Salmon families get sinking feeling

Tradition under threat: Fishermen claim licence charges will hurt livelihood
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The Independent Online

The 18 families which carry on the traditional pursuit of netting salmon on the river Exe in Devon claim they will be forced out by a huge hike in fees proposed by the National Rivers Authority.

The salmon are netted near Topsham, a village that centuries ago was a major port and fishing centre but is now a commuter suburb of Exeter. The salmon fishing is regarded as one of the few remaining links with the village's historical past.

Many of the families have fished for generations. Now, though, the NRA proposes to increase the licence fee from pounds 120 a year to pounds 1,619 in a move to regulate charges nationally. The increases will be phased in, but the fishermen say the living to be made is already precarious and the new fee will make it uneconomic.

Den Chadwick, secretary of River Exe Netsmen, said not all rivers were as lucrative as others and the NRA policy to have national charges was flawed. The NRA claims large increases are needed because the Government has nearly halved its national fisheries grant in the last four years and wants the costs of the service to be recovered as fully as possible from those who benefit.

Mr Chadwick said: "Our fishing is vitally important, not only financially, but because it is a way of life for many families and has been so for hundreds of years. This is part of our heritage and if these charges go through, that history will be wiped out."

He remembers 1987 as a good year with 4,000 fish caught, but last year, few boats averaged more than 100 fish. With the possible income so variable he believes few will commit themselves to the cost of a new licence.

Also, salmon farming has meant that prices for salmon have not risen in the last 10 years. "I have been fishing here for 45 years. There used to be a waiting list, but not anymore. I will be fishing next year because the fee has only been doubled and we can live with that, but in the long term I fear the end is near."

There are already tight rules governing the fishing and a suspicion among the netsmen that many with vested interests would prefer to see them off the river and their places taken by more lucrative "rod and line" fishermen who pay well and catch little - a charge the NRA denies.

The season runs from February to August and fishing can only take place on weekdays. One fisherman stands on shore with a rope, while a boat rows out trailing a net. When the boat lands this forms a half circle, which is dragged in. Hopefully the salmon are trapped in the net.

The River Exe Netsmen say they believe the spawning beds of the salmon 40 miles up river on Exmoor would suffer if the netting stopped, because too many salmon would be trying to breed. They claim the netting is a valuable culling that safeguards future fish stocks. The fishermen also have a role in discouraging poachers.

They have been in touch with counterparts in Cornwall and hope other similar bodies will join forces to try and overturn the NRA proposals.