To our early ancestors, the Atlantic salmon must have seemed like divine bounty, reaped without sowing, returning year on year from an unknown place in the ocean in spite of the nets and spears and gaffs. And indeed time has proven its resilience, with salmon surviving the stench of the industrial revolution and the chemicals of the twentieth century in all but the most polluted of rivers. Yet despite a general improvement in the water quality of our rivers over the last fifty years, humanity’s efficiency to harvest has outstripped its intelligence to conserve, and salmon numbers have finally tumbled.
In an effort to mitigate the situation, many governments, such as those of Nova Scotia and Northern Ireland, have removed the fate of salmon from anglers and estates, imposing legal limits on the number which may be killed, and on occasion closing rivers completely until stocks are deemed to be at a sustainable level. Scotland, in comparison, has lagged. Although there was some sort of unimaginative bill passed by a forgettable Labour administration in a year that isn’t even worth looking up, the current Wild Fisheries Review is the first genuine, meaningful, state reform of the way fishing has been ran since the it took off as a sport. At its heart, mercifully, is the conservation of the Atlantic salmon.
Yet despite an outright ban on killing Atlantic salmon looking a certainty, the Wild Fisheries Review this week backtracked, after the consultation period saw numerous objections. Although opposition came from anglers of all incomes and backgrounds, its rejection hints somewhat at surrender to threats from sections of wealthy visiting anglers and the estates they patronise who have, from the outset of the review, wallowed in puerile and baseless scaremongering to avoid any change. That those sporting a mindset of Victorian vintage would no longer grace our rivers to fish should killing be curtailed was perhaps seen as a bad thing for business, and so the salmon must be sacrificed.
In the stead of an outright ban comes analysis of rivers’ catch returns – annual reports declaring the number of fish caught which all anglers are legally obliged to submit – over a five year period, which will in turn establish whether the number of returning fish is sufficient for some to be harvested. Despite this dulling of the initial proposals, there is no doubt whatsoever that this is a huge step forward in comparison to how the Atlantic salmon has been previously treated by anglers, with now a mere handful of systems on the west coast permitted to kill salmon.
It is, however, problematic in its methodology: more fish caught increases the value of the fishing and brings a subsequent upturn in rent for the tenant association or day angler. It comes as no surprise that on occasion certain estates are rumoured to massage catch returns upwards to maintain their laughably expensive prices and, far more frequently and to a greater extent, downwards by angling associations keen to avoid a rise in rent. Thus it is not with a cold and unflinching scientific eye on parr and fry levels with which the new era of Scottish fisheries management arrives, but amid a haphazard, conjectural numbers game based on the word of fishermen, a section of the population which has coined more clichés concerning untruths than politicians themselves. Indeed, should some anglers in Ayrshire be believed, then not only is the future of the Atlantic salmon secure in the county, but also that of the giant trevally and reef shark.
A look at the map showing the status of the nation’s rivers and whether or not fish may be killed on them highlights the financial divide: the rivers Tay, Tweed, North Esk, Doon, Helmsdale, and those of west Harris, which all command healthy fees to fish, are allowed to continue their existing practice, having been deemed to have achieved the conservation limit – or in other words that they have a sufficient number of fish returning to the river. Although these river systems are to be commended for actually filing catch returns and implementing policies – such as catch and release and various environmental improvements – which have maintained salmon runs, those who can afford to fish them regularly at peak season were never in any danger of losing out should the price increase, unlike those at the lower end of angling’s financial scale. Thus for the wealthy guests of many rivers, a visit to Theme Park Highlands retains its authentic nineteenth century charm: the Scotch and their mountains, a tip for Jock the ghillie who did ever-so-well, and retirement to the lodge to wash down a freshly killed trophy under a spate of sycophancy and the disconcerting gaze of a dead stag.
Not so, however, the association angler, who has cannily lied on his catch returns to prevent his club’s eviction at the expense of the Knightsbridge elite. Stretches on Crown Estate waters are a classic example, where over and above the annual rental of the salmon rights comes an additional fee of fifty pounds per salmon caught, whether killed or returned, should it be reported. Loyalty to the Crown on association water is, unsurprisingly, somewhat lacking, something of which the Wild Fisheries Review is patently aware. This is not only a huge weakness to the current proposals with regards to accurately recording what exists in our rivers, but something which could become a striking definition of class within the sport. For many working class anglers, to catch, kill, and eat a salmon again means a period of honesty and the prospect of losing their river entirely, or turning to the poacher’s pocket of the Sunday salmon fisherman. Of course, this could all have been circumnavigated had the Land Reform Review Group recommended a security of tenure for tenant angling associations and a cap on pricing, but then as its critics hint, the next ice age is more likely to change the pattern of land ownership in Scotland than the SNP.
Despite its faults, the fact remains that the Government is on the cusp of introducing some radical legislation to protect the Atlantic salmon. Claim and counterclaim of humanity’s vested interests aside, the only consideration in all of this – not association anglers still intent on killing every fish they touch or estates’ profiteering – must be the conservation of the fish itself. The Atlantic salmon is an iconic species, with a place in the folklore of the nation perhaps more prominent than any other animal – even its patron saint is a Glaswegian – yet up until now, despite decline across the whole of the North Atlantic since the beginning of 1970s, it has been offered scant legal protection outwith outdated laws on tackle and a harassment-free Sabbath.
It would be foolhardy to suggest that by implementing an outright ban on killing rod-caught salmon alone, the Wild Fisheries Review would have secured the future of the fish. The continued ecological barbarism of salmon farming – which has all but wiped out runs in many West Highland rivers – netting of estuaries, pelagic trawlers destroying their food source in the North Atlantic, and the comparatively insignificant impact of anglers on rivers which have escaped an outright ban have two common threads: money, and the rank immorality of humanity towards a natural world it so naively believes to have mastered. While the conclusions of the Wild Fisheries Review thus far cannot be seen as anything but positive, the salmon’s true salvation lies outwith its remit.