Scottish salmon netting
The netting of salmon and grilse is a contentious topic throughout the North Atlantic, and no more so than the coastal waters around Scotland. Patrick Tillard heads to Montrose to meet the directors of Usan Salmon Fisheries.
The number of fish returning to Scotland has collapsed over the past four decades – sea mortality the primary cause. In conjunction with this decline, the netting industry has contracted substantially, due to buyouts and the availability of cheaper farmed fish.
But of the remaining countries which still permit netting, Ireland has banned drift nets and severely restricted fixed nets, England has declared the eventual closure of the North East netting and Norway is under increasing pressure from Russia to reduce further their netting. Only Scotland bucks the trend of conservation, with the increasing exploitation of a diminishing stock.
There's no question that images of pristine fish stacked in bloodied crates tug at anglers' tempers and that proprietors find their practices hard to stomach, but salmon are not exclusive to fishermen and rivers – the netsmen also have heritable rights. And much like we implore the public not to fuel their knowledge of rural pursuits purely through the gospel of the RSPCA, we too must acknowledge that there are two sides to every story...
Usan Salmon Fisheries
I met brothers and directors George and David Pullar in Usan, a quiet fishing village nestled on the exposed eastern coast a little over an hour from Perth. They were friendly and welcoming.
The Pullar family business was established in the 1960s. They currently operate three salmon netting stations – Montrose, Banffshire and Dunnet Bay in Caithness – totalling some 22 miles of Scottish coastline and accounting for approximately 10,000 salmon and grilse a year – 95 per cent of which are pre-sold (recently registered as an EU Protected Food Name). The most proficient, Usan Salmon Fisheries at Montrose, has been run by the family since 1983.
The netting season is February 16 – August 31 (128 days), excluding weekends, but after a payment of £17,000 from the Esk District Fishery Board to conserve springers, for the past three years the Pullars agreed not to set their nets until May 1 (87-day season). They also received £12,000 to release all sea trout.
How it works
As a fixed net (fixed engine) fishery, Usan catch salmon on the coast outside of estuary limits. A 100-metre floating leader is attached to the shore and as fish follow the coast, they sense the leader and are led back out to sea, where they are channelled into an anchored arrow-shaped enclosure. Nets are then emptied twice a day during the season. The laborious concept is largely unchanged from the 1800s, although advancements in net material, making them considerably lighter, as well as machinery – boats, telehandlers etc. – have hugely improved their efficiency and maximised time in the water.
The overriding concern is the environmental impact and long-term damage that the indiscriminate practices of mixed stock fisheries (MSFs) have on wild salmon numbers. MSFs take fish from two or more river systems, complicating management of individual stocks and throwing up major questions of fairness, especially on smaller spate rivers that sustain fragile populations.
Research conducted by Marine Scotland, in which 153 fish were tagged between February and May, determined that salmon caught in the Usan nets are destined for rivers including: the North and South Esks, Tay, Dee, Don and potentially the Lunan and Bervie.
I put this concern to George and David. “From our perspective, taking fish from a number of rivers is far more sustainable as we aren't removing too many from a single stock. If salmon in this area were in the dire situation people say they are, we'd be out of business.
“Salmon belong to no-one until captured,” says George. “Like us, anglers can take as many as they want. While there are enough fish to spawn for the next generation to return, it's a resource that should be used. It's not in our interest to kill off salmon. We rely on them from a commercial aspect as much as the anglers do for sport.”
Hughie Campbell Adamson, chairman of the Salmon & Trout Association, acknowledges that both anglers and netsmen have legal rights to exploit the resource of Scottish salmon. “Where there is a harvestable surplus, then it is only logical that both should benefit and benefit equally,” he says. “Where the argument of equality of rights falls down is when one side exploits more than is equitable or prudent, where the burden of managing and nurturing that resource is not fairly borne and where good management is jeopardised by exploitation. There is no realisation of the damage being done.”
In 2011, anglers caught 89,001 salmon and grilse throughout Scotland, and killed 24,332 (Marine Scotland). Usan's nets at Montrose caught 6,500.
Locally, the South Esk is most affected says, Hughie: “Although accounting for less of the total haul, due to a smaller stock of fish, a higher percentage of the run is intercepted. Therefore the impact of the netsmen is hugely disproportional.”
Do George and David think their practices are damaging the South Esk? “If we're catching fish in the sea and the North Esk fish counter is showing it has decent runs, surely there must be another issue. If someone showed me hard evidence that there are no fish in the South Esk I'd believe it, but it is holding plenty of juvenile fish.
“As an ebb tide fishery,” David continues, “we aren't taking salmon every hour of every day, we catch fish between high and low water. Some days we'll have 100, some days none. And what about the damage from seals and dolphins?”
Simply put, their view on the need for conservation in the area is that there isn't one. They claim that while they can make a living, there are plenty of salmon to run the rivers as well. They argue that due to the increased level of negative press, less anglers are visiting the South Esk and therefore rod catches can no longer be used as a reliable reflection of numbers. Others argue that while the nets are on, there are indisputably less fish entering the river.
Regardless of whether or not the netsmen have a distorted view on conservation, they have a legislated season, and as a business, why would they set themselves a quota which, barring a total closure, seems to be the only way to prevent over-exploitation of the local area?
