A veritable crisis
Andrew Graham-Stewart reflects on a disastrous year for salmon and grilse.
The 2014 season has been an annus horribilis on Scotland's salmon rivers. If the poor season in 2013 was a 'reality check', then this year amounts to a veritable crisis. Overall, the catches (and, as far as one can tell, the runs) have been the worst on record.
There is little doubt that the season's rod catch for the country as a whole is less than 50,000; this compares with 67,500 in 2013 and a five-year average of 84,500.
In summary, angling conditions were ideal in the spring, following the mild winter, but fish were simply not there in any numbers. Mid-summer was dry and hot, but by August (very wet and cool) water levels were perfect for fish that should have been waiting on the coast to run. However, there was no great influx and it soon became clear that, for the fourth successive year, the grilse run was (by previous standards) a failure. Nor was it a matter of the grilse being late, as runs in September were almost nonexistent. In many locations, summer salmon (of which there has been at best a moderate run) have outnumbered grilse in catches.
All the Big Four rivers - Tweed, Tay, Dee and Spey - have experienced a similar and marked downturn. The situation has been mirrored on the medium and smaller rivers throughout Scotland, almost without exception.
Generally, catches are down by between 30 and 50 per cent - sobering indeed. The only positive aspect of the season is not actually salmon-related; sea trout have made quite a comeback in most regions, indicating that any problems at sea are beyond our coastal waters.
So, what is the cause of the slump in our salmon numbers?
Let us deal first with a couple of half-baked riverbank theories.?
'Our salmon are all being eaten by marine mammals, particularly seals.?'
Salmon are a very minor part of the seal's diet. In fact, the capture by rod of seal-damaged fish is now a much rarer occurrence than was the case 10 years ago. Furthermore, as detailed below, the decline in salmon is pretty well universal, even in those areas where seals are absent or ruthlessly controlled. It is also worth emphasising that no Scottish government is ever going to sanction a seal cull - advocating or demanding the latter is not going to win us any friends.
'Trawlers are netting all our salmon at sea.'
Every week or so I receive a phone call from an outraged angler about a large trawler landing vast quantities of wild salmon at X port. I always ask for the name of the boat. Strangely, this is never forthcoming! Indeed there is no hard evidence of such plundering of stocks.
Salmon markets are well-policed (as are the activities of boats at sea) and it is farcical to maintain that commercial high seas netting is anything but ill-informed tittle tattle.?
It is small comfort but this year's fall in salmon numbers (both grilse and multi sea-winter fish) is common to almost all Atlantic salmon producing countries, including the rest of the UK, Ireland, Norway, Iceland and Canada. The main exception is Russia; its salmon comprise fairly discrete populations.
While a few of the Kola fish migrate to feed off west Greenland, the great majority go north over the 80th parallel into the Arctic, far from the Atlantic Ocean.
There can be little doubt that our salmon are finding it difficult (perhaps increasingly so) to survive their migrations to and from the north Atlantic. Perhaps the traditional locations of prey species have moved because of factors relating to climate change, or perhaps other fish are exploiting the prey species on which salmon depend.
It may be no coincidence that mackerel numbers in the North-East Atlantic and off Greenland (areas where our salmon feed) are currently of biblical proportions; vessels have been hauling in catches of mackerel that are simply too large to handle - with large quantities being discarded.
Marine survival of salmon has of course plummeted in the last 40 years. In the 1960s and early 1970s, of every 100 Scottish salmon smolts migrating from our rivers to sea, between 25 and 30 would return as adults to our coastal waters. Now less than five per cent return; research in the River Bush in Northern Ireland (a very closely monitored river) indicates that now just three in 100 of its salmon return.
Whatever the problem is with feeding at sea, there is probably nothing we can do about it - except hope that the situation resolves or improves. And, depressingly, there are only limited grounds for optimism - at least in the short term. In the meantime, indiscriminate netting in our coastal waters needs to be reined in and pressure must be maintained to close-down or at least relocate the most poorly sited salmon farms in the West Highlands and Islands.
Read the 2014 grouse season?round-up?HERE