River Wye rescue plan offers old fish for new

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The Independent Online
IT CERTAINLY sounds like a fisherman's tale - put the live salmon you have caught back in our river, and we will give you a smoked one.

But a group of anglers and conservationists trying to halt the disastrous decline of salmon stocks on the River Wye, which flows from Wales into the Bristol Channel, are deadly serious. The Wye Foundation is offering a 2lb side of smoked, farmed salmon - equivalent to a 6- 8lb fish - to every fisherman who returns a rod-caught wild fish back to the water alive.

The scheme has only been running for three weeks but already 12 Welsh anglers have taken advantage of the smoked-for-live bargain, and Stephen Marsh-Smith, the Wye Foundation chairman, hopes that this year as many as 300 fish may be returned to the river this way.

It is essential, he says, because the Wye's famed salmon run is in crisis. After an average annual catch in recent decades of about 3,500 fish, peaking at nearly 7,000 in 1988, last year fewer than 650 fish were caught in the river, the lowest annual total ever recorded. There are now not enough fish spawning to keep up the stock.

"The number of fish now running the Wye is no longer great enough to guarantee a future," said Dr Marsh-Smith, a Bristol dentist who lives on the river downstream from Builth Wells in Powys. "Last year we achieved only 22 per cent of our `spawning target' - the number of fish you need to keep a river full. It was the lowest total of any major British salmon river."

The Wye has been hit by a combination of problems in its own catchment area and the mysterious decline of salmon returning from the sea, which is occurring all over the North Atlantic and which some scientists think may be linked to global warming.

"There are some things you can influence and some things you can't," Dr Marsh-Smith said. "One of the things you can make a difference with is the number of fish that actually go and spawn in the river's tributaries. Exploitation and losses at sea are beyond our control, but this is something we can do for ourselves."

There is no tradition in salmon fishing, he admitted, of "catch-and-release", and the foundation is asking anglers to change their thinking.

The Wye itself has had "every environmental problem you can think of", he said, in particular a large number of cases of sheep-dip poisoning and damage to the banks of the tributary streams in which salmon spawn by the very intensive sheep grazing of the surrounding hills. One river in particular, the Marteg, had been "sheeped out", he said, and last year for the first time not a single trout was taken from it.

The Wye Foundation has just received a grant of pounds 1.1m, half from the European Union and half from British conservation agencies, for a five- year habitat restoration programme.

The smoked salmon, Dr Marsh-Smith said, was not to make good fishermen's losses. "It's to say thank you for being aware of how desperately we need these fish in the river to spawn."

The smoked salmon is being provided at cost price by an Abergavenny game dealer, but the bill still pounds 10 a time, which is being met by a local tackle dealer, the Environment Agency and the Wye Foundation.