Scotland salmon industry needs our support


December 18 2017, 12:01am

Scotland’s [wild] salmon industry needs our support

Magnus Linklater

Thousands of jobs remain at risk as long as fishing is seen as a leisure activity for the wealthy

It must have been about 50 years ago that my father, a great salmon fisherman in his day, sat on the banks of the River Shin in Sutherland, talking to the head ghillie, a man of venerable appearance and many decades of experience. What, asked my father, was the explanation for one of nature’s abiding mysteries: how a salmon survives for almost a year in a freshwater river without feeding? It is a mystery because, although it is using energy the whole time as it swims upstream, occasionally hurling itself against waterfalls to reach its breeding ground, it does not, apparently, take in any food to support itself. It loses almost half its body weight, but even so, the fact that it survives at all is a miracle.

The answer, said the ghillie, is that it does feed but not in a conventional way. The story he told was controversial. Everyone knows, he said, that salmon not only breed in freshwater rivers, they die there too. Their carcasses lie in the water, decaying from inside, while the skin forms a hard “envelope”, from which the nutrients of the rotting body escape, washed downstream in the form of a rich and nourishing soup, which is absorbed by live salmon, young and old, allowing them to survive without feeding.

So intrigued was my father that he wrote a pamphlet about it, called The Secret Larder: How a salmon lives and why it dies. It was universally derided by the angling world. There was no evidence, said the experts, to back it, and the theory was dismissed as “anecdotal” — that is, unsupported by scientific evidence. Now it seems he may have been right after all. Last week scientists from the University of Glasgow published a paper showing that, by dying in the river, adult salmon “fertilised” the stream, creating an environment that favoured the growth of young fish. Researchers from the university’s institute of biodiversity (I doubt if such a thing existed in my father’s day) found that fewer young salmon survived in streams that lacked parent carcasses; their gene pool narrowed and the genetic diversity of the next generation was maintained less well than those rivers that were rich in dead and decaying bodies.

That bears out the view of the ghillie on the River Shin. He urged that the practice of clearing dead salmon from rivers, adopted by some river managers, must be stopped. Rather than cleaning up the river they were destroying it.

This is more than just some obscure nature study. It may be a small part of an even wider mystery, which is why Scottish salmon rivers have been in steady decline over the past decade. The number of fish caught in that period has fallen from 120,000 to 40,000, and since many of these were hooked more than once (most rivers now have a catch and release policy) the true number may be even lower.

This is despite sterling efforts by river boards to improve the banks and breeding beds of rivers, hatching and growing juvenile salmon, and doing everything possible to maintain a sporting industry that is worth more than £100 million to the Scottish economy, supports 3,000 jobs and is responsible for maintaining rural life in some of the country’s more remote areas.

There are almost certainly other challenges to the Atlantic salmon. Climate change, which is leading to warmer seas, may be driving them further north, and statistics suggest that more northerly rivers are doing better than those such as the Tay and the Tweed further south. Nevertheless, salmon instinctively return to their native rivers and anything that encourages them must surely be worth investigating.

None of this ranks high as a social issue in Scotland. Salmon fishing, like shooting or hunting, is seen as a leisure activity for the wealthy and, in any case, killing wild creatures for sport is not the most popular item on the Holyrood agenda. Contrast that with the outpouring of grief in Iceland when the death of that great salmon conservationist Orri Vigfússon was announced in July. Credited with doing more than any other human being to conserve populations of wild Atlantic salmon, his funeral was marked in Reykjavik with flags flying at half-mast and dignitaries including the prime minister packed the city’s cathedral.

Iceland understands instinctively the importance of conserving a species such as the salmon. Scotland, despite its long and honourable history of protecting its angling rivers (early records go back to the 12th century, with the present close season laid down by royal decree in 1406), now seems to regard it as a marginal activity, ignoring its importance, both in terms of nature conservation and rural employment. Instead the focus is on land reform, which emphasises redistribution rather than regeneration, and categorises sporting interests as a leisure pursuit rather than a vital industry.

There are at present petitions attracting thousands of supporters in favour of banning grouse shooting and hunting, which will attract the attention of any politician with an interest in backing a popular cause. I suspect that fishing may not lag far behind, since not many MSPs will be prepared to speak out in favour of a sport that involves hooking a live creature and dragging it out of the water. The equation between the money that brings in to the rural economy and the investment that results in nature conservation is lost on most politicians.

I doubt, therefore, that the story of dead salmon and the way they nurture the next generation will rate more than a flicker of interest among the legislative class. But I am delighted on behalf of my father. It is good to be proved right. Even if it took 50 years.