October 2005 –
Contrasting fortunes of Irish and Icelandic Salmon fishing
I would never be enthusiastic about exchanging
my rod for a placard but I could understand the sentiments
that drove thousands of angry anglers and river fishery
owners to Killarney in Ireland last weekend in protest at
Irish drift netting practices.
In a year that Iceland has been celebrating
an all time record for salmon catches on rod and line, Ireland’s
summer salmon run collapsed leading to empty hotel rooms
and sparsely fished beats.
The extent to which drift netting has depleted
stocks is difficult to gauge. The season in Ireland was
unusually dry and visitor numbers were down, largely, it
seems, in protest at the Irish Government’s refusal
to curb the netting at sea.
Patrick Devennie, who manages the Fort
William fishery - four stretches of the River Blackwater
in Munster - has seen his business decline noticeably this
year. Five years ago, he says, the prime months of June
and September were fully booked a year in advance with a
waiting list of clients.
This year he had unsold weeks throughout
and up to the end of the season and some groups had cancelled,
saying they would not be returning as long as drift netting
continued. “Since 2000, Fort William fishery has lost
90 tourists anglers – mostly from the UK, as a direct
result of the continued decreasing catches, or catching
no fish at all,” he says.
Multiply these losses throughout the Irish
salmon rivers and the damage to the country’s tourist
industry must surely far outweigh the economic benefit gained
by net fishing. While other European countries have cut
back their netting at seas in response to declining stocks
across the Atlantic salmon’s range, Irish drift netting
A few years ago Irish net catches were
topping 200,000 salmon a year but catches at sea have been
declining in line with numbers returning to many of the
rivers in Western Europe and this year the drift nets are
believed to have taken less than 100,000 fish.
Where drift nets have been bought out
by the North Atlantic Salmon Fund, salmon runs appear to
be recovering. The fund was set up by Orri Vigfusson, an
Icelandic businessman who felt that the best way to secure
the future of river fishing for salmon was to buy out fishing
interests in the Faroe Islands, Greenland and the North
East coast of England.
The fund’s latest coup earlier this
year was the estuary nets around Trondheim in Norway. The
buyouts appear to have been successful. Salmon have returned
in such numbers in Iceland that the rod and line catch this
year exceeded 55,000 fish for the first time, comfortably
beating the previous best season in 1978.
Iceland’s salmon tourism is now
approaching that of Scotland in value, worth over Euros100m
a year. Irish salmon tourism, in contrast, is worth about
Euros 16m according to figures supplied by the NASF.
Compare the two methods. A salmon angler
might expect to pay sums in excess of £100 for every
salmon caught. Netted wild salmon, on the other hand, can
be valued in the tens of pounds. Rod fishing is inefficient.
Anglers have no commercial interest in clearing a river
of fish. But a large trawler can scoop up 1000 tons of fish
in 20 minutes. Rod and line fishing in controlled numbers
is sustainable. Drift netting is not.
World Atlantic salmon catches declined
from 4m fish in 1975 to something around 700,000 fish in
2004. This means that the Irish government is supporting
a system in decline that, if not curbed, will take with
it the livelihoods of everyone connected with it - net fishers,
river fishery owners and hoteliers.
Saturday’s rally was calling for
an outright ban on Irish drift netting that is particularly
destructive of migratory fish returning to rivers in the
west of Ireland, Wales, England, France and Germany.
While this would hit sea fishermen, their
loss would be outweighed by the overall economic benefit
from a healthy river fishing industry. But the demise of
salmon nets should not absolve anglers of the need to involve
themselves in salmon conservation.
Unlike trout, where sexless tank-reared
fish can be stocked in to rivers to avoid mixing with wild
populations, salmon and sea trout must migrate. Their numbers
can be boosted by hatcheries but returning populations will
continue to run the gauntlet of natural predators before
they reach their spawning streams.
In my view anglers must play their own
part in conservation by releasing most of their fish when
they have large catches. The days of selling catches to
restaurants and markets - not uncommon in Wales among sea
trout anglers - should be over. The selling on of rod caught
fish should be banned and the numbers of retained fish should
The salmon season in other countries was
reasonable but patchy and spring fishing is still poor in
most Scottish rivers. As stocks recover I see no reason
why anglers should not be allowed to keep the odd fish for
their week but killing large numbers of fish should be a
thing of the past.