By John Murphy
The number of adult fish returning to our coast has dropped from 2m in the 1970s to 250,000. Catches are at an all-time low. Extinction is a possibility, says John Murphy.
Salmon may become extinct in Ireland in our lifetime. This weekend, Salmon Watch Ireland hosts a conference in Galway at which anglers and conservationists will meet to discuss the desperate state of wild Irish salmon stocks and consider how to reverse an accelerating decline.
Ireland’s wild Atlantic salmon could become a curiosity, confined to a small number of rivers. The species might not become extinct (although it could), but there might not be sufficient stock for commercial or recreational exploitation.
A species that has huge significance in Irish heritage and folklore and which, in the past, has had major social, economic, and recreational value, could be lost. There is an obligation on all of us to prevent that, though it will not be easy to do.
The Atlantic salmon is under severe threat throughout its geographic range on both sides of the North Atlantic. The rate of decline differs from country to country, but, without exception, the trend in each has been severely downwards for 40 years.
In Ireland, the number of adult salmon returning to the coast has collapsed from 2m in the late 1970s to 250,000 in recent years. Catches of salmon are at an all-time low, at about 22,000 by all methods (comprising 7,000 by commercial nets and 15,000 by angling).
Of Ireland’s 144 salmon river systems, only 27 (19%) are “not at risk” or are at “low risk” of reaching their conservation limits (the numbers needed to maintain a population). The once-abundant Atlantic salmon was categorised as “vulnerable” in the most recent Red Book assessment.
Ireland is not unique. In the southern area of the north-east Atlantic (comprising Ireland, the UK, France, and the southern part of Iceland) one-sea winter fish (grilse) have declined by 66% since 1970 and multi-sea winter fish (“springers”) by 81%.
The removal of mixed-stock drift netting for salmon at sea in 2007 seems to have made precious little difference. That’s disturbing.
In the last year of drift netting, in 2006, the reported catch in that fishery was 70,000 and, after making a modest adjustment for the extensive illegal catch in this fishery, probably at least of the order of 100,000 fish. Notwithstanding the “saving” of this very large number of salmon, neither the commercial estuary nets nor the angling effort have since exceeded their pre-2007 catch levels.
The consensus points to multiple factors, with climatic change probably the most important. It promotes change in marine productivity and influences the distribution of fish stocks in the North Atlantic.
As a consequence, large-scale fisheries in traditional salmon-feeding grounds and migration routes are now well-established with inevitable by-catch of juvenile and pre-adult salmon.
However, there are other factors, which we may be able to mitigate and influence, like water quality, exploitation, increased juvenile predation in freshwater, migration barriers, open-cage salmon farming, and habitat degradation.
How can we significantly change the current plight of the salmon and what measures will help? This will require a concerted effort by government, stakeholders, and individuals. The overwhelming objective must be to significantly increase the numbers of juvenile salmon migrating from Irish rivers.
However, the management and protection of near-coastal areas must also be addressed; open-cage salmon-farming is a real issue for salmon juveniles migrating to sea. Salmon Watch Ireland has produced a draft consultation document to formulate policies that may help to mitigate low survival rates at sea.
The policy document sets out a number of objectives for formulating a coherent policy to help salmon in Ireland.
Among measures to be examined is cross-government recognition that salmon-habitat enhancement must be central in adapting rivers for climate change. The removal of redundant river barriers must also be considered to enhance salmon productivity and improve migration.
Commercial exploitation must be examined, particularly the economic viability of this exploitation. Exploitation in the recreational sector may also have to be increasingly controlled and reduced, again in the context of falling numbers.
Salmon farming is very damaging to salmon juveniles migrating to sea and must be controlled. The transition must be to a system that allows for a physical barrier between the farmed fish and the outside environment.
Modern, “closed containment” systems on land, which are effective and economically sustainable, have been trialled and are in production in a number of countries. In fact, the Danish government has recently decreed that all future expansion of salmon farming must be in closed containment systems. Salmon Watch Ireland is reviewing the complaint to the EU concerning salmon farming and may initiate a new complaint against the Government.
Restocking of salmon juveniles from hatcheries is not a sustainable solution to low returns of adults, but Salmon Watch Ireland recognises that in limited, strictly controlled circumstances, restocking may have a role to play in rivers that have fallen to very low numbers of returning adults.
In regard to the resources available to Inland Fisheries Ireland, the statutory body responsible for conserving salmon stocks, Salmon Watch Ireland believes that IFI does not have, and will not have, the resources necessary for the adequate “protection, management and conservation” of salmon stocks and that it must, therefore, embrace a collaborative approach with stakeholders in the salmon community.
The issue of water quality is being addressed through various government and EU initiatives, but salmon stakeholders have a large role to play in reporting suspected water quality and habitat issues and Salmon Watch Ireland intend to initiate a simple, informative resource that will give advice to stakeholders on how to identify issues in rivers.
Predation is ever-present and Salmon Watch Ireland is examining avian predation and how adverse effects can be reduced. The input of angling clubs is extremely important to the conservation of the Atlantic salmon and certain measures can be pursued to improve river productivity. The issue of tunnelling and gravel compaction can be alleviated by use of local angling club members.
Salmon Watch Ireland can give advice and assistance, but all it needs is a willingness to organise and to commit to an annual programme of works and consult with Inland Fisheries Ireland.
John Murphy is a director of Salmon Watch Ireland