Scottish Government Rural Affairs Secretary Mairi Gougeon last week visited Glen Clova, close to her North Angus and Mearns constituency, to publicise the new project amid hopes it might help reverse the trend. She said: “We take the issue of our declining salmon stocks very seriously, with the reasons for it wide-ranging and complex. The investment in monitoring will help us to better understand these pressures.
“We know that high river temperatures during the summer are a pressure on wild salmon and we are identifying priority stretches of waterways to target tree planting, providing living parasols to provide shade and encourage good survival and growth of salmon.
“We are working with landowners and land managers to encourage them to take measures such as tree planting to support salmon conservation.
“However, it is believed that salmon mortality at sea has increased in part due to the effect of climate change on ecosystems and shifts in locations where food is abundant. That is why it is vital, especially as we head towards COP26, that we continue to address the double challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss.”
Experts believe wild Atlantic salmon populations returning to Scottish rivers have dropped by about 40 per cent in the past four decades. The total reported rod catch of wild salmon for 2020 was 45,366. That was the third-lowest on record and 92% of the previous five-year average.
However, it should also be remembered that the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to have affected the latter figure.
As part of conservation efforts, workers from Crown Estate Scotland, which has provided £150,000 of the new project’s funding, will team up with local fisheries boards and trusts to collect vital data.
Financial support will also enable the analysis of information that is used to help conserve the globally recognised species. Experts will sample numbers and study juvenile and adult salmon collected from rivers across the country.
The latest moves come after anglers repeatedly warned that stocks were at crisis point. As well as climate change, they believe dams and weirs on rivers, which block migration journeys, as well as commercial salmon farming, may be hurting the numbers. Some industry critics also claim fish farms attract sea lice, which go on to infect and kill wild salmon.
Currently, anglers must release their catches on most Scottish rivers in a bid to protect vulnerable stocks.
Fiona Simpson, asset manager for Crown Estate Scotland, said it was hoped the project would boost understanding and underpin targeted action aimed at improving the situation.
“We are fully committed to supporting Scotland’s wild fisheries sector, which faces many challenges at the moment and which is an important part of Scotland’s wider environment and rural economy,” she said.
“This funding allows for valuable research to be carried out which will contribute evidence to hopefully lead to a better understanding of some of the reasons behind the decline in Atlantic salmon numbers in Scottish rivers and inform targeted action plans to address current problems.”
The salmon industry is currently a major money generator for Scotland. Figures from HM Revenue and Customs show farmers sent a record volume of fresh fish to the European Union in the first half of 2021, with some 33,638 metric tons exported.
This was despite disruption caused by Brexit and Covid-19. The value of these exports was £183.4 million. Bosses at the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation said export volumes were encouraging but flagged concern over alarming decreases in their value.