50-year plan to restore Lee salmon

Donal Hickey hears ambitious plan has its detractors.

SALMON have all but disappeared from the upper River Lee in the past 50 years, but the South Western Regional Fisheries Board (SWRFB) has come up with what it describes as an ‘ambitious’ draft plan to bring them back over the next 50 years.

Their decline, in a river that formerly boasted excellent runs and was once rated among Ireland’s best salmon fisheries, can be traced back to the construction of two hydro-electric dams at Inniscarra and Carrigadrohid by the ESB, in the late 1950’s.

While salmon can go upstream through fish passes in dams in order to breed in rivers and streams, juvenile salmon (smolt) cannot get back down through dams as they make their journey to the sea.

The SWRFB says it recognises the challenge it is taking on, ‘especially as, internationally, no country has succeeded in finding a workable solution to tackling such issues’.

For this reason, the SWRFB is setting a time scale of 50 years for achieving its goal through the River Lee Salmon Restoration Project.

Cork Salmon Anglers, who are vehemently opposed to the plan, argue it just won’t work and is a waste of public money. “Nowhere in the world have natural salmon runs been restored in places which have hydro-electric dams. Several unsuccessful attempts have been made in America and other countries. The only way a natural salmon run can be restored is by removing the dams,” a Cork Salmon Anglers’ spokesman said.

Another key issue for anglers and commercial fishermen is a proposal to close the entire river for salmon fishing for the duration of the plan. A consultation process is currently underway and a large number of anglers are expected at a meeting in Farnanes at 7pm, on Wednesday December 17. The meeting will also be attended by SWRFB chief executive Aidan Barry and representatives of other state bodies, the Central Fisheries Board and the ESB.

According to Aidan Barry, a lengthy period of time, with a lot of experimentation, is needed to find ways of allowing juvenile salmon successfully move downstream. He said it would be a ‘technical and engineering problem’ in the early stages.

“As we see it, it would take the first 20 years and four, or five, generations of salmon to get the problem solved,” he added.

“If the engineering problem can be solved, the next step would be to bring the river from zero to full spawning capacity, which would take 20 to 30 years and five, or six, generations of salmon.

“There is, of course, no guarantee of success,” he went on. Anglers are expected to vent their opposition at Wednesday’s meeting.

During the 1950’s, an estimated 15,000 salmon went up the Lee to spawn each season, but all that changed with the completion of the two dams in 1957. By the late 1960’s, the salmon run had dropped to less than 1,000.

In 1972, recognising that the upper River Lee salmon numbers were becoming unsustainable, the ESB embarked on a restoration programme. A hatchery and smolt-rearing station was built at Carrigadrohid dam, the purpose of which was to supplement the natural run in the lower River Lee.

Salmon numbers continued to fall however, and in the early 1990’s the ESB and the SWRFB embarked on a series of research programmes to address the dwindling numbers.

Down the years, several restoration attempts and studies on damage to fish stocks have been carried out.

The main conclusion was that while adult salmon could locate fish passes and make their way upstream, the passage back down of young salmon smolts was being disrupted by physical barriers and they were often killed by the turbines.

The SWRFB now says its restoration objectives ‘must be practical and real’ and states it welcomes challenges to its case that it is setting an attainable target.

While acknowledging that solutions have not been found elsewhere in the world, it says: “Nevertheless, this does not mean that such a goal cannot be achieved, given sufficient time, study and experimentation.” The board also stresses the plan will need the support of the local community, anglers, commercial fishermen, fishery owners, scientists, the ESB and other interests, if it is to succeed.

“Its success will depend on each sector sharing a common vision and each being prepared to work constructively towards that end,” it goes on, while inviting all stakeholders to make an input to the plan.

The consultation process is continuing and submissions are welcomed from groups, clubs, organisations and individuals. The closing date for submissions is January 12 next and all correspondence should be addressed to: River Lee Development Plan, South Western Regional Fisheries Board, Sunnyside House, Macroom, Co Cork.

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