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The missing salmon of the Moray Firth

With salmon stocks in such a parlous state, what is the knock-on effect for other wildlife, such as dolphins, which rely on adult salmon for their diet?


Will bottlenosed dolphins populations be affected by the salmon decline? Photo: bigstock/Racoonbtc
Will bottlenosed dolphins populations be affected by the salmon decline? Photo: bigstock/Racoonbtc

Had a little visit to beautiful Aberdeenshire village of Cullen on Sunday (yup, it’s true I didn’t go fishing on a weekend day; rare, but it does happen sometimes) and, whilst sitting enjoying a cappuccino from the excellent ‘Coffee at the Kings’ Airstream van who trades there most weekends, me ’n Mrs L watched a pod of dolphins as they made their way along the coast.

A beautiful sight, with dolphin breaching and making a spectacle as they swam at a pace across the outer edge of Cullen Bay (I assume Deveron-bound) and something I always enjoy watching. But it set me thinking throughout the subsequent dog-walk along the former railway (Dr Beeching has a lot to answer for) and how the Moray Firth supports a long-term resident population of these beautiful mammals and how (we are told) a significant part of their diet is migratory fish.

The Moray Firth, as well as being one of the main nursery areas for the entire North Sea, is also the outlet for a significant number of productive and in some cases major salmon rivers; in excess of 14 to be exact (not least of which includes the Spey, Ness, Oykel system, Deveron, Helmsdale and Findhorn).  This, I feel is one of the major reasons why we have such an established resident dolphin population and perhaps we’re missing an opportunity (or at least overlooking the fact) that perhaps we might lose species such as this should our salmon continue to decline at such an alarming and worrying rate?

Already I believe some of the Moray Firth dolphin population have left and taken up residence in the Firths of Tay and Forth (obviously themselves significant salmon estuaries) as well as off the west coast of Ireland (guess what they have there?). Now, I don’t know if this has always happened, if it has had an impact on the numbers of residents the Moray Firth has always supported (or perhaps can now support?), but if we value the fact we have such an important and valuable natural resource as this up here in the north-east of Scotland, then surely we should be looking to ensure these animals also have sufficient food to enable a sustained and thriving future?
Yes, I accept that salmon (and sea-going trout for that matter) do not make up the entire diet of our bottlenose dolphin population, but we do know it is significant and loss of this food source will undoubtedly have an impact.

I feel we are overestimating the numbers of migratory fish returning to our rivers and that the true figure is way less than current (outdated) counting methods imply, meaning the current situation may be a lot worse than the drastic position everyone already accepts. Critical points have been reached, perhaps surpassed, and current adult fish levels are not able to fill sufficiently the available spawning areas in our systems, the knock-on effect of which contributes to the ever-decreasing circle.

I simply wonder what those who play such a major role in the well-being of the dolphins make of the salmon’s demise? Are they too worried that we might lose the resident populations? Would they support a change in ‘management’ of our rivers in order to permit the salmon and set going trout offspring to get the best chance of survival (or at least reach the saltwater) whichever form this may take: ‘seeding’, ‘ranching’, control of fish-eating birds and perhaps of seals that concentrate on migratory fish as a main food source (no, I’m sorry, I don’t support the idea that all seals eat salmon, otherwise our migratory fish would have already been wiped out long ago, but I do agree some seals do specialise in feeding in our river estuaries and even the rivers themselves and that needs to be addressed). 

Fish-eating birds, such as mergansers, cormorants and goosanders, in their natural habitat of salt water are fine, but again those birds that specialise on our freshwater systems is something we need to address to reduce their impact on juvenile fish. 

Otters, heron and osprey all co-exist in the systems and have done since ‘Adam was a Boy’ with no major impact on fish numbers; in fact, you could level the same ‘impact argument’ on the numbers of these animals as I’ve made on the dolphin population should our migrating fish numbers continue to drop so dramatically. It must be hard enough already on otters with the dramatic demise of the eel population?

Then there’s the nutrient impact on our systems from the loss of so many decaying migratory fish that simply didn’t make it to the rivers and the subsequent impact this must have on the invertebrate and juvenile fish-life, especially in our more peat-based, acidic and normally unproductive waters?  Now, I know I’m primarily a trout angler (although I do fish for salmon occasionally) and some who know me might already have wondered why I’m so concerned. We need healthy migratory numbers in our rivers, not only to sustain the current ‘way of life’ that our fisheries create (through tourism, heritage and culture), but the fact migrating fish have survived relatively unchanged since the ice-sheet melted and – irrespective of the human interest that surrounds them – surely these animals deserve the right to protection as well?

A greater number of fish reaching salt water can only be good, especially if we can return towards something resembling an abundance (not so very long ago this would have been a super-abundance). After all, the flip side of this would undoubtedly mean more returning adult fish to our systems, which is what we’re all hoping for… is it not?

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