New documentary highlights plight of Lee and dwindling salmon stocks 

Cork Film Festival will show a new documentary next Sunday that makes an impassioned plea for a species’ survival and a river’s future, Jack Power reports

THE past can be such a beguiling, seductive place because we can be selective about what we remember. Or, if we were more honest, we can imagine things as we wish they might have been. We can cherry pick, using those helpful, non-judgemental rose-tinted glasses, imagining that the sun shone more brightly and more often; that the milk was creamier; that the summer mackerel were more abundant and far bigger and that Ringey was truly The Greatest. We might even convince ourselves that we lived, if not in peace, then in something closer to harmony with the natural world around us than we do today.

Even if that was the case the almost incomprehensible explosion in human population, needs and expectations means our relationship with the natural world is today at best fractious, more often than not it is dysfunctional, culminating in the catastrophe promised by climate change. The human population graph runs parallel to the graph showing the relentless, often irreversible, destruction of species and habitat. This break-up is described in startling terms by the provocative Canadian author Naomi Klein ( in her current book This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. The Climate, and even if you find her arguments, or the way she frames this survival issue, hard to accept the core of her thesis seems incontrovertible.

One of the responses to growing human need that radically changed, possibly for ever, the Irish landscape was the Government’s decision in the last century to generate electricity through harnessing the energy in our rivers through hydro-electricity generating schemes – damming rivers to drive turbines to create electricity. The opening of the Ardnacrusha Power Station on the Shannon in 1929 was one of the first trophy industrial projects of this newly-independent State and it meant something far beyond generating electricity. It was a declaration of possibility by a poor, isolated society trying to establish its credibility and find its place in the world. This coming-of-age project was so important to the national psyche that it was celebrated in a series of industrial-realism propaganda paintings by Seán Keating.

The dams built on the Lee at Inniscarra and Carrigadrohid were a continuation of that project and had similar if unintended consequences – for the dams sounded the death knell for once-magnificent salmon and eel populations, an inevitable process that seems to be approaching something like an end game on both rivers. Once the dams were in place salmon – and eels – could no longer naturally reach the head waters of the river systems where they bred. Once the rivers were blocked, though inadequate artificial passes operate on both rivers, the Lee and the Shannon salmon populations began a long and slow decline to today’s critical point where their survival as a healthy, self-sustaining population is a very real question.

There are many other factors, and there seem to be more every year, in the collapse of wild Atlantic salmon stocks – salmon farming is one of the major ones – but once the rivers were artificially blocked the fishes’ fate was pretty much a done deal. This inevitability is being made real despite decades-long captive breeding and restocking programmes led, at significant cost, by the ESB. The annual restocking on the Lee once numbered in the hundreds of thousands of smolts but today something around 50,000 are sent to sea each year, more in hope than in expectation. Fewer than 5% return to the river of their origin each year, which suggests that the main threats to salmon stocks are in salt water – one of which is the fact that the protein-rich krill salmon depend on as a food source is now targeted for everything from fertiliser, to fuel for power plants, to pet food and even oils for the health food industry.

The generations who knew the two rivers in their prime – a hugely expensive privilege at the time - are gone but the records they left are, and this is the gentlest way to say this, a terrible indictment of our stewardship of one of nature’s greatest gifts.

The Shannon’s salmon culture was centred on Castleconnell where some of the world’s – yes, it was that good – best salmon beats were found. Portmanteau salmon – fish over 40 pounds – might not have been everyday but they were so common that anyone familiar with the river was familiar with them. Winning the euromillions lotto seems a warm possibility compared to the likelihood of catching a salmon of that size in Ireland today. The Lee was characterised by the abundance rather than the size of its fish. Writing in 1928 JW Seigne, in his memoir Irish Bogs, said he only once ever saw a greater stock of salmon in a river than the numbers he saw in the Lee – and that was in Quebec’s Grand Cascapédia, still one of the world’s greatest salmon rivers because of forceful, focussed management. These facts stand no matter how we might view the past, even if we view it through salmon-pink glasses.

This decline, or more specifically, the catalyst driving the collapse of Lee salmon stocks, is the subject of a new documentary which will be shown at the Cork Film Festival next Sunday morning. River Runner, produced by Barry McCarthy and Declan O’Mahony of mp2films, is a two-stranded film focussing on the destruction of a salmon population and the lethal consequences of flooding the Lee Valley for the almost unique river forest – The Geragh.

Ecologist Kevin Corcoran argues the case for the restoration of The Geragh and angler Alan Nolan makes an emotional and spirited argument for changes at the Inniscarra dam to try to help the remnants of a once-great salmon population recover to levels closer to peak populations. Examples of where this has been done in America suggest that a lack of will – or conscience – rather than a shortage of options will finally consign the river’s salmon to history. That prospect, indeed that prospect on any Irish river, is utterly shaming for a country as rich as this.

Corcoran’s plea on behalf of the Geragh seems as if it might be more easily realised. He suggests that if water levels above Carrigadrohid dam were lowered by a metre that the ancient river forest, one of two in Europe, would regenerate. If this is the case then it seems absolutely the right thing to do, especially as it is owned by a semi-State company.

This beautifully shot film might have made a stronger argument if science and emotion were offered equal opportunities and it is unfortunate too that proper names are not used to refer to landmarks along the Lee. Nevertheless it is a very fine contribution to the almost impossible battle to stand between what is left of the once abundant and magnificent stock of Atlantic salmon and insatiable greed facilitated by official indifference.

River Runner will be shown at the Gate Cinema in Cork next Sunday (November 16) at 11.30am as part of the Cork Film Festival.

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