Many sense an air of favouritism. Statistics for 2011 revealing that catch and release in Scotland continued to rise was met with praise from politicians – Richard Lochhead MSP and Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse welcomed anglers' vigilance in sustaining vulnerable freshwater stocks. Yet the government granted Usan over £100,000 to improve its facilities and a licence to extend the netting season, the latter only reversed after the local board sought a judicial review.
For the brothers, however, this is a display of equality and they resent the alternative view. “The government is just looking at things impartially. People are getting wound up because the government hasn't done what they wanted: close us down.”
However, the government has a global role to play in the netting debate, says Hughie: “Having lead internationally in salmon research, Scotland is now becoming the pariah due to its utter failure to listen to advice and abide by agreements. The North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation (NASCO), to which Scotland is a signatory, is clear in its advice: MSFs should be banned unless it can be proved that none of the exploited stock is vulnerable. No wonder the Faroese and Greenlanders are questioning why they have bowed to international pressure to suspend and curtail their own salmon fishing industries with such an obvious example of hypocrisy.”
The Pullar's response to the latter is that the Faroese and Greenlanders have the rights to net as well; it is their prerogative to take salmon from their own waters.
Both the riparian owners and Usan Montrose are represented within the Esk District Fishery Board, to which they pay a fixed levy. Since 2010, Usan have paid £5,339 annually, based on a rateable value on 50p/lb of salmon caught on the 2003-2008 five-year average. South Esk proprietors have paid £90,643, based on a value of £90/fish caught over the same period.
With these rates established, regardless of catches, the South Esk proprietors pay in excess of £85,000 a year more than the nets, even in 2011, for example (good for nets, bad for rivers), when Usan bagged 6,500 salmon and the South Esk anglers caught 672. Instantly, this seems indefensible – Usan pay a tiny percentage for the lion's share of fish. But this figure is calculated by a regional assessor every five years (the next assessment has been delayed to 2017). This is all that is currently required of them. Commercially-orientated, why would they pay a penny more? At present, the more they catch, the more they earn.
Up-river, a huge amount of work is going into improving spawning success. “Rivers have to be maintained, the salmon runs protected and the habitat nurtured,” says Hughie. “Sadly, the balance between netting rates and angling rates has become so skewed as to be ludicrous.”
And the Pullar's response to these figures? “Why should we pay anything to people who are trying to put us out of business? If we had to pay the same rates as the anglers, we'd be straight out of work. We have other economic factors to take into consideration – overheads, wages, building rates etc.”
Weekly close time
The law stipulates that Usan have to lift their leaders by 6pm on Friday until 6am on Monday. However, evidence has shown that for three out of four weekends during the season, not all the leaders have been removed.
“Look at where we work,” says David pointing out of the kitchen window towards the white horses. “With adverse weather and rough seas we are constantly walking a tightrope to comply with fishing legislation or 21st century health and safety. And we always comply with health and safety first.”
A furtive way to get two extra days' fishing or genuine safety concerns? Ultimately, it is the ruling of the procurator fiscal.
Each time the word appears in conversation it is swatted aside like a wasp at a picnic. “They want what we have and we aren't selling it to them,” says George defiantly.
Is there more to it? “People don't get it. It's not just our way of making a living, but our lifestyle. We have the fourth generation of our family in the business now – we are part of a long established Scottish tradition.”
Usan wish to break away from the Esk District Fishery Board in the hope of being managed by the Scottish Government Inshore Fisheries Team. “Comparing the nets and the river fisheries is like comparing apples and oranges,” says David. “We are a food fishery, like haddock and cod fishermen.”
At present, they are pursuing an alteration to their season. “We don't mind whether we're taking autumn, spring or summer fish – we have markets to fulfil. We want 128 days at sea within a set time-frame, and an abolition of the weekly close time. This way we can plan around the weather and strong fish runs rather than the calendar.”
“Without some flexibility,” George interjects, “we're going back to fishing in February to exercise our rights.”
The Salmon & Trout Association is urging the government to abide by its obligations under NASCO; the timed phase-out of all MSFs. “No-one should blame a netsman for taking what he can,” says Hughie, “but surely a government has an obligation to act when that self interest is destructive and unfair. It has to be a legal and political campaign now, because to some the preservation of salmon means absolutely nothing.”
The association continues to raise funds to push the campaign against MSFs and conserve the future of wild salmon stocks.
After lengthy talks with both sides, and perhaps only scratching the surface of this long on-going dispute, these are the issues which, to me, were most prominent. I can see why the Esk District Fishery Board want to restrict the nets and, conversely, why the netsmen don't want to sell. Yes, there are major discrepancies within their practices – weekend netting, conservation issues – but they do not make the rules for which they are vehemently condemned – numbers caught, season dates, levy rate.
In-river management is clearly the only way to sustain future salmon stocks, but while the netsmen rightly or wrongly believe that there is no need for conservation, and the government continues to disregard NASCO, this is immaterial. There's a hint of North Sea cod déjà vu.
On the one hand, I acknowledge the commercial fishery aspect and the Pullar's refusal to be bought out of their livelihood. But on the other, putting the long-term preservation of wild salmon first, I find empathy hard to muster, especially in the waders of Esk fishermen, knowing that for every fish they release, many never reach the estuary.