A Question of Our Sport

Salmon running at Hutton

The Scottish Government has been prevailed upon to take action to conserve declining stocks of salmon resulting in the introduction of regulations requiring that all salmon are returned unharmed up to and including the 31st of March 2015 for the next 5 years. Many fisheries have decided to extend this catch and release policy to the end of May and in some cases the end of June. Consultation is ongoing and we await further legislative action.

Why has it become a necessity to have government intervention in angling? A look at Marine Scotland Science (MSS) statistics might explain this particular need but it will also throw up some controversy.

MSS have been recording statistics on rod, net and fixed engine catches since 1952. They found that until the early 1990s all spingers got knocked on the head. In 1994 just 1% were returned while in 2012 91% were released unharmed, never the less the numbers of spring fish has, for decades, been in decline. MSS also note that in 1994 only 8% of all fish caught were returned, in 2012 74% of fish caught were released. It looks like anglers have recognised the need for a cultural change, acquiring a respect for our salmon as an asset to be conserved.

This cultural shift begs the question; do we need the heavy hand of government, with all of it's undoubted hidden agendas, sticking their oar in our affairs?

Let’s look at the statistics.

Marine Scotland Ros Fishery Survey

MSS state that the total rod catch in 2012 is similar to the 5 year average with 2012 being in the higher range of rod catches since 1952. 22,682 salmon were retained and 63,331 fish returned in 2012.

Looking at catch statistics between 1952 to 2010 it can be guestimated that there is a regular 40% fluctuation with catch return peaks and troughs running on an approximate 10 year cycle. Extrapolating from 2010 it is probable that we are experiencing part of a regular, all be it a large, natural dip.

MSS observe that since 1952 the number of fish entering our rivers has increased significantly as a consequence of the decline in netting which is now only 5% of what is was in it's heyday (in 2012 16,230 fish fell to nets and fixed engines down from about 300,000 in the 1950s) The biggest observed issue relates to marine survival with the number of fish arriving at our shores in decline. While the number of fish our rivers is as good as ever (possibly better) this is due to the compensating effect of massively reduced netting and the prevalence of catch and release.

So what happened in 2014? The numbers indicate quite clearly that we are in a trough. In 2014 the numbers were well down on 2012.

Salmon Returned 37139
Salmon Retained 8039
Total   45175
Salmon Returned 63331
Salmon Retained 22682
Total 86013

The difference between 2012 and 2014 is a staggering 40838 however in their Executive Summary MSS note that the number of fish being caught is also linked to the fishing conditions. As we know low water, certain weather conditions, temperature and barometer readings dictate when fish will run and when fish are inclined to take. Add to this that these conditions also dictate whether anglers are willing to venture forth. Fishing effort (or lack of it) is an issue in reported success or failure. Conditions in 2014 were far from optimum, fish did not run, anglers did not go fishing.

Clearly what we are doing already to conserve stocks is right and proper. It is also clear that the loss of stock is a marine issue that can only be affected by government, a thorny issue which is certainly more expensive to manage than simply regulating anglers.

So can we draw any conclusions can from the above? I expect it would be unwise to draw any conclusions from such a short essay? It does seem that:

  • The number of fish being caught is up
  • Marine survival is down
  • The number of fish being netted is massively down
  • The number of fish arriving at our shores is down
  • Reduced netting effort and catch and release has compensated for reduced marine survival, maintaining runs
  • The number of fish entering our rivers is up
  • Anglers have been showing appropriate restraint.
  • There is a cyclical pattern in catch returns resulting in periods of high and low catch returns
  • Fishing conditions are a contributing factor in angling success
  • Fishing effort is a contributing factor in angling success

Questions arising from the above remain unanswered. It is also certain that the ongoing debate will throw up more questions than answers further fudging the issues.

I believe the answers lie collectively with us anglers. The legislative involvement of government scares the heck out of me. Legislating on angling issues is certainly easier then dealing with the thorny international minefield of marine survival which I would hazard is the key issue.

I suspect that many anglers look at the past through rose tinted polariods believing things ain't what they used to be. The truth is they ain’t, they are in fact better in terms of the number fish being caught.

Blinded by those rose tinted glasses we may be complicit in a journey that could lead to the demise of our sport as we know it if we support the legislation of angling rather than dealing with human and other predation of fish at sea.

We do need to keep a weather eye open not just for the future of our wild salmon and trout but for the continuation of a sport that has a lineage second to none. I need to be assured that legislators will work for the preservation of angling and their actions will not be the thin end of the wedge to mollify anti blood sport / conservationist lobbying.

This interpretation is solely the opinion of the author taken from statistics made availble for public use by Marine Scotland Science;

Catch and Effort Reported by Scottish Salmon Fisheries in 2014 (MSS)