New Year Blues

January 1st, 2015


There is no point in concealing the hard truth that the wild Atlantic salmon is in danger of extinction, at the very least in its southern range. Already the species is virtually extinct from USA. In the 1970s, Bay of Fundy rivers in Canada had runs of 40,000 salmon annually: they now have less than 200. Portuguese rivers no longer have salmon and the rivers of Galicia and Asturias are on the edge, as are the rivers of southern France, despite heroic efforts by fishery managers.

Rivers such as the Dorset Frome and other English South Coast rivers are already feeling the effects of climate change, as are many un-shaded upland streams further north, in the Dee and Spey catchments in Scotland, for example.

If we are to face the reality of our changing environment we need to deal directly with the issue of the collapse of wild Atlantic salmon stocks.
We must face the question, “is extinction of the species inevitable?” If the answer is “yes”, then, what is the timescale? And what can be done to delay that inevitability, and for how long?


The best of the feeding for our 2 & 3 sea winter salmon is along the west coast of Greenland where this photography was taken by TA in June 2011. Rich feeding for salmon may be severely reduced as ocean warming squeezes the areas where cold water planktonic species thrive. There are underpinning natural cycles such as the North Atlantic Oscillation which changes on a cyclical basis every thirty years or so. It is possible that we are about to witness such a change, the result oif which could be improved feeding areas for salmon i9n the northeast Atlantic Ocean.

If the answer is “No”, can we give the wild salmon time & space for its natural resilience to kick in? and what are the priorities for redressing damage to stocks already done, and protecting stocks under threat, or likely to be so?

2014 – the current status of wild Atlantic salmon stocks.
Anyone with an interest in the species will be aware of the last two years of low catches in the North Atlantic countries, with the notable exception of Russia’s Kola Peninsula. Early returns indicate that 2014 catches in North America, Iceland, Norway, Ireland and the UK were considerably lower than the five year average.

As with most issues in the natural world, the situation is more complex than might at first appear. For example, MSW salmon returning to some Scottish and Irish east coast rivers between February and May arrived in reasonable numbers and were in excellent condition. The Irish River Slaney, for example, had its best spring returns for thirty years, with most fish in prime condition and with average weights of 12lbs to 15lbs. A similar spring season was enjoyed by rods on the Scottish rivers, Tay, North Esk and South Esk. All these fish were caught and returned, while coastal netting of salmon was delayed until April.

In contrast, there is evidence that extreme flooding in the wake of Hurricane Bertha reduced juvenile density considerably in some Scottish upper catchment tributaries. Angling conditions in many North Atlantic seaboard rivers were not conducive to high-catch returns. Grilse returns in European salmon countries were at best variable, in some cases virtually non-existent. Much of this had been predicted by marine ecologists, notably at the Institute of Marine Research, Bergen.

Ecological indicators tell us that the trend of improving spring runs may continue, ‘all things being equal’, by which I am referring to prevailing weather conditions, including drought, extreme flooding, high energy oceanic weather events and rising sea temperatures. Environmental volatility, which is largely unpredictable, can have profound effects on migrations at sea, as well as on freshwater productivity. It is not surprising therefore that some freshwater managers are saying, “there is clearly nothing we can do to improve the situation at sea, so let’s concentrate our efforts on improving the river environment”

The picture is a mixed one, so what are the facts at our disposal? Where are the ‘choke points’ in the life of the wild Atlantic salmon? Can we prioritise threats to survival in terms of the a) seriousness of the risks they pose to salmon survival b) ability of human interventions to increase numbers of returning salmon?

Can human intervention make any difference at all to mitigate the effects of climate change on salmon stocks at sea?


This photograph is of the River Sidirovka in Russia’s Kola Peninsula. Although it is a fairly small river (about the size of the Scottish Gruinard) it has prolific runs of MSW early salmon, grilse and sea trout – with arctic char and a few hump-backed salmon as well. It is a fine river for two rods to fish from the lakes on the plateau to the estuary on the shore of the Barents Sea. Kola salmon continue to do well despite the continuing downturn in numbers of returning salmon elsewhere in the North Atlantic region.

Here are some facts & anthropogenic factors:
• Numbers of wild Atlantic salmon at sea have declined by more than 60% between 1970 and 2014, and are now extinct in more than 300 North Atlantic seaboard river catchments.

• For every wild Atlantic salmon in the sea, there are more than 200 farmed Atlantic salmon in open net cages, ‘sharing’ the same coastal waters. Recent scientific research indicates that impacts of parasites, pollution and disease from salmon farming on the coastal environment and wildlife may be far greater than previously assessed, and may even affect migratory salmonids much further away than the immediate locality of the salmon farm.

