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Donkin on Fishing - Iceland


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 has continued.

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 be restricted.

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.

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved