Following official figures showing the worst estimates of salmon stocks on record, a coalition of concerned angling, fisheries and conservation groups has written to Government Fisheries Minister George Eustice and to his counterpart Edwina Hart in the Welsh Assembly Government, to demand urgent implementation of a five point action plan to halt the sharp decline in salmon stocks in England and Wales.
The Salmon & Trout Association, Angling Cymru, Afonydd Cymru, Atlantic Salmon Trust, Fish Legal, The Rivers Trust, and The Angling Trust have urged the Government to take the five remedial actions that are urgently needed to restore stocks of this iconic species to English and Welsh rivers and protect them for future generations.
The Centre for Environment, Fisheries & Aquaculture Science (Cefas) Annual Assessment of Salmon Stocks and Fisheries in England and Wales in 2013 estimates that only 19 of the principal 64 salmon rivers in England and Wales reached their conservation targets; compared to 42 in 2011. This is the equal lowest number since conservation targets were introduced in 1993. Overall, the number of salmon estimated to be returning to England and Wales in the last two years was amongst the lowest on record.
The report does not expect a significant improvement in stock levels. Since the 1970s there has been a 40% decline in the number of salmon returning to our rivers each year, despite the much-publicised return of salmon to previously polluted rivers such as the Tyne and Mersey.
Paul Knight, Chief Executive of the Salmon & Trout Association, said: “Many of the actions that we are advocating will not only benefit salmon. Reducing abstraction and agricultural pollution and restoring river habitats will all benefit the wider aquatic ecosystem, in which salmon play a key role, as well as a wide range of other species. They will also benefit the economy in a number or rural areas, bearing in mind the often substantial economic value of salmon fisheries.”
Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of the Angling Trust & Fish Legal said: “These figures, coupled with reports from our members, are very worrying for the future of salmon and the angling sector which supports thousands of jobs. As the report makes clear, the decline in stocks is probably mostly due to reduced sea survival, but in that context the government must do everything possible around our coasts and in our rivers to minimise threats to salmon. The Environment Agency must work closely with organisations such as the Marine Management Organisation and the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities on an integrated approach to protect and restore migratory fish stocks.”
Ivor Llewelyn, Atlantic Salmon Trust’s Director (England & Wales), said: “Environmental factors are a key reason why salmon stocks are not recovering on many of our rivers, and action to address these, within the wider framework of policies to conserve the environment, is essential. In addition, on rivers with declining stocks we need to ensure that as many salmon as possible survive to spawn by reducing the numbers of fish killed, both legally and illegally.”
Arlin Rickard, Chief Executive Officer of The Rivers Trust, said: “While we are calling for more money to be spent on salmon conservation in general, however many of the key measures necessary are not in themselves costly. Delivery of habitat improvement schemes through greater use of third sector partnerships and better co-operation between the Environment Agency own departments will enable existing funding to be used more effectively. We also urgently need a joined up package of measures, including advice and grants, to help farmers improve farm practices to address the widespread problem of agricultural pollution.”
The Coalition is calling for five key areas where the Government needs to take action as a matter of urgency:
1. Fish Passage: The Government needs to speed up action to remove or bypass barriers, and to introduce the long delayed Fish Passage Regulations as soon as possible.
Obstacles to the upstream and downstream migration of salmon remain a significant threat. While progress has been made in recent years via programmes introduced under the auspices of the Water Framework Directive, a great deal remains to be done. Barriers to the downstream migration of smolts pose a particular, and often under-rated, threat.
2. Abstraction: The Government and the water industry need to take the action necessary to maintain adequate flows in all rivers with stocks of migratory salmonids.
River flows are crucial to salmon migration, both to and from the sea. Without adequate flows, recent research indicates that mortalities of smolts and adults may be very high. Natural variations in flows have been exacerbated by climate change, but abstraction can add significantly to the problem.
3. Agricultural Pollution: Measures are needed to ensure that all farmers follow best practice, through raising awareness and targeted use of incentives. These must be supplemented by stronger regulatory action against those who fail to comply.
Pollution caused by agricultural activities has long been recognised as a problem for many salmon rivers. One key issue is the drainage from farmland during increasingly frequent incidents of high rainfall. Flood peaks are higher and colossal quantities of silt are being washed into rivers which can clog the river bed, preventing spawning or, where this has taken place, killing salmon eggs.
4. Physical habitat: Funding for river restoration work should be increased, and allocated directly to third sector delivery bodies such as rivers trusts.
More needs to be done to restore degraded rivers. A good deal is being done under the Water Framework Directive, but in salmon rivers actions need to be more focused on salmon, given the decline in stocks. This is, of course, not something that we expect the Government to achieve on its own; land and fisheries owners, NGOs and anglers all have a part to play. Third-sector delivery bodies such as rivers trusts are not only more cost-effective than Government agencies, but are also able a to lever further extra resources from European funds, charitable trusts, the public, anglers, fisheries owners etc…
5. Exploitation: A limit on the maximum number of fish that can be taken in the North-East coast net fisheries each year, should now be introduced. Major steps have been taken in recent years to reduce exploitation i.e. the numbers of salmon killed in rod and net fisheries and illegally, but more needs to be done.
The net catch of salmon in 2013 was more than double that in 2012, and 24% above the average for the previous five years. The vast majority of these were taken in the North-East coast fisheries. This was in a year when overall salmon numbers, and rod catches, fell, and it is clear that net fisheries took a much greater proportion of a reduced stock.
Continuing high net catches pose two particular risks:
1. in poor years there is an increased possibility that mixed stock fisheries will take a disproportionate number of fish from a vulnerable stock;
2. they make it more difficult to convince those in Greenland and the Faroes, and increasingly in Ireland, that restrictions on fishing for salmon in their waters should be retained. Not unreasonably, they ask why they should curb distant water mixed stock fisheries when we are permitting large numbers of salmon to be taken in ones in home waters.
On vulnerable rivers the Environment Agency should consider making catch and release compulsory, as has been done on the Wye, and introducing constraints on fishing techniques that reduce a salmon’s chances of survival when released.
While we welcome and have encouraged the record level of catch and release achieved in 2013, this may not be enough on some rivers.
The Environment Agency must retain adequate numbers of fisheries enforcement staff, and the Agency and IFCAs be encouraged to work together to improve the protection of salmon and sea trout in estuaries and coastal waters.
Illegal fishing continues to pose a threat to salmon and sea trout. It is therefore very regrettable that the Environment Agency is apparently planning to make drastic cuts in its enforcement staff. There are also problems in estuaries and coastal waters, where changes introduced by the Marine and Coastal Access Act have led to confusion about the respective responsibilities of the Environment Agency and IFCAs.