Spring salmon

Spring salmon

• Despite international pressure to put an end to mixed stocks drift and coastal netting, and the continuing decline in killing salmon by anglers, the number of wild salmon killed by human exploitation in the bio-region remains too high for a species under pressure of extinction.

In 2013 for example, one Scottish coastal mixed stocks net fishery killed 7,159 salmon and grilse, while the total number of salmon killed by nets and fixed engines in England and Wales in the same year was 24% above the average of the previous five years.

• The SALSEA project demonstrated that wild Atlantic salmon swim alongside and within shoals of horse mackerel and herring. We therefore know for certain that some salmon, at different stages of their marine phase, are being accidentally caught up in the nets of commercial trawlers. We now need to know the extent of that by-catch, as well as where and when it takes place.

If it is found that the impacts on wild Atlantic salmon stocks are significant, AST will use its position as a full Executive Committee member of the EU’s Pelagic Advisory Council (PELAC) to influence fisheries policy in the direction of salmon conservation.



November 8th, 2014

Some Thoughts about Priorities for Action.

Thinking about Finavon, the South Esk, the East Coast of Scotland, the southern range of wild Atlantic salmon, and the North Atlantic Ocean as the salmon’s bio-region, is to follow the migration of our very own salmon from their juvenile time in upland burns of the S Esk catchment to the rich feeding grounds (or maybe not so rich) in the Ocean itself. It is not fanciful to think globally in this way. Indeed, I would argue that to fail to do so inhibits our aspirations to return our salmon rivers to the abundance of the 1970s. We have to think and act in recognition of the whole life of our salmon. I cannot make a wake-up call on my own. I need supporters, colleagues and partners to recognise that spending most of our resources on the 5% of fish that get back to our rivers is to ignore the 95% that die at sea. I want to see a far better balance of effort and resources than we have at present.

Dolphins killing salmon 1

Dolphins predating on salmon in the Moray Firth. These salmon were waiting in the dangerous inshore waters for a spate to draw them into their rivers. WEemust assess such risks as part of fishery management.

In preparation for forthcoming meetings with American and Canadian colleagues I want to indicate two or three projects which would benefit from an injection of programme funding. I don’t want to overload you with a lot of reading, but I decided to include a couple of attachments to give you a feel for our new strategy, which concentrates mainly on the marine environment.

AST is committed to a ‘Big Picture’ approach to salmon conservation. By that we mean wild Atlantic salmon throughout their lives in all parts of the North Atlantic Ocean. We treat salmon as pelagic fish that interact with other species throughout their marine phase. We cannot treat them in isolation, as has been the tendency until recently.

We therefore recognise that it is essential to work cooperatively across international borders in all parts of the ocean bio-region. We want to concentrate on research and actions which have a prospect of producing measurable outcomes within a reasonable timescale. We are therefore looking closely at areas where human intervention can make a difference to numbers of adult salmon returning to rivers throughout the North Atlantic region.

Our themes include:

1) reducing exploitation, including accidental by-catch

2) removing or adapting obstructions to migrations

3) establishing ‘safe’ migration routes

4) raising public awareness of the predicament of wild Atlantic salmon, including education.

5) influencing development of sustainable aquaculture

6) influencing decision makers in order to benefit salmon conservation

7) initiating international meetings & fora for discussion on key issues, innovation and sharing best practice.

Three projects within these themes which would benefit from US charitable support are:


Innovative E-DNA pilot project to address the problems of accidental by-catch by pelagic trawlers. Our concern is the likelihood that post smolt migrations, relatively densely packed within coastal currents, may be inadvertently caught up in huge purse-seine nets. It is conceivable that the outward migration of a small river catchment could be decimated by pelagic trawlers. (See project proposal on separate attachment)

PROJECT TWO: ‘safe’ migration routes.

Establishing safe migration pathways for salmon between their native river estuaries and their feeding grounds. This project requires building on data from the SALSEA project and subsequent tracking projects to define migration routes prior to negotiating with national and international governments and organisations to agree protocols to reduce poaching & accidental damage to wild salmon stocks.


Feeding grounds off the West Coast of Greenland. We need to find ways of protecting the migration routes of salmon between their home rivers and their feeding grounds – for outward and inward migrations.

