The furore over the arrival of American ‘pinks’ in Scotland’s northerly rivers is a classic case of much ado about nothing, believes Michael Wigan
The march of the American 'pink' salmon in Scotland's rivers is creating a bit of a stir amongst anglers
‘Newspapers have raised the spectre of interbreeding’
Nothing stirs imaginations more than alien invasions, so the appearance in several Scottish rivers – the Deveron, Spey, Wick, Halladale, Helmsdale, Thurso and others – of American ‘pinks’ has fired up many anglers.
They are salmon, but they hail from North America, home to eleven species of salmon broadly called ‘Pacific’. There they migrate into 1,300 lakes and rivers and form the principal food supply and protein enrichment for benefactors ranging from grizzly bears to forestland soils. Better-known types are chinooks, coho and sockeye.
Pinks, also called humpbacks, are the most numerous. I once walked onto a stream in British Columbia chock-full of spawning pinks, it was so packed that water was spilt onto the bank. I felt I had intruded on a primeval scene.
The pinks now straying into Scottish rivers derive from populations introduced in Norway and arctic Russia in the 1950s, supposed to naturalise and become a commercial fishery. They never did.
Anglers who thrill at the thought they can now openly kill a salmon and eat it may be disappointed. Pinks are not famous eating.
Newspapers have raised the spectre of interbreeding with our own Atlantic superstar. It has never occurred, even in laboratory experiments. At an aesthetic level, why should it? The pink has small scales, a thin mouth with a black tongue, teeth which protrude more as spawning approaches, and weighs about 4 pounds. No selfrespecting Atlantic hen salmon would entertain a hump-backed, toothy freak dressed in lurid magenta, surely?
What makes interbreeding even less likely is earlier spawning, performed only in the lower reaches of rivers. Then young fry swim from natal gravels and float straight to sea. They barely occupy the river habitat, like a nesting bird fledging almost straight away.
Pacifics in Scotland are silly season stories, true enough factually but probably without
‘By August a mere 60 salmon (target 750) had been tagged’
biological significance. Perhaps more silly, but with significance, is the Scottish government’s acoustic tracking initiative. Salmon caught at a north coast net-station are tagged, and then logged by acoustic receivers when they enter rivers.
With apologies for the suddenness of the project, Marine Scotland asked some 70 rivers to participate in June. The net station at Armadale in Sutherland was chosen, despite its modest catch history compared to nearby Strathy Point, deploying a single bag-net. Employees of river boards (the bodies government tried unsuccessfully to abolish in its wild fisheries legislation) helped deploy and fix the receivers, billing the government for time and effort.
The tags arrived tardily, in July. Criticisms by local netsmen that the whole project was too late looked close to the bone. By August ninth winds had been unfavourable and a mere 60 salmon (target 750) had been tagged. No tagged salmon is known to have been recovered by anglers, who were to receive rewards. It looks inconceivable that the programme, so delayed, can produce meaningful results, despite costing half a million pounds.
The research was designed to reveal the spawning rivers of salmon arriving on the north coast. Eighty years ago W.J.M. Menzies tagged and tracked salmon circuiting Scotland seeking their natal rivers. In the 1940s and the 1950s more work was done. We already know that these north coastal salmon can appear in rivers almost everywhere on coasts both east and west.
Salmon tagged in Argyll were recaptured on the opposite coast in the Tay. North coast tagged salmon showed up south of Glasgow on the Ayr, and in Lewis, even in Ireland. Needless to say, they were found too in most rivers between these distant points.
Reading the old-time literature would have been substantially cheaper than setting up expensive research programmes. Less egg would adorn fewer faces. The answers, like the programme about aquaculture’s sea-lice effects on wild salmon, are already known. But maybe now government is getting inured to embarrassment.