Leaping to extinction: why the salmon, King of Fish, is vanishing from our rivers

Wild salmon are disappearing from most of the places where they used to swim, and could soon be gone completely. Graham Mole and Andrew Johnson report on why some anglers are blaming the Irish
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Today's wild-salmon anglers, however, could be the last of a line as old as the rivers themselves.

The King of Fish - once so common servants were said to stipulate in their contracts that they would eat it no more than three times a week - is facing extinction.

New research shows the problem has become so severe that just 10 out of 64 salmon rivers in England and Wales have a sustainable population of the fish, according to new figures from the Environment Agency.

The European Union, meanwhile, has warned the Irish government to stop drift-net fishing off its western coast or face prosecution.

Drift nets round up the fish stock bound for the rivers of England, Wales and southern Europe. The ban - although a desperate rearguard action - has been welcomed by a host of well-known anglers, including the comedian Paul Whitehouse, the jazz musician George Melly, Gordon Brown's former spin-doctor Charlie Whelan and the chef Richard Corrigan, who recently raged against the lack of fish in British waters on the BBC2 programme Full on Food, which he co-presents.

The EU's ban is a victory for one man. In 2002 Brian Marshall, from Ringwood in Hampshire, the secretary of the Wessex Salmon and Rivers Trust, lodged a formal complaint, citing four infringements of the EU's conservation laws.

He argued that many of the UK's rivers enjoyed the highest level of protection under European laws simply because they were home to endangered wild salmon. In short, what Europe had decided should be conserved shouldn't be hijacked at sea by Irish drift nets.

Mr Marshall's campaign was soon replicated by other English conservation organisations and then by the Icelandic vodka billionaire Orri Vigfusson, chairman of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund, who had already organised the buyout of drift nets elsewhere.

What really upset the anglers was that recently the Irish government actually increased the amount of fish the drift nets were allowed to take.

Charlie Whelan, who now organises salmon fishing in Scotland, said: "I fished for salmon in Ireland earlier this year and couldn't get a single fish. It is a real problem. The action by the EU is wonderful news."

His views were echoed by Paul Whitehouse, of The Fast Show, who said: "Hats off to the EU"; and George Melly who added: "I don't support everything the EU does, but if it's banning drift nets, then that's OK."

The salmon is revered for its uncanny ability to travel from the deep sea to the same river in which it was born in order to breed. In the process, it switches from salt to fresh water and all the time fights its way upstream. No one knows how it navigates.

Drift nets are not the only problem facing the fish. Salmon farms are breeding grounds for clouds of lice which infect the wild fish when they swim through them. And pollutants from the land, such as pesticides, continue to poison rivers. Anglers are warning that in some rivers the extinction of salmon is only a matter of time.

The Environment Agency's efforts to improve the situation are being hampered by opposition from another government agency, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, to the banning of sheep dip containing a chemical called cypermethrin. This disrupts salmon breeding by obliterating the female's odour. The chemical has been most prevalent in Welsh rivers where the EA found not one farmer had read the safety guidelines before treating flocks.

The agency's nine-year-old "Salmon Action Plans" are being reviewed this month. According to its own figures, matters have worsened over that period.

In a letter to the agency this week, the Itchen Salmon Group wrote: "Extinction is only a matter of time." Dozens of dead fish were found in the lower part of the river last month and anglers say its condition is "appalling".

They say there's not enough natural flow to cope with the sewage treatment works; that the river is plagued by discharges of chemicals which reduce the oxygen levels to danger point. In one letter to the agency the fishermen wrote: "It's more like a sewer than a chalk stream."

The EA review admits: "There is still much to be done towards ensuring that these rivers meet their conservation limits. Degradation of freshwater and estuarine environments is thought to be the key problem, together with lower marine survival.

"Significant changes are required in land management, particularly agriculture. Improve- ments are unlikely to be achieved solely through further reductions in exploitation."

The chef Richard Corrigan, who runs the Lindsay House Restaurant in London, said he "applauded" the EU's action but warned that farmed fish and polluted land were also playing their part in destroying wild salmon stocks.

"Drift nets are stopping an awful lot of salmon getting to the rivers of Ireland, never mind England," he said. "But clouds of lice from farmed fish are having a huge effect on the stock and chemical residue coming off most farms in Britain and Ireland finds its way back into the river. Stocks have been falling and falling. I knew there was a problem 20 years ago. Nature can only cope with so much."

WHERE SALMON STILL SWIM

Coquet: Famous for salmon. Runs for 40 miles through Weldon Bridge, entering the sea at Amble in Northumberland.

Tyne: Chronic decline in salmon since the 1950s due to pollution has been reversed by restocking programme.

Tamar: On the border between Devon and Cornwall. Breeding programme at secret locations has helped restocking.

Fowey: Created by drainage from Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. Regarded as one of the South-west's cleanest rivers.

Camel: Drains the other, western, side of Bodmin Moor. Flows for 25 miles before joining the sea near Padstow.

Lyn: Runs from Exmouth to the Bristol Channel at Lynmouth.

Conwy: Rises in Snowdonia and flows for 35 miles into Liverpool Bay. A 46lb fish was said to have been caught in 1892.

Lune: Flows from the Pennines and Lake District to Lancaster. Still concern over fish levels despite improving habitat.

Kent: Runs through Kendal in south Cumbria. One of the fastest-flowing rivers in Britain and so a challenge for the King of Fish.

Derwent: Largest river in the Peak District and a major tributary of the River Trent, which it joins just south of Derby. Good water quality due to little land use in the area.

Graham Mole

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