Tide of history sinks salmon net fishers: A skill taken to Wales by monks more than 1,000 years ago is threatened with extinction, writes Michael Prestage

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The Independent Online
MORE THAN 1,000 YEARS after French monks first brought Seine netting techniques for catching salmon to the village of St Dogmaels at the mouth of the river Teifi in West Wales, the last three licensed fishermen are preparing to shoot their nets for the last time.

The salmon season finishes at the end of August and few expect the licences to be renewed. The reasons are manifold: the waters of the Teifi are now muddy-brown with pollution which makes salmon scarce; the licence fee has steadily risen and there are fears it will break the pounds 1,000 barrier next year; and nearby Cardigan, once a major fishing port, is now more concerned with attracting the boating fraternity on stretches of the river where the netsmen once plied their trade. Even seals rescued by a local sanctuary have developed a taste for salmon dinners.

The fishermen have also been forced to fight legal battles against those who blame them for declining salmon stocks - particularly the angling lobby, who will pay big money to take the fish with rod-and- line further upriver.

Alan Giles, chairman of the St Dogmaels Seine Net Fishermen's Association, said similar problems were faced by netsmen on other Welsh salmon rivers including the Towy and the Nevern. 'We are being forced out. It is becoming too expensive to consider fishing any more.'

Idris Edwards, 79, began net fishing for salmon 60 years ago when 60 men in the village could make a living catching the fish and buyers queued up to whisk the catch to London's Billingsgate market.

'Who knows where it has gone wrong: the fish are no longer here,' he said. 'People like to blame the net fishermen, but overfishing by us isn't the answer.'

Now the fishing is little more than a hobby for the remaining three licence holders and the crews that work with them. St Dogmaels is more the preserve of tourists and those who have second homes there. To the chagrin of the Welsh- speaking locals many of the newcomers are English.

At the Ferry Inn pub on the riverside, which proudly displays its Egon Ronay listing and where the locals would not dream of drinking, visitors pour on to the patio as Cyril Burton and his crew sail by plying their 200-yard nets behind them.

They then begin the laborious task of hauling in from the beach. What was once a major industry has become little more than a tourist attraction. For the visitors there were no fish to see as the nets were empty. All the crew caught was a dumped traffic cone.

Mr Burton, in line with the other fishermen, is reluctant to reveal a season's catch - though the National Rivers Authority has to be informed - but he admitted he has not yet recovered his pounds 400 licence fee. 'The end is near for the fishing and it will be a sad day. Much of the tradition of the village has already gone and this is another chapter closing.'

His son Derek, 27, said bitterly: 'Idris has fished this river all his life. Why can't we do the same? It's part of the life of the village. I don't want to make a lot of money from the fishing. I just want to be allowed to fish. The trouble is everything is stacked against us.'

(Photograph omitted)