Scottish rivers empty of salmon as season opens

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The Independent Online

After 25 years of steady decline, the old and distinguished sport of salmon angling may finally be doomed in Scotland. Catch levels have been falling for a quarter of a century, and - as this year's salmon season opens on the Tay tomorrow - total collapse looms.

After 25 years of steady decline, the old and distinguished sport of salmon angling may finally be doomed in Scotland. Catch levels have been falling for a quarter of a century, and - as this year's salmon season opens on the Tay tomorrow - total collapse looms.

According to Scottish Office figures, the total salmon and grilse catch for 1996 - at 425 tonnes - was 27 per cent down on the previous year. And conservation agencies say the 1987 figure of 296 tonnes was an all-time low.

As Carole Hawkes, owner of a one-time top west coast fishing hotel in Inverness-shire, said last week: "Salmon has been in free fall for 20 or 30 years - it's as simple as that. We didn't get a single fish last year and only two the year before that. We just don't bother putting a boat in the water any more."

And George Burrell, co-owner of the Logierait Hotel at Ballinluig on the Tay, in the heart of Rob Roy country, added: "Prospects for the season are never good nowadays. The fishing has been going down for years, and it doesn't look like there is anything going to stop it."

At Kinlochewe in Wester Ross, vast numbers of salmon were once landed. But last week the owner, Roderick McCall, said: "The fishing is abysmal. We have pictures here of this hotel in the Fifties and Sixties - there was fish all over the road outside. There were enormous catches in those days but now, frankly, it's buggered."

Some rivers now enjoy the effects of breeding-and-release programmes. Catch-and-return polices are also increasingly common. But still salmon numbers are massively down on historical levels.

Early in the 19th century, 46,000 fish were netted in one season from just three pools on the Don, and another 10,000 taken from cruives, or fixed traps, on the same pools in the same season - which is about half the number of all the fish now caught in all the pools on all the rivers of Scotland in a season.

Why salmon numbers have crashed is uncertain. Some have blamed seals in coastal waters; others small-scale local poaching, or drift netting in offshore waters. Legal bag-netting at tidal river-mouths also came under suspicion, as did general levels of industrial pollution, and even global warming.

But in recent times, the finger of blame has swung with increasing conviction towards commercial salmon farming. This is a matter of considerable sensitivity in the western Highlands, where fish farms are often the principal employer. in remote districts.

But 300 of these farms have appeared in Scottish waters in the last 25 years, mostly on the west coast. Now, there can be more caged salmon in one sea-loch than wild salmon on the entire coast. And the associated epidemic of parasitic sea-lice may be at the bottom of the collapse.

Whatever the reason, the situation is unlikely to improve quickly, if ever.

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