Anglers and farmers are united in a desire to help wild salmon survive, writes Hamish Macdonell
It was the angler who first introduced me to the Tweed who came up with it. We were fishing Middle Pavilion, the broad, unhurried beat that sweeps down from Galashiels to Melrose and where, under his guidance, I was about to hook a decent sea trout.
“If someone fishes, you can be sure they’re alright,” he said, mending the line with a flick of his wrist while making it clear that, as far as he was concerned, that was his number one rule for life. Someone who had the patience, decency and courtesy to fish had to be pretty sound away from the water too, that was his code.
It wasn’t a complicated philosophy and, on that balmy May morning when everything was right with the world, it appeared to make sense. However, since I joined the farmed salmon sector, I have realised there is a dark smudge on that bucolic picture, a blind spot that some anglers have – and it comes in the shape of their attitude to fish farming.
For some on the campaigning wing of the angling fraternity, salmon farms are to blame for the loss of our wild salmon and nothing anybody says will ever convince them otherwise.
This is not the time or the space to rehash all the old arguments – they have been run and re-run far too often over the last few years to do that again. So instead, what about something new? What about the farmed and wild salmon interests working together to find out what’s really happening?
The Atlantic Salmon Trust has launched a major tracking project for west coast smolts. The aim is simple: to find out what happens to these juvenile salmon when they leave their rivers and head out into the sea.
It is an extensive project, taking in rivers from Dumfriesshire to the Western Isles, and the initial results should be available before the end of the year.
But the big difference with this project is that it will be part-funded by Scotland’s salmon farmers – to the tune of more than £1.5m over the next three years.
This, though, is only one part of the investment salmon farmers are making in this area. The independently managed Wild Salmonid Support Fund has been created – and financed – by Scotland’s salmon-farming companies, with the aim of improving habitats for wild salmon.
Trusts and other bodies that work to improve wild salmon habitats are being invited to apply for the funds and the first tranche of £70,000 has already been allocated. It is an initial investment of what will be £1.5m for wild salmon projects over the next five years.
On one level it makes sense for the farmed salmon sector to do all this. If we can find out what is really happening to our wild salmon and if it transpires (as many of us suspect) that farms are not largely responsible for their decline, then perhaps we can all move on and deal with the real reasons behind it.
This investment is also a key part of the commitment our sector made to the Scottish Parliament in the wake of two parliamentary inquiries into salmon farming, in 2018.
MSPs were exasperated with the lack of co-operation and collaboration between the farmed and wild salmon sectors; they wanted us to work together and we have embraced that wholeheartedly. These are not just words. The significant investment that Scotland’s salmon farmers have made, in both the tracking project and the wild salmonid fund, shows that they are really serious about this commitment for the long term.
However, there are other, more subtle, reasons behind the farmed salmon sector’s decision to get involved in this way.
Our farms are full of people who live and work in our remote, coastal environments. Many of them are anglers too – they have a wading boot in both camps – and the loss of our wild salmon matters as much to them as it does to any other angler – perhaps more.
It also matters hugely to us, as salmon farmers, that we are both good stewards of the marine environment and good neighbours in the community.
Anglers and fish farmers share many of the same aims – and we face many of the same challenges – so it is in all our interests that the marine environment – the whole of the marine environment – thrives.
Aquaculture has the potential to help lead Scotland’s green recovery from Covid-19. With its low carbon footprint and the healthy, nutritious seafood it produces, Scotland’s salmon sector really can lead a “blue economic revolution” for the country.
But how much better would it be to do that in harmony with others than retreat back into the bickering of the past?
As we worked together towards the agreement that will see Scotland’s salmon farmers put such a significant sum into this project, it rekindled my faith in that old angling rule of thumb – that anyone who fishes must be alright.
I realised then that there is a mighty middle ground here, populated by the silent majority from both the wild and farmed fish sectors: ordinary, decent people who want to work with like-minded colleagues to find out what is really happening to our wild salmon.
To me, there is no contradiction. The salmon is Scotland, whether it is a wild fish pulled from a fast-flowing river on a single fly or whether it is farmed, smoked, packaged and sold in shops around the world.
Yes, there will always be some outliers raging in their inflexibility, but for the rest of us, anglers and farmers, it really looks like there could be a new, more collaborative future ahead, a future that could see all those tired old arguments left to rot in the past while real progress is made reviving Scotland’s wild salmon population.