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.

well­be­ing con­cerns

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.

im­proved sta­tus

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.

to­tal catch

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.

rod Suc­cess

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

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