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We need counters, not hatcheries

In his August Blog, Malcolm Greenhalgh asks: How we can possibly manage the salmon population of a river when we don't know what that population number is?

Are hatcheries like this the answer to declining salmon numbers? Malcolm doesn't think so.
Are hatcheries like this the answer to declining salmon numbers? Malcolm doesn't think so.

There has been much hot air released about the decline of salmon returning to the rivers of northwest England and southwest Scotland. Unfortunately we do not have accurate data on the true numbers of salmon returning simply because there are no automatic counters on the rivers, those that were having been removed. [We also do not know of the numbers of smolts going to sea from our rivers.... How can anyone manage a wild population unless they know what that population is?]

So our catch returns are used to show the decline and there are the statistics. Take one beat of the Hodder that I have known since 1979. In 1993 we caught 34 salmon and 77 sea trout (I caught a quarter of those salmon); twenty-one years later, in 2014, only three salmon and 68 sea trout.

Of course, all salmon anglers now proclaim, “We need a hatchery! Now!”, as most of those correspondents did last year when we had a vigorous debate in the letters page of the magazine.

But, in the intervening years leading up to 2014, there was a hatchery, taking hen salmon from the Hodder, raising their progeny to smolt stage and releasing them through ‘smolt release ponds’ in the river that would enable the tame smolts to become wild.

So how come the decline when there was a hatchery?

Because the hatchery didn’t work. Some of the smolts were tagged and returns showed that the survival rate was between a half and three quarters of one percent. In other words, for every thousand hatchery smolts going to sea fewer than ten returned as salmon. A simple calculation would indicate that the removal of those hen salmon resulted in fewer returning salmon than would have returned had their progeny grown up in the wild. So the hatchery itself may have actually contributed to the decline. And the overall contribution of the hatchery to the Hodder salmon run was revealed in the 2010-11 winter when as many kelts as possible were examined and, of 153 kelts, only three were from the hatchery smolts. In other words, despite thousands of smolts going into the river and members of angling clubs on the river shelling out many thousands of pounds, the hatchery contributed about 2% of the salmon run. Not surprisingly, the hatchery is now closed… yet there are some who still mourn its closing.

But have salmon declined as much as the figures suggest?

In the 1980s and 1990s I, and several others, fished that beat of the Hodder at least two days per week throughout the months of September and October, when the run peaks, and in August if there was water ‘on’ after heavy rain. We fished from dawn to dusk; you had to be on the car park soon after first light or you had to go elsewhere. I once reckoned five or six days for one salmon: say, 45-50 hours actually fishing for one fish.

Last week I nipped out to the Hodder where we now have three beats. At the end of the farm tracks we have what I call a twiddler system: dials showing the number of cars and the number of anglers fishing. There was no one fishing any of the three beats, so I had three hours on the top beat (and caught two sea trout and a few small browns and saw two salmon), two hours on the middle beat (one sea trout and a couple of brownies), and two hours on the bottom beat (a couple of brown trout). Twenty years ago there would have been members fishing all three beats.

As my son Pete put it, “Nobody seems to go fishing!” He does (he is much younger than me!) And he catches fish in the numbers we did years ago. But the problem is that the majority of members – and it seems the same throughout the land – are my generation and in their fifties, sixties or seventies. And when we move from our sixties into our seventies, we don’t have the stamina that we once did. So, if we knew how many hours were spent in 2014 in trying to catch salmon (not sitting on the bank chatting… actual fishing), it may well be that the number of hours per salmon is not that much different than it was yonks ago.

There has been a decline, of that there is no doubt, but it is not as great as the doom-mongers, who go by poorly analysed rod catches, say.

So let us all go fishing and shout out loud: We need fish counters! And let us be prepared to put the cash into counters that we have put into hatcheries.

And let us try to get younger folk to take up fly-fishing. That, I believe, should be the priority aim of all fly-fishers and fly-fishing clubs. Otherwise, in not too many years time, the sport as we know it will be gone. I find it frightening that some of the great fly-fishing clubs of northern England have no waiting list, do not have a full membership, and are having to advertise for members.

And as for sea trout, this year’s run on Ribble/Hodder and Lune has been brilliant. If people fished as hard as they did years ago, the rod catches of last year and this year would seem unbelievably terrific! But, hey-ho! It is great to have beats to fish that are not cluttered up by other rods.

Get out there fishing, and tight lines.

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