Archive for February, 2013

New season: old issues

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

These bulletin blogs represent news about Finavon and the South Esk, and my views as a riparian owner. They are not the views of any other organisation, nor are they designed to promote the interests of any individual or organisation other than Finavon Castle Water and factors affecting the fishery. Tony Andrews

The South Esk is centre stage in Scottish salmon fishery politics – yet again. The decision of the Scottish Government to revoke the licence for Usan Fisheries to fish in September, increasing interest in the river (see paragraph below), the never-ending debate about mixed stocks coastal nets, the issue of keep-ins (nets fishing through the statutory weekend close times), and the prospect of netting interests exploiting Scottish salmon saved by the decision to end mixed stocks netting on the English NE coast, all amount to a level of attention on the South Esk that, at some future moment, will surely lead to changes in the current regime of wild salmon and sea trout management.

As the recipient of EU Life Funding, priority SEPA funding to deal with diffuse agricultural pollution, the SEPA Rottal Burn Restoration Project, Marine Scotland’s ‘model’ fishery management project and spring salmon tracking, as an SAC with the benefits of EU Habitat Directive protection and supported by a very successful catchment management partnership and plan, you would have thought we should all be basking in contentment, but sadly that isn’t the case.

“Why on earth not?” you may ask, “with all that support the Southie must be the most favoured of all Scottish rivers”. Well, in a way you would be right. The river is getting a level of attention, study and funding that any of our beleaguered west coast rivers would be glad to accept.

Unfortunately the South Esk is the crucible of the worst case of mixed stocks coastal netting of wild Atlantic salmon and sea trout anywhere in the North Atlantic region. The only possible exception is the unsustainable Finnmark fishery where Norwegian netsmen are ‘stealing’  salmon bound for Russian rivers, and inciting a diplomatic row by continuing to exist. Diplomatic stand-offs with Russia usually end in a Russian victory, so I wouldn’t be placing any bets on the future of the Finnmark fishery!

Even the English coastal nets exploiting mixed stocks now have a limited lifespan. Salmon saved by the end of coastal netting south of the border are largely of Scottish origin. Fish saved by that uncharacteristic decision of the Westminster Government to practise genuine conservation will find themselves enmeshed, killed and sent to market by a small group of people continuing the outdated practice of mixed stocks coastal netting on Scotland’s east coast. There are lots of ways to get to Billingsgate, but via Montrose seems to be the only one for dead salmon.

Unless; Yes, unless the Scottish Government takes action after recognising that killing salmon belonging to the Dee, Don, North Esk, South Esk and Tay (and who knows how many other rivers – ‘the rivers in between’?) is causing serious damage to the economies in the river catchments of east Scotland. Rural communities from Strathdon to Blair Atholl, in Grampian and Tayside are losing out on an income which rightfully should be theirs. I doubt if a single fishery owner is making a profit from letting fishing, but local businesses, especially hotels, B&Bs, cafes, restaurants, tourist hubs, clothing and tackle shops should all be receiving a boost to their income from angling tourism. A regime of exploitation that preserves traditional, artisanal netting interests at the expense of the livelihhods of many hundreds of ordinary people, some in remote villages in the catchments of Scotland’s east coast salmon rivers, is surely as dead as a Monty Python parrot! I have deliberately avoided mentioning catch and release, which in conservation terms puts the case for closure of mixed stocks coastal nets beyond debate.

We know that the River Dee earns Deeside about £22 million a year from salmon angling. The estimated 320 salmon killed at Usan in May 2011 would have therefore very likely been a real ‘hit’ on the Deeside economy. If each salmon caught by an angler fishing the Dee is worth about £2,750 to the local economy, and if the exploitation rate of May salmon is about 20%, the ‘hit’ on the Deeside economy by the Usan nets in May 2011 was about 64 x £2,750 = £176,000. Just that one month! And what about the two Esks? By the same calculation the ‘hit’ on the North Esk was about 144 x £2,750 = £396,000 and on the South Esk about 136 x £2,750 = £374,000. Add in the Tay and Don and you start to get a picture of the level of economic and social damage done by one very effective killing machine – during one month in the season! And I haven’t even mentioned the words ‘conservation’ or ‘management’.

If you factor in the probable damage to fragile populations of salmon and sea trout from all affected river catchments, surely the case for regime change is obvious? Or am I missing something? I think not, although I have my suspicions that some old fashioned ideology or prejudice may be driving the agenda: certainly not evidence-based logic, or a recognition that rural communities in the east of Scotland are profoundly impacted by this outdated regime of uncontrolled exploitation of one of Scotland’s most iconic and valuable natural resources.

I am all too aware that these arguments have been put forward by many people – from Lord Hunter in the 1960s, to Lord Nickson’s Salmon Task Force in the 1990s, to the Mixed Stocks Fishing Working Group of 2009. The arguments stand repetition: they need dusting down and re-presenting to remind everyone involved in salmon fishery management that Scotland stands alone as the only country continuing this outdated practice, that in conservation terms mixed stocks coastal netting is simply unsustainable, and that the damage to rural communities is very significant. In my view these arguments cannot be aired too often.

It is just possible that good management, common sense and simple justice will prevail. The question is “when?”



Opening Day 2013

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

Five of us met for a couple of drams, a picnic lunch in David’s Treehouse, and about 3 hours of opening day (which means not very serious/glad-to-be-on-the-river) fishing. The result was four kelts! My guess – and I have no grounds for making this statement except for a sensation in my waters – is that there aren’t any fresh fish at Finavon. For mid February that is the norm, although over the last 130 years there have been a few instances of fresh fish caught on the opening day. I caught one myself, in 1990 as I remember.

David Ramsay fishing Haughs

David Ramsay fishing through the Haughs Pool (Bogardo Beat) which is one of Finavon’s best spring pools. On the 16th of February the pool produced two well mended kelts.

The river was at a perfect height but on the cold side with the water temperature at about 36 F. No fish were seen, but a convivial day in perfect late winter surroundings was enjoyed by all.

Michael Dawnay with Tally Labrador 

Michael Dawnay with Tally Labrador on the bank of the Haughs Pool 16/2/2013

Ryan Balcombe fishing Red Brae

This is Ryan Balcombe of Gow’s Fishing Tackle & Guns in Dundee fishing through the Red Brae. The pool looked terrific, with clear, light amber coloured water flowing over clean cobbles and gravel. If there was a fish in the pool it gave no sign of its presence!

Ryan Balcombe & Michael Dawnay at the Treehouse

Michael and Ryan discuss the conditions on the veranda of David’s Treehouse, the Castle Beat fishing hut.

 The day ended early after some desultory afternoon fishing and a discussion about bank maintenance over lunch in DTH.

Another season underway!



Some pre-season thoughts from Finavon

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

These bulletin blogs represent news about Finavon and the South Esk, and my views as a riparian owner. They are not the views of any other organisation, nor are they designed to promote the interests of any individual or organisation other than Finavon Castle Water and factors affecting the fishery. Tony Andrews

The December spate was a big one: it was also powerful and did a fair bit of damage. But it didn’t bring the combination of melting snow, high winds and heavy rain driven by a South westerly gale that we had in January 1993. That was the biggest spate we have had in the last thirty years.

High water in the Boat Pool

Winter at Finavon and high water in the Boat Pool

Talking to Angus Council and SEPA people, it is clear that much damage was done this year, with infrastructure degraded and some major erosion on the South Esk, but much worse on the North Esk, where huge erosion pockets and new cliffs have been formed, making it impossible for