OPINION: Success in the salmon farming zone

PARTICIPANTS at the recent Fisheries Management Scotland conference were given a copy of the latest annual review, which includes reports from all the main salmon and sea trout rivers.

The report from the Tweed begins: ‘Salmon catches dropped for a fourth consecutive year with the spring catch half that of 2017.’

The total rod catch for salmon was 5,179 against a ten-year average of 11,406. The sea trout catch was 817 fish against a ten-year average of 1,894.

Critics of the salmon farming industry continue to claim that wild salmon are on the point of extinction along the Scottish west coast, yet the fishing report from the west coast River Carron states that: ‘Despite the dry, hot summer, the season was a good one for salmon, sea trout and finnock.’

It went on: ‘Salmon and grilse were present throughout the river in good numbers in the later part of the season. Sea trout, although small, were in excellent condition and were almost completely devoid of sea lice for the second season in succession.’

The salmon catch was 243 fish compared to a ten-year average of 237. The sea trout catch was 101 fish against a ten-year average of 114.

Against a background where the east coast was always highlighted as the shining light of Scottish salmon angling and when west coast rivers were supposed to have succumbed to the blight of salmon farming, how can the fortunes of these two rivers be so different?

The report form the River Carron in the FMS Annual Review provides a clue: ‘The salmon and grilse catch since the stocking programme took effect in 2004 are significantly higher than in any season prior to stocking.

‘It seems clear that ongoing stocking mitigates against the winter spates and moving gravel and the increasing seal population in the neighbouring sea loch. Migrating smolts have been monitored for more than 10 years, which indicates at least twice as many as predicted for the river if it only relied on natural production.’

Considering the positive news from the River Carron, the discussion at the FMS conference about restocking should have been positive too, but actually far from it. The impression gained was that restocking is not only a waste of time but can damage the wild fish stocks.

By coincidence, articles about restocking have appeared this month in The Field and in Fly Fishing and Fly Tying (FF&FT) magazines. Both echo the view that there is little to be gained from restocking and much to lose.

One ghillie from the River Tay told The Field that the scientists employed by the fishery boards are studying the salmon to death. They do nothing to help increase stocks.

Another Tay ghillie said that ‘fishery scientists claim hatcheries are damned and stocked smolts are the spawn of the devil’.

One scientist (who wanted to remain nameless) told the magazine that ‘hatcheries are no answer; we’d be destroying salmon just to save salmon’.

Rob Olsen, an angler and writer, added that stocking of rivers has been going on for centuries whereas the approach adopted by the scientists for the last 30 years has shown no sign of improvement.

FF&FT reports that the restocking programme on the River Tyne produced a return of 0.37 per cent of hatchery reared fish, while a recent trial in Scotland revealed rod recapture rates for hatchery reared smolts ranged from zero to 0.23 per cent.

Both magazines highlight restocking programmes in Icelandic rivers, which appear to have a better success rate, but critics claim that these rivers tend to have no or limited natural breeding stock.

In Scotland, the argument is that stocked hatchery salmon can stray and ‘contaminate’ the wild stock by cross breeding.

Dr Martin Jaffa

FF&FT suggests that added to the problem of cross breeding is that fact that the ‘free for all’ during breeding does not actually occur and that choice of mate is important, with relatively few fish producing the majority of a river’s offspring. By comparison, it is argued that fish reared in hatcheries are the product of random mixing of eggs and sperm for any fish.

Looking in at this debate from outside, it seems that any excuse is found to avoid investing in hatcheries and river restocking.

Concerns about the genetics are a red herring since ever diminishing stocks mean a much reduced gene pool.

In fact, the gene pool has been compromised over the last couple of hundred years by unselective harvesting of fish as they return to the rivers to breed.

The problem is more likely about money. There seems to be a reluctance to pay to produce more fish to improve rivers that have always produced catchable fish for free.

What is most surprising about this debate concerning restocking is that the success of the River Carron over the last 15 years has been completely ignored. Given that the River Carron has out-performed many other rivers, it should have been highlighted as a great success.

There was a major opportunity to do so at the recent FMS conference and Dr Bob Kindness from the River Carron should have been asked to speak to participants about his experiences of restocking.

Unfortunately, the angling establishment dismiss Dr Kindness’s successful restocking programme for reasons unknown.

Maybe it is just because it has been a success. Equally, Dr Kindness has worked with local salmon farmers and this collaboration is seen as working with ‘the enemy’.

However, times have moved on and FMS are now keen to get their hands on salmon industry money to pursue their own attempts to improve salmon stocks.

Perhaps the industry should insist that FMS give the River Carron proper recognition before any money changes hands.