THE KING OF THE RIVER

Sal­mon were once abun­dant across Bri­tain, their epic mi­gra­tion a won­der fa­mil­iar to ev­ery­one. But num­bers have plunged in re­cent decades, laments Charles Ran­ge­ley-Wil­son, and ur­gent ef­fort is needed to save this magnificent fish

Countryfile Magazine - - Discover - Charles Ran­ge­ley-Wil­son writes about fish­ing, rivers, travel and con­ser­va­tion. His book Sil­ver Shoals: The Five Fish That Made Bri­tain (Chatto & Win­dus), is re­leased in Oc­to­ber.

Igrew up in Lon­don in the 1970s and was mad about fish­ing, though God knows how I sus­tained my en­thu­si­asm; the Thames was eco­log­i­cally dead in those days and our Sus­sex school had only one muddy, anoxic pond called Stinkers. So I was 14 be­fore I saw my first sal­mon. It was dur­ing the sum­mer hol­i­days, when I went to Ire­land to stay with Si­mon, my best pal from school.

Si­mon’s dad drove us over in his red, Citroën 2CV, head­ing west from Cork to the sea at Ken­mare and be­yond. On the way, we be­gan to cross those rum­bus­tious lit­tle rivers that tum­ble off the west-coast hills: the Roughty, the Fin­nihy, the Black­wa­ter and fi­nally the beau­ti­ful Sneem River. It was be­side one of these that we stopped and I saw a sal­mon jump a wa­ter­fall. The mem­ory still plays like a film in my head, the bright sal­mon catch­ing the top ledge of the fall, thrash­ing its tail un­til it was swal­lowed by the teas­t­ained wa­ter of the river above. For me, it was like a spark touch­ing a fuse and I have pur­sued sal­mon, like Yeats’s wan­der­ing Aen­gus “through hol­low lands and hilly lands” ever since.

TO AND FROM THE OCEAN

I am not alone: the sal­mon in­spires myth, re­li­gion, po­etry and the de­vo­tion of thou­sands. Small won­der, as the huge jour­neys it un­der­takes, its ath­leti­cism and beauty are awein­spir­ing. The At­lantic sal­mon is anadro­mous, mean­ing it breeds in fresh­wa­ter but mi­grates to sea to feed and grow. Sal­mon from the south and west of Eng­land and Wales, for ex­am­ple, mi­grate to the west coast of Green­land. Sal­mon from the north-east mi­grate to the far­thest reaches of the Nor­we­gian Sea.

In those dis­tant and frigid wa­ters, sal­mon gorge on a feast of capelin, sand eels, small fish and shrimp, grow­ing at a rate that is al­most un­par­al­leled in the world of fish. Then, af­ter one year or sev­eral, they re­turn to the rivers of their birth, forg­ing up­stream over wa­ter­falls with that stout-hearted hero­ism that so cap­tures our imag­i­na­tions. Salmo salar – sal­mon the leaper. At the end of this odyssey they spawn and die; a seem­ingly pa­thetic fate af­ter all that ef­fort, un­til you con­sider that their decomposing corpses, grown fat with the rich­ness of the sea, fer­tilise those nurs­ery streams with the nu­tri­ents the next gen­er­a­tion of sal­mon needs.

DAN­GER AT EV­ERY TURN

Once upon a time, the proto-sal­mon evolved to take ad­van­tage of the abun­dant food of the sea and the rel­a­tive safety of fresh­wa­ter as a place to re­pro­duce. Now, the value that epic mi­gra­tion con­fers is more am­bigu­ous. The sal­mon is threat­ened at all stages of its life cy­cle and each threat mul­ti­plies the risk to the fu­ture of the species. Twenty out of the 23 rivers in Eng­land that still con­tain sal­mon are now judged to be ‘at risk’.

Sci­en­tists re­fer back to the 1960s for a bench­mark against which to mea­sure our dwin­dling pop­u­la­tions of sal­mon. This ground zero is known as ‘pre-fish­ery abun­dance’ and dates from a time be­fore the sal­mon’s feed­ing grounds in the sea were dis­cov­ered and pil­laged, when there were five times as many sal­mon in Bri­tish rivers as there are to­day.

In truth, the sal­mon has been un­der threat since the first mil­len­nium, or

even ear­lier. That 1960s ‘abun­dance’ is it­self a shadow of what once ex­isted. Sal­mon would once have been present in ev­ery Bri­tish river, but were al­most ex­tinct across the breadth of low­land Eng­land be­fore the Mid­dle Ages, shut out by mills and pol­lu­tion. The priest Wil­liam Har­ri­son was able to say of the River Thames in 1586 that it was so full of “fat and sweet salmons… as no river in Europe was able to ex­ceed it”. Yet Thames sal­mon were ex­tinct by 1821, wiped out by the filth pro­duced by the In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion.

