Fishing lines: Fresh salmon on the Tyne

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The Independent Online
WHEN the first Thames salmon for more than 70 years battled through London (eventually expiring near Hampton Court), it got more publicity than Paul Gascoigne's knee. But around the same time, a salmon miracle equally as spectacular was taking place with far less fuss on Newcastle's River Tyne.

In many ways, the Tyne's story mirrors that of its more renowned London cousin. But its return from the grave has been far more dramatic. While a few hundred fish now find their way up the Thames each year, the Tyne is once again producing thousands of salmon.

It is almost impossible to trace the earliest salmon runs, though there is evidence that late Stone Age man made summer migrations to harvest returning Tyne salmon. But records from as early as the 12th century show what an important part the fish played in the Bishop of Durham's income.

Even the growth of riverside industry failed to slow catches much. On 12 June 1755, one net fishery above Newcastle Bridge took more than 2,400 salmon, and five years later the largest fish ever recorded from the river, a 54- pounder, was netted. It was not expensive either.

Thomas Bewick, the Tyneside wood engraver who was also a renowned angler, wrote how as a boy, 'I was frequently sent to purchase a salmon, and was always desired to not pay 2d a pound. I commonly paid only 1d.'

Bewick witnessed the Tyne's decline in the early 1800s; coal, heavy engineering and shipbuilding polluted the tidal river and the fish that had once sold for a penny cost as much as 3s 6d a pound by 1807. Locks stopped the salmon returning to spawn, lead mines poured their waste into the river, and poachers grabbed the fish that got through. But, unlike the Thames where salmon totally disappeared, some were being caught on the Tyne. In 1833, between 400 and 500 were still brought to Newcastle fish market.

But the main problem was river-mouth nets. In 1872 some nets were nearly a mile long and they took 130,000 migratory fish. That year these nets were banned, to form a sanctuary for returning salmon. But the boats simply moved offshore and by 1934 net- fishing in the Tyne, a tradition at least 1,000 years old, had been killed off. Fascinating facts from those times can be found in Tyne Waters, a new book by Michael Marshall, from which I have snaffled many of these details.

A further problem had arisen - sewage. The rapid growth of Tyneside, from a population of 80,000 in 1800 to 800,000 in 1921, meant thousands of gallons of untreated sewage were pouring into the estuary. 'Once you fall in the Tyne, you're as good as dead,' one boatman said. But it got even worse.

Next week I will tell you how the Tyne came back from the dead, and the problem that stops it from being the best salmon river in Britain.

Tyne Waters, a River and its Salmon, by Michael Marshall, published by Wetherby, pounds 18.99.