if a fish is hooked in the gills and bleeding, it is unlikely to survive, but studies on the Ponoi River in Russia have shown that if a fish is apparently unharmed, the survival rates are very high. There is a real sense of satisfaction and achievement in seeing a bright sea-liced fish returned to the water. There is no sense at all in killing a fish in its Autumn colours when it is just days or weeks away from the natural spawning activity.
The role of Salmon hatcheries remains controversial. These empirically seem a good idea but the potential to mix up Spring, Summer and Autumn brood stock from eggs and milt stripped from fish in different parts of the system has potential to further complicate the issue. There is no doubt that if we leave Nature to its own methods we will ultimately achieve the best result.
We should all have a sense of responsibility in the Salmon angling sense. Take time out to encourage an interest in river habitat, in freshwater fisheries scientific research and in activities which promote the nature, ecology and beauty of Scotland as we know it.
Finally, we need to be aware of the potential impact of introducing parasitic infection to any river system and every angler should adhere to local policy when visiting a river after a trip overseas. We should all be supporting the various fishery boards and national organisations, which have Salmon conservation at heart. Links to a number of important bodies in this respect are shown below. Please do whatever you can to help.