To­day, the curse of in­dus­trial pol­lu­tion has, to a large ex­tent, re­ceded, but other, more per­ni­cious threats have re­placed it. Dif­fuse pol­lu­tion – fer­tilis­ers, pes­ti­cides and agri­cul­tural run-off from soil ero­sion – has a ma­lig­nant im­pact on ju­ve­nile sal­mon in ap­par­ently pris­tine, ru­ral streams. Acid rain too; specif­i­cally the re­ac­tion of acid­i­fied rain­wa­ter with pine nee­dles from the conifer plan­ta­tions that cover large parts of up­land Bri­tain, which cre­ates spikes of lethally toxic, acid­i­fied river wa­ter. Dams, nav­i­ga­tions and hy­dro-schemes con­tinue to shut the door on the mi­grat­ing adult sal­mon, some­thing that has been il­le­gal since the 12th cen­tury, although the laws have never ac­tu­ally stopped any­one.

FISH­ING AND FARM­ING

We dis­cov­ered the sal­mon’s oceanic feed­ing grounds in the late 1950s and, for three decades, fished the hell out of the species, dras­ti­cally re­duc­ing the global pop­u­la­tion. The im­pact of net­ting has di­min­ished in re­cent years largely thanks to the Her­culean ef­forts of the late, great Orri Vigfús­son, an Ice­landic en­tre­pre­neur and con­ser­va­tion­ist. Dur­ing the 1990s, he man­aged to bro­ker mora­to­ria with sal­mon fish­er­men of the Faroe Is­lands and quota and net buy­outs from other fish­ing fleets in the re­gion. To­day, there is very lit­tle sal­mon net­ting in the North At­lantic and the fish­er­men have been helped to con­vert to more sus­tain­able al­ter­na­tive ac­tiv­i­ties.

In fish­ing’s wake has come a new mino­taur: sal­mon farm­ing. Smoked sal­mon – once a lux­ury com­pa­ra­ble with caviar – is now ubiq­ui­tous and in­ex­pen­sive, but at mas­sive en­vi­ron­men­tal cost. The sal­mon farms that dot the sea lochs and es­tu­ar­ies of western Scot­land cre­ate pesti­len­tial plagues of sea lice that have wiped

out or se­ri­ously di­min­ished runs of wild sal­mon (and sea trout) in those places. Although the tech­nol­ogy ex­ists to do things dif­fer­ently, sal­mon are farmed in ways that would never be tol­er­ated in other, more vis­i­ble forms of agri­cul­ture.

As if that weren’t bad enough, one threat – a warm­ing At­lantic – may yet undo our sal­mon al­to­gether. The tem­per­a­ture of the ocean af­fects how far the sal­mon have to travel to find food and how much they find when they get there. When once up to 15% of the young sal­mon that went to sea sur­vived to re­turn, now that num­ber is more like 4%, and wors­en­ing with ev­ery pass­ing decade.

SAVE OUR SAL­MON

In the face of such a de­cline, is there any­thing we can do to save the species in Bri­tain? For­tu­nately, the sal­mon in­spires de­vo­tion among rod-and-line fish­er­men, and they make a small army of con­ser­va­tion­ists. On the English and Welsh Wye, for ex­am­ple, a band of sal­mon lovers has in the last decade driven a three-fold in­crease in the sal­mon run by knock­ing down dams, neu­tral­is­ing acid­i­fied streams with lime, plus mile af­ter tire­less mile of habi­tat im­prove­ments. The best we can do to counter the poor survival at sea is to send as many young fish to sea as pos­si­ble, at least un­til mankind finds a way to save it­self and the planet from sui­cide by car­bon emis­sions.

As for the gen­eral pub­lic, de­mand­ing a change to the way sal­mon are farmed would make a big dif­fer­ence. We should also hold the gov­ern­ment to ac­count over its agri­cul­tural and fish­eries poli­cies. Less soil ero­sion, less dif­fuse pol­lu­tion, bet­ter land­scape man­age­ment – these things will all help save the na­tion’s most an­cient res­i­dent. Sal­mon have been present along the south coast of Eng­land, which has never been cov­ered by glacia­tion, since their evo­lu­tion as a species two mil­lion years ago. We ought to make sure they do not dis­ap­pear un­der our watch.

A sal­mon that re­turns from the sea as a sleekly shaped, sil­ver fish evolves a deep shade of pink with a hooked jaw and humped back as it heads up­stream to spawn

ABOVE Fish­ing for sal­mon was sug­gested to be a suit­able pur­suit for a gen­tle­man, as de­picted in The Book of St Al­bans (1486)

6 7 1 5 2 3 4

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP Fish farm cages in the wa­ters of Scal­pay on Lewis and Har­ris; an At­lantic sal­mon in­fected with sea lice; fish­eries of­fi­cers check sal­mon on the River Tyne

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