Are sea-trout the fish of the future?
With salmon in continuing decline, fishermen are reconsidering the status of the sea-trout, previously dismissed by some as its Cinderella cousin
With salmon numbers causing concern, rods are turning to another quarry, reports Graeme Harris
The history of fisheries management in the British Isles since the seminal Salmon Fishery Acts of the 1860s was largely dominated by the far greater importance attached to the protection and conservation of the Atlantic salmon. The basic assumption was that since salmon and the closely related and co-dwelling sea-trout had similar life histories in freshwater and in the sea, any measures to protect and conserve salmon would also benefit sea-trout. Consequently, little was done to address any special needs of sea-trout and it remained largely neglected and taken for granted by the scientific and angling communities –until recently.
This lack of regard for the status of the seatrout was encapsulated by “Jock Scott”, the pen name for the Scottish author who published Sea Trout Fishing in 1969 towards the end of a long fishing career. He wrote: “The
sea-trout is the Cinderella of the game fish world – authors, government departments, fishing owners and all other interested parties seem to pass him by. This is really not so surprising when one considers the matter. A good sea-trout river frequently accommodates salmon also, and naturally the latter fish steals all the limelight, attention and finance.”
His acid test was to ask: “If faced with two invitations for a fishing holiday, one on a good salmon river and the other on a famous sea-trout water, which would you accept?” If you accepted the latter, he added, “You are a real enthusiast with a soul far above the glamour that surrounds Salar the salmon, and I salute you. You are made of sterner stuff than I.”
Indeed, looking back at the extensive salmon angling literature of that time, it seems that the sea-trout suffered from a “bad press” over the previous century. Few authors mentioned sea-trout and when they did it was often in such dismissive and negative terms as:
“A lowly fish not worthy of serious attention”; “Something to fall back on when the salmon fishing is out of order”;
“An occasional diversion from the more serious business of salmon fishing”;
“Only popular on the ‘cloth-cap’ fisheries of Wales”;
“Vermin that should be extirpated because they compete with salmon”.
The period from the early 1950s until the late 1960s has been described as “the Golden Years”, when salmon and sea-trout catches reached a peak and were everywhere abundant. Why, then, would any angler wish to waste time and effort in pursuit of the smaller and less prestigious sea-trout when salmon were there to be caught, often in seemingly indecent numbers? However, attitudes to sea-trout began to change steadily from the late 1960s because of two separate
but overlapping events that gradually shifted the spotlight away from salmon and onto sea-trout, changing popular perspectives on their relative importance.
The first was the pandemic disease Ulcerative Dermal Necrosis (UDN) that ravaged our salmon and sea-trout fisheries from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s, with the sad sight of dead and diseased fish covered in fungus littering the river margins almost everywhere. This single event presaged the seemingly ineluctable decline in the wellbeing of our salmon fisheries that has continued to the present day. This depressing situation is illustrated by the River Wye, once fabled for its impressive early run of large “spring” salmon and very large “portmanteau” salmon in excess of 40lb. The annual reported rod catch peaked at about 7,500 salmon in 1966 (more than half caught before June) and then declined dramatically to a low of 348 fish in 2010.
However, sea-trout, with their more adaptable and resilient life history, steadily recovered from the ravages of UDN to something like their former levels of abundance by the 1980s to provide an alternative target species in the absence of salmon in most rivers where they had previously been taken for granted and seen as an incidental by-catch of salmon angling. Sadly, not all salmon rivers produced significant numbers of sea-trout to fill the vacuum left by depleted salmon runs. For example, the reported rod catch of seatrout on the Wye rarely exceeds 80 fish in any year.
The second event was the rapid growth of the commercial salmon-farming industry on the western seaboards of Scotland and Ireland from the late 1970s, where salmon were reared in cages moored in sheltered coastal bays and estuaries. The parallel and dramatic collapse of runs of sea-trout in neighbouring rivers was (after a hotly contested debate) eventually attributed to the increased mortality of sea-trout post-smolts during their early marine feeding phase caused by massive infestations of the salmon louse (Lepeophtheirus salmonis) originating from salmon reared at high densities in sea cages. These remote regions are characterised by many small, river- and lake-fed catchments with only small numbers of late-running salmon but producing reasonable runs of sea-trout to sustain the rod fisheries over much of the season. In the absence of any significant salmon stocks, the collapse of the sea-trout runs had a major impact on the social and economic benefits of angling tourism to the local economy in many remote rural areas.
Although the reasons for the collapse of many important sea-trout fisheries in parts of Ireland and Scotland in the 1980s and 1990s was little understood at the time, it generated grave concern that something similar might happen in England and Wales. This concern triggered a concerted effort to draw together all the available information from past studies on sea-trout in the region and led to the implementation of a national sea-trout research and development programme to fill the gaps in our knowledge about the status and wellbeing of the seatrout fisheries and to determine how best to manage them should a similar collapse occur. This served to highlight the fact that the importance of sea-trout in sustaining the recreational fisheries on many rivers
Sea-trout were providing an alternate target species in the absence of salmon
had been undervalued in the past and would increase if salmon stocks continued to decline in the future.
