Herald Scotland

Salmon tagging scheme seeks to reverse decline of iconic fish

Alistair Grant, Political Correspondent

Jul 23, 2019
LEAPING out of the white foam in defiance of the river’s current, they have long been regarded one of Scotland’s most spectacular natural sights.

But with wild salmon stocks plunging across the country, there are fears glimpses of the iconic fish – and the multi-million pound angling industry it supports – could soon become a thing of the past.

Now high-tech gadgets are being deployed to discover why salmon are disappearing from Scottish rivers in such huge numbers, putting thousands of jobs at risk and throwing up wider environmental concerns.

Over the next three weeks, dozens of adult salmon will be captured and fitted with electronic tags in the Moray Firth, in a bid to pinpoint which rivers they head for later in the year. Salmon migrate to the sea as adults but return to their native rivers to spawn.

Those involved hope the project will help unlock vital information as they seek to manage the declining numbers of Atlantic salmon, providing data about survival rates and last-known positions.

Chris Conroy, director of the Ness District Salmon Fishery Board, said: “This is a hugely exciting initiative and our aim is to capture 60 salmon in the Inner Moray Firth, fit each with an external electronic acoustic tag, and release them again.

“We will install a ‘gateway’ of acoustic receivers across Chanonry Point and the Sutors off Cromarty.

“When a tagged fish passes a receiver it will ping and we’ll know which way it’s gone.

“Acoustic receivers will also be installed in rivers between the Deveron in the south round to the Brora and Helmsdale in the north.

“This will hopefully build up the first complete pattern of where the adult salmon are going.”

He added: “Last year’s Scottish catches were the lowest on record, causing great concern, and evidence-based management is a key part of the solution.

“We will be tagging over a three-week period. This will provide information on the direction and time of travel of the fish, survival rates and their last-known position.

“This will allow us to better manage our fragile salmon stocks.

“The netsmen in the Firth are extremely conservation minded and we have worked in partnership on various successful conservation initiatives over the past 10 years.

“Once again, they are keen to work with us in delivering this cutting edge project.”

He continued: “We would ask that if any angler catches a tagged fish, please do not remove the tag.

“Simply record the unique number on the blue ‘Floy’ tag, release the fish and notify the Ness District Salmon Fishery Board.”

In recent years, Atlantic salmon have been disappearing from Scotland’s rivers in huge numbers, with some campaigners pointing to the impact of sea lice originating in fish farms on Scotland’s west coast.

Holyrood’s Rural Economy Committee previously insisted the salmon farming industry, which is worth more than £1 billion to Scotland’s economy, should not be allowed to expand any further without overhauling its environmental standards.

However, it ruled out a moratorium on new development.

Yesterday, a 40,000-signature petition was delivered to Scottish ministers by global advocacy group SumOfUs, calling for emergency inspections of all commercial salmon farming operations.

A flotilla protest against alleged welfare abuses on Scottish salmon farms, organised by Scottish Salmon Watch, is also expected to take place on September 1 at various locations on the west coast of Scotland.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said the “vast majority of farms operate within the regulatory framework and to the highest standards”.

She added: “We continue to work positively with the aquaculture industry to ensure the highest standards are applied to the maintenance of fish health and welfare.”

In April, official figures showed wild salmon catches had plummeted by 67% on the previous five-year average total. Salmon fishery boards said this was the lowest level since 1952.

The latest monitoring scheme in the Moray Firth, which targets adult fish, will feed into the Atlantic Salmon Trust’s wider Missing Salmon Project. This has seen 850 wild juvenile salmon – known as smolts – tagged and tracked in one of the biggest studies of its kind in Europe.

The Trust says that for every 100 salmon that leave Scotland’s rivers for the sea, fewer than five return. This represents a decline of nearly 70 per cent in 25 years.

If this trend continues, one of the country’s most iconic species will rapidly become endangered.

Experts hope that by tracking the fish, they can obtain a greater insight into the challenges the salmon face as well as identifying the causes of their rapid decline.

The first batch of data is expected to become available around November.

The latest project will involve the Ness District Salmon Fishery Board working with the Ness and Beauly Fisheries Trust, local netsmen, the University of Glasgow and the Atlantic Salmon Trust.

Funding has been provided by Marine Scotland, while the Aberdeen Harbour Authority donated acoustic tags.

Keith Young, engineering director at Aberdeen Harbour, said: “These acoustic tags were an innovative and invaluable way for us to track salmon during our 2017 Nigg Bay salmon tracking study.

“Understanding and protecting our marine environment is a vital part of our South Harbour expansion and we are pleased that these tags can be used to improve our understanding of salmon movement around the Scottish coast.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Marine Scotland is delighted to facilitate this innovative local management project and welcomes the collaborative working across so many stakeholders, who share a passion for recovering our wild salmon stocks, to deliver it.”


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