Fishing Lines: The rehabilitation of the Tyne

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I WAS due to meet someone alongside the River Tyne in Newcastle, but had become lost in the city. So I asked a local the quickest way to the river. 'Jump in the nearest lavatory, I'll pull the chain and you'll be there in a couple of minutes,' he said. In the 1960s, Newcastle would have loved to have dropped the upon-Tyne from its label.

It's hard to believe this same waterway is now the most prolific salmon river in England. But in the 1950s and 1960s, it had a very different reputation - as Britain's worst-polluted river. The 1958 annual report of the Northumberland and Tyneside River Board stated: 'Tyne water in the industrial belt has none of the accepted characteristics of normal river water.'

Sewage was the main culprit. Along a 20-mile stretch from Wylam to the sea, 270 sewers poured 35 million gallons of untreated sewage into the river daily. A report noted that 'every person immersed involuntarily in the river contracted septic pneumonia'. It added: 'The concentration and semi-stagnation of polluting matter make the upper portion of the estuary virtually into a septic tank.'

Migratory fish had about as much chance of surviving as a mouse at a cat convention in Wembley Stadium. The Northumberland Anglers Federation quoted a familiar view in its handbook: 'Why, many people will ask, should millions of pounds be spent to aid the sport of a comparatively few anglers?' Fair enough. But the health factor could no longer be ignored.

The result was the Tyneside Sewage Treatment Scheme, the biggest estuarial facelift in Britain. Its target was to clean up 20 miles of estuary and eight miles of beaches, and involved building 45 miles of sewers. Almost 20 years later, the work is still going on. But the effects have been spectacular. In 1987, more than 1,000 salmon were caught on rod and line.

Michael Marshall, author of Tyne Waters, a new book on the river's fishing history, says the improvement has been far more impressive than the much-publicised Thames clean-up. The London river has logged about 230 returning salmon this year, while the Tyne total will be 10 times that. But success has brought problems. 'Parts of the Tyne are becoming very expensive to fish,' Marshall notes. 'Fortunately, a lot of villages bought the fishing rights when the river was just a stinking sewer.'

Though salmon are not the financial catch they once were because fish farms have depressed prices, there is still a mystery about them that attracts the unscrupulous. In 1987 alone, 114 poachers were prosecuted. But the biggest threat is drift-netting at sea.

Off Northumberland, this is still done from traditional cobles. The Atlantic Salmon Trust believe the drift-netters are one of the biggest threats to returning salmon. And there are moves afoot to phase out the fishing. But this would inevitably threaten many fishing communities in the north-east.

These, however, are the problems of success. No local would want to return to the days when the smell told you how to find the Tyne.

Tyne Waters, by Michael Marshall, published by Wetherby, pounds 18.99.