Although catch records from the rod (and net) fisheries in the British Isles have been obtained in different ways and with varied levels of accuracy and detail for more than 100 years on various rivers, it was not until 1994 that a common approach was adopted throughout England and Wales for collecting and reporting annual rod catch statistics for both salmon and sea-trout on all of the 80 principal migratory fish rivers. This is based on a dual system that requires every angler fishing for salmon and sea-trout to possess a rod licence and to submit an annual return of catch in a standard format that now represents a growing treasurechest of detailed and directly comparable management information. Among other things, it now provides an unprecedented basis for comparing the relative contribution and importance of sea-trout and salmon in supporting the recreational rod fisheries over the past 20 years.
A detailed analysis of the available catch data from 1994 to 2015 shows that the progressive decline in salmon stocks (and rod catches) throughout England and Wales over the past 50 years has increased the status and importance of sea-trout in sustaining the rod fisheries at a regional and local level. In general terms, the sea-trout is now the mainstay of the rod fisheries on all but a few of the 80 migratory fish rivers, with an importance that is equal to or greater than that of salmon in terms of its relative contribution to: a) the total annual catch; b) the monthly pattern of catches in each month of the fishing season; and, c) its greater likelihood of capture on any fishing trip over the season. It is also the preferred target species of anglers fishing by day or at night on rivers where the expectation of catching a salmon is considered to be “low” or “unlikely”.
Although there is an extensive range of variation between different rivers and regions, this statement is supported by the following headline statistics and comments.
For all 80 rivers in England and Wales, the reported average annual rod catch was 35,872 sea-trout and 17,345 salmon, with sea-trout representing 67.4% of the combined catch of 53,217 fish of both species. The annual catch from Wales (30 rivers) of 17,345 sea-trout represented 48.5% of the total catch in England and Wales compared with just 24.6% for the Welsh catch of 4,269 salmon. The only region where the average proportion of sea-trout caught (47.9%) was
Will sea-trout become even more important in sustaining rod fisheries?
smaller than the salmon catch was from the six rivers in north-west England.
Information on total annual catch at the end of each season does not provide a clear measure of the relative importance of each species to the performance of the rod fishery in each month of the fishing season (effectively March to October). A monthly breakdown of the annual catch in all regions shows that the sea-trout catch exceeded the salmon catch in each month of the season (often by a very large margin) except for the 20 rivers in north-east and north-west England, where the rod catch of salmon was only greater over the last few weeks of the season in September and October.
Catch-per-unit-effort (CPUE) is the number of fishing trips (days or part-days) required by each rod to catch a given number of fish. It provides an important measure of “angler satisfaction” and the relative importance of each species in contributing to the attraction and appeal of a fishery. An analysis of an average of 192,278 annual fishing trips on all rivers in England and Wales showed that it required 5.2 trips to catch one seatrout compared with 10.4 trips to catch one salmon. The number of trips required to catch one fish of either species was similar on the 20 rivers in north-east and northwest England (86,000 trips) at about eight trips but improved significantly in favour of sea-trout in Wales (72,000 trips) where it required only 4.1 trips to catch one sea-trout compared with 15.9 trips to catch a salmon.
Preferred Target Species
Further evidence that sea-trout could no longer be regarded as “merely something to fall back on when the salmon fishing was out of order” is provided by the 8,357 responses to a questionnaire survey of the 22,000 anglers who obtained a rod licence to fish for migratory fish on 65 rivers in England and Wales during the 2006 fishing season. Each angler was asked to state the number of fishing trips over the year that were targeted at fishing for sea-trout only (by day or at night), for salmon only by day or for both species together on the same daytime fishing trip. A breakdown of the 76,675 trips recorded showed that roughly similar numbers fished exclusively for sea-trout (26,223 trips) or salmon (28,148 trips) compared with both species on the same occasion (22,314 trips).
So what of the future? Will salmon stocks (and catches) continue to decline so that sea-trout become even more important in sustaining the rod fisheries in future years? The most recent assessments of the status of migratory fish stocks for the separate fisheries jurisdictions in England and in Wales paints a gloomy picture. This is particularly so in Wales, where salmon stocks have continued to decline over the past 10 years to the point where they are judged to be “at risk” or “probably at risk” of failing to produce enough spawning fish to replace stocks at the same levels of abundance in future years on 20 of the 23 principal salmon rivers. Similarly, the situation with sea-trout is far from encouraging, with 21 of the 33 main sea-trout rivers judged to be “at risk” or “probably at risk” of failing to meet their required spawning targets. Management options for arresting any further decline in spawning populations are currently the subject of detailed reviews by Natural Resources Wales and the Environment Agency that are likely to require that fewer fish are harvested (killed) by the rod and net fisheries in each region over the next 10 years. How this will be achieved has yet to be decided.
As salmon numbers began to decline dramatically the sea-trout started to be seen as an alternative quarry for rods and no longer considered, “vermin to be extirpated”
Left: for long the “Cinderella” of the fishing world, sea-trout are slowly coming into their own Above: the River Tywi, Wales’ longest river, is renowned for its sewin and salmon
Above: night fishing for sea-trout is now the method preferred by 80% of anglers in Wales. Below: on the River Tawe at Ystalyfera in the Swansea Valley
Top: on the Tawe – with salmon in Wales “at risk” of not producing enough spawning fish to replace stocks, sea-trout fishing has gained in significance. Above: it requires 4.1 trips to catch a sea-trout in Wales