PROJECT THREE: post-smolts in estuaries & coastal waters

AST and others are concerned over the high rate of mortality of smolts in the days after they enter the sea. We recognise that the inherent vulnerability of these little fish, weakened by osmo-regulation & local conditions may cause huge variations in survival rates. Research is urgently required to establish what proportions of smolts die from causes such as predation, pollution, dredging, disease, infrastructural obstructions, drought etc in the intertidal zone. If we are able to identify a) the extent of the loss b) the causes we should be able to develop remedial actions.

Rough seas in winter

Rough seas in winter



November 1st, 2014

Philip's 10lbs salmon


Today was a perfect, slightly misty, autumn day with the light fading away from about 3pm. Our guests were iain Ingledew, Mark Coburn (Fishpal) and Colin Carnie. There were some salmon showing all day long, especially in a Willows, Lower a Boat Pool, Volcano and Pheasantry. They were, as has been the case for all this autumn, very reluctant to take the fly. Nevertheless Mark Coburn had a nice 11lbs hen fish from the taking spot in Willows, immediately after Iain McMaster had encouraged him to drop the fly into the small bay just downstream of the willows. According to Mark the fish took with a quiet authority, as a salmon should! Well done Mark. While enjoying a most convivial lunch, I watched from the DTH veranda a big fresh salmon break the surface no less than 4 times. We tried to persuade it to take the fly by fishing down to it from above the RPJ at the head of the pool. Without success. Tomorrow is the last day of the 2014 season. Our guests are John Wood, Colin Carnie, and Derek Strachan. TA


No-one could deny that 2014 has been a tough year on most Scottish salmon rivers. Rivers such as the Spey, Teith, Dee and Thurso have had a torrid time, and their catches reflect that. Here on the South Esk we have been quite well let and there have been fish in the river since March. I wouldn’t claim that either wild salmon or sea trout have been here in big numbers but I can say with a deal of certainty from my own observations and those of people I trust that the River is holding its own in a difficult year. Thus it was with some relief that I heard that Tony Searle had caught an 8lbs cock salmon in Beeches Pool on Castle Pool in conditions that were nigh-on perfect with falling and clearing water, a nippy frost lowering water temperature, no wind and only a few leaves but it was hard going all day long with only the occasional fish showing. But who better to reach our 100 salmon for 2014 than Tony Searle who has given FCW so much support over the years!

Philip's 20lbs salmon


Monday started the week with the river in perfect ply. The air temperature was unseasonably warm, and a few leaves lingered in the current, but we really couldn’t complain that late October had sprung a high water surprise on the South Esk. We caught two salmon and a sea trout, but not many fish were seen during the day – certainly far fewer than in the previous week. Interestingly, as dusk fell, there was a good show of salmon in Pheasantry. For readers who don’t know that pool, it is the streamy section of river directly opposite David’s Tree House (DTH). Fish were splashing about in that pool well into the darkness. At least one of the fish caught yesterday came from that pool. Have a look at the map – and click on the pool name “Pheasantry” to see the pool in more detail. This morning (28/10) the river is running at 1’6″ at Gella Bridge and “steady” so, leaves permitting, and the overnight rain avoiding another deluge, we should see some action today. TA POSTSCRIPT OVERNIGHT RAIN SWELLED THE WATER IN THE CATCHMENT WHICH THEN SPILLED OVER INTO THE RIVER, BRINGING A 2′ SPATE. While conditions today weren’t good for fishing, the weather forecast suggests that there will be no more rain. More to the point, it is likely that there will be a sharp frost in the glens which should lower the water temperature and bring salmon onto the take. We are eternal optimists as we strive towards the 100 salmon for the season!


Early autumn view in low water from the Red Brae Hut.

Early autumn view in low water from the Red Brae Hut.

THE LAST FIVE DAYS OF THE 2014 SEASON (and some pictures from the spring & summer)

Overnight the storm blew itself out into the North Sea. This morning the wind is a shadow of its former self – a mere zephyr – and the beech leaves are lying 6″ deep on the lawn. The exhausted trees, after bending and groaning before the full force of the westerly gale are battered and bedraggled, with remaining leaves like shreds of clothing hanging from their skeletal forms. This is the back end of autumn, or the beginning of winter from which we should emerge in five or six months time. It’s a long haul! Today is mild and dull and, although I have yet to look closely at the river, I think it likely that the leaves will be less of an interference than last week. It has also started to rain here while in the West over 6″ of rain has fallen in the last 24 hours. Tony Searle and his two companions will start at 0800 with a meeting at the Milton gate, to be shown the river by Iain. Here’s hoping for keen salmon and satisfied anglers!