Fly fishing rod

Anglers lament plunge in Scottish wild salmon catch – Reuters

CHARLESTOWN OF ABERLOUR: In the glistening rapids of the River Spey that runs through the Scottish Highlands, Ian Gordon casts his line with a languid whistle and waits for a salmon to catch the fly.

In the early 1970s when Gordon first fished the Spey as a “little claw”, it never took long to catch a bite. But things have changed.

“I would say it’s now 20%, tops, of what it was in the mid-’80s,” Gordon said. AFP on a stretch of river near the town of Aberlour, where he runs a tourist fishing business.

Before numbers started to drop in the 1980s and 1990s, hundreds of thousands of young Atlantic salmon or smolts migrated out to sea from Scottish rivers.

A quarter would return to their native river to spawn. Today, only about 4% return, according to the Spey Fishery Board.

In Scotland, where anglers follow a ‘catch and release’ conservation code, the catch of 35,693 rods in 2021 was the lowest number since records began.

The Scottish Government, in a report published in June, said the figures were “in line with a general pattern of decline in the number of wild salmon returning to Scotland”.

Conservationists and fishermen say multiple factors are behind the decline, including overfishing of herring and the effect of global warming on the life cycle of salmon.

“Herring used to be plentiful on the coast of the UK,” says Gordon.

“It was a species that all species relied on in the UK. Since the herring was caught, the salmon, which come into the ocean as little things, become prey themselves.

“It is this cycle that is disrupted when a species is removed from the ecosystem.

“It is of course affected by the climate, there is no doubt about that.”

Shafts and weirs

Further north, outside the town of Bonar Bridge, Andrew Graham-Stewart stands on a bridge monitoring a stream.

“We have a real problem at sea,” says Graham-Stewart, who is the director of the charity Wildfish Scotland and has fished the local waters since he was a child.

“Climate change is obviously the biggest driver, and there’s not much we can do about it.

“But when the fish go out to sea, they clearly don’t find all the food they need.”

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One factor is the loss of trees around the headwaters of Scottish rivers.

Scotland has lost “probably around 95%” of its tree cover over the past few centuries due to agriculture, industry and wars, Graham-Stewart said.

The trees, in addition to providing shade for marine life, slow the release of water from the hills, which provides more consistent flows throughout the year.

“With tree cover and reasonable flows, the water stays relatively cool and salmon need cool conditions to survive and thrive,” the charity’s director said.

The Dee District Salmon Fishery Board and River Dee Trust have planted over 200,000 native trees along the river banks since 2013.

The goal is to plant one million trees by 2035 to restore water retention and protect salmon and other river species.

On the Carron River in 2019, local groups removed a concrete weir built over half a century ago to improve water flow and allow salmon a smooth journey.

farm lice

For Graham-Stewart, salmon farming in the West Highlands and Isles of Scotland played a “massive” role in the drop in numbers, by spreading sea lice to wild salmon.

Millions of fish in a concentrated area act as a breeding ground for parasites, he says.

When sea lice enter the fish farm, they multiply exponentially and are transmitted to visiting juvenile wild salmon.

Once this happens, the salmon are eaten alive by the lice.

“The damage they (fish farms) cause to wild fish and the environment in general is enormous,” he said, calling for stricter regulation of salmon farms.

The fish farms categorically deny the claims, saying protecting the environment and fish health is fundamental to their business.

At the River Spey, Gordon comes out of the water without having caught any fish.

He pulls out his waterproof waders and secures his cane to the roof of his car.

According to him, the salmon is a valuable indicator of the health of humanity as a species.

“It gives us an indication of whether the sea is in good condition or not,” he says.

“Right now they’re saying, wait a minute, guys, something’s wrong.”