One man's kindness to salmon

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Michael Wigan travels to Wester Ross to meet a man who has single-handedly transformed the fate of the River Carron's wild salmon stocks.

(Photography: Glyn Satterley)

No one could have predicted that the River Carron in Wester Ross would ever become a salmon angling destination. A small spate river with eight miles of good fly water, tipping precipitously into Loch Carron from steep mountains in a watershed prone to huge spates, the fact that there is a salmon presence at all seems one of nature's most generous benefactions. But, today, noting the revived run of migratory fish, some are asking if the model for this obscure river's recovery from near-extinction could be a model for river resuscitation elsewhere. In particular, on Scotland's West Coast where salmon farming's lethal linkage with multitudes of sea-lice has extinguished so many salmon and sea trout migrations.

The day I visited Bob Kindness, the river manager, the Carron was in an odd guise. I saw it on its bones in sunshine, deprived of routine rainstorms, gliding serenely seawards, holding water that was supernaturally clear. Indeed, it never colours. The water quality is pristine. What has focussed attention on the Carron is the scale of its transformation. At the millennium, runs had vanished. Salmon catches were below 15 fish per year. In 2001, the Carron's five riparian owners between them logged a mere six fish. But today, the five-year annual average is 310. Twice recently, over 400 were caught. Everything has changed, and for the better! Anglers keep an eye on water levels on the Internet and make the one-and-a-half-hour journey west from Inverness when it looks right. A canny Rod can land five fish in a day. The Carron, still under-fished, has become an angling hot spot.

bob_kindness_What amplifies the Carron as a buzz story is the reason for the turnaround. To all appearances the recovery is hatchery-driven.

Salmon hatcheries are highly controversial in today's angling politics. In Wales they have been banned. The official stance in Scotland is that they are to be avoided. The Wild Fisheries Bill, shortly to be debated in parliament, will consider further tightening of the circumstances in which SEPA (the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency) will grant the licenses needed to take wild broodstock for artificial rearing. Scotland's administrators are reliably behind the curve, as ever.

Hatcheries are deemed to produce fish which out-compete naturally bred wild fish in rivers, steal their habitat, and then, when it comes to survival at sea, under-perform, thus wasting opportunities for young wild salmon. Objections to hatchery-bred fish released above waterfalls which wild fish cannot reach, thus occupying unused habitat, include the dubious argument that these stockies then compromise wild brown trout survival. Hatcheries are as out of vogue as soda with whisky.

So, the River Carron Restoration Project, as it is named, is being keenly watched.

As becomes a former lecturer, Bob Kindness is a good communicator. He is also an excellent aquaculturist. His Carron stocking programme started in 1995. He cracked out 1.5 million over a year, some 400,000 of which returned into the Carron. On a lesser scale he also reared sea trout. Before going on, we need to consider this. A salmon has some 800 eggs per pound of bodyweight. These eggs are squeezed, a technique he describes as, ‘like using a paint roller', from the belly of the gravid female salmon. To do so, the salmon is held under an arm, upside down. For one usually unassisted person to strip so many eggs is an amazing physical feat. Kindness usually strips eggs in two sessions in November, checking daily for female readiness, and then repeating operations a fortnight later.

Male sperm, or ‘milt', from cock salmon is then squeezed over the eggs to fertilise them. The whole operation involves lifting buckets and heavy slippery fish, and handling an array of utensils; all during the month of November, in bad light and low temperatures. Bob Kindness has accomplished an amazing amount at the physical level alone.

Recently, he has stocked out around 170,000 fingerlings, or fry (10–12 months old) every year. Unlike in many other hatchery operations, the fish are released in the autumn, not in the spring. Bigger, stronger, and protected from predation, they should survive river-life better.

Bob Kindness has strong opinions about salmon survival in rivers; he drills down on smolt survival and believes that, on many rivers, fewer smolts exit into the saltwater in May than managers suppose. He cites sawbills which position themselves at fast-water riffle outflows and scoop up smolts as they come barrelling down. As research has shown, a merganser or goosander's appetite for smolts is almost limitless.

bob_kindness_fingerlingsNot only are smolts engorged, the escaped ones are scale-damaged. Emphasising that a young fish's scales are part of its body, he stresses that scale damage is a flesh wound, fatally hurting a young salmon's osmoregulation. In his screw trap he once counted a third of the smolts with scale damage. That is a huge chunk out of a potential migration.

Otters are a deadly salmon enemy. Some adult salmon have on occasion missed the Carron, for various reasons, and ascended neighbouring smaller rivers like the Attadale, where Bob has his hatchery ponds. Here they have become marooned in pools with dwindling water. Otters polish off the lot.

