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If Scotland’s salmon die out, a bit of our nation does too


We must support efforts to save a species which has been intertwined with Scottish history.

They opened the salmon fishing season on the Tay this week. There will be the usual ceremonies, with pipe bands, a libation of whisky, and the first symbolic cast of the year. It’s a time-honoured ritual that brings anglers and locals together, come rain or shine. But at the back of everybody’s mind will be the nagging question: how many fish will be returning to the river this spring?

The Atlantic salmon is under threat as never before. Last year Scottish rivers showed a slight improvement on 2018 but that was the worst in living memory, with barely 37,000 caught in contrast to the hundreds of thousands that drew anglers to a country famous for a species rightly regarded as the king of fish — unique in the way it lives, breeds and survives in salt water and in fresh. At a meeting in the Scottish parliament last week the government’s lead scientist, John Armstrong, warned that unless action is taken, the Atlantic salmon could be extinct within 20 or 30 years.

That would be a conservation disaster, not just for anglers but for the country as a whole. The salmon is woven into Scotland’s history. It is celebrated in ancient mythology; is found carved onto the walls of prehistoric caves in Angus; it features in one of the earliest surviving Scottish laws, when David I in the 12th century banned fishing for “red” salmon, caught out of season; it was once so common that 19th-century workers in Glasgow threatened strike action because they were fed up with being given it every day.

It conserves the ecology of our inland waters, bringing back nutrients from the oceans where the fish may have spent three or four years feeding and growing in size. Without it, another species, Homo ruralis — the large number of country people who depend for their livelihood on the salmon angling industry, would also be threatened.

This is not, however, a counsel of despair. Steps are being taken to reverse the decline. A new body, the Missing Salmon Alliance, has been formed, bringing together several powerful conservation bodies, to examine reasons for the fall in numbers and to propose ways in which Scottish rivers and off-shore seas can be protected and enhanced, not just for salmon, but for the many other species which depend on its survival. Roseanna Cunningham, the environment minister, has taken it up as a major issue, and at Holyrood last week several MSPs pledged their support. “This is not a story about anglers and their sport, it is about our rivers and our natural life,” said one. “Really, it is about us.”