One of Bob's research tools is a screw trap for counting smolts. A screw trap is a large drum which rotates with downstream water, the smolts being collected in a box at the stern. Fin-clipped hatchery fingerlings distinguish former hatchery occupants from wild fish. The hatchery stock account for about one in six, a high survival rate. A keener study should log the hatchery's 20-year cumulative effect. Smolts that have their genetic origin in fish stripped long ago will be much higher.

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Proof of hatchery success will be in genetic testing. Today, all fish are DNA-logged before being stripped and used for breeding. This means considerably more work and effort. In order to identify both father and mother of any young fish, the parents can only be used once.

In action for three years, the genetic testing needs three more before tentative conclusions can be reached. Steadily, DNA profiling of broodstock will firm up the picture. The end-of-the-rainbow question for hatchery managers – to what extent am I benefiting the wild migration? – inches towards resolution.

Bob Kindness takes a statistician's view of contemporary circumstances. Now, fewer salmon return from their wintering grounds. In the old days of good sea survival, he says 16,000 smolts would have adequately refreshed the modest-sized River Carron. Today, with a quarter or a fifth of the estimated sea survival rates, he concludes four to five times as many smolts are needed.

Because when he started his programme, wild Carron fish were so scarce, Bob kept the broodstock he captured. They are stripped year after year and reconditioned, all in freshwater. Unlike the captive sea trout which go brown and stay brown, the salmon annually silver-up.

Anglers assist stocking too. Rod-caught salmon are stored in a keepnet on the river's edge. Bob checks each one for fin-clips or pan-jet marks (another of his identifying markers) before returning them to the water. Some are used for breeding. Angler co-operation is retained by easily-affordable fishing permits.

The Carron restoration is low-tech. There are no buildings and there is no power supply. Bob Kindness' ponds are out of doors, fenced against otters etc., and top-netted to keep out herons or sea eagles. His ponds are dug from the ground and lined. Water is gravity-fed from a reliable nearby spring. 

bob_kindness_feedingProblems do attend such a hands-on style. In the icy winters of 2010, the manager had to do the work of heaters, de-icing the water supply every two and a half hours. That means all night, and all day. This lasted a month. Not many applicants would answer a job description that specified such a level of sleep deprivation. Bob says that he never used an alarm clock, and I believe him. He lives and breathes his hatchery production in an extraordinarily dedicated way.

The River Carron Restoration Project has a list of funders. One is a proprietor of the river, but four are salmon farms or salmon feed companies. Herein lies the fly in the ointment.

The project has its critics – not because it is anti-conventional evidence that hatcheries can hugely aid migratory fish runs, but because the salmon farm industry claims it proves that salmon farming and angling can co-exist. Damage to sea trout and salmon smolts from clouds of parasitic sea-lice can be overcome, given the money and commitment and skills. Why don't other rivers copy it, instead of complaining?

Critics dismiss the method as ‘ranching'. Salmon fingerlings are stocked out, they fatten at sea, and are recaught. Only by flooding the habitat with salmon in huge numbers can the devastation wrought by blood-sucking lice be combated. If stocking ceased, the river would die.

Bob Kindness cites fallowing by salmon farms in the sea-loch as the reason his smolts survive better to return. Although the Kishorn and Carron salmon farms have better sea-lice control than some neighbours, in 2013 none of the three farms were fallowed at all. But there are only three sea-farms, compared, for example, to 17 crowding the outflow of the River Lochy.

Another issue is that the project's early ‘native' stock may not be entirely native at all. Years ago in the loch at the top of the system, Sgamhain, there was a freshwater smolt production unit. If it was like other smolt farms, little fish will have escaped and gone wild. They were probably Norwegian in origin. Pure Carron genetics may have been compromised long ago.

bob_kindness_salmonOthers will chew it over and say, “better some fish to catch than none at all”. A river denuded of its anglers by collapsing runs now has life and visitors restored to it. B&Bs will benefit; why complain?

What twists the knife is to see the inevitable ducking of what should be accepted knowledge. In the 400-page February 2015 report on the Carron project, there is no mention of the role of salmon farms in the collapse of migrations 15 years ago. Sea-lice are not even referred to. Bob points to a series of consecutive years of mega-spates as being the probable trigger for stock collapse going back. Debris tore up the habitat. But salmon from rivers prone to huge spates bury their eggs deeper, a brilliant natural adaptation to a spate-prone location. Some people are sceptical about new phases of extra-violent weather cycles.

Did the old Carron really die from natural causes, or was its demise hastened by a sea-loch in filthy condition, infested with voracious parasites? Most of us by now will have a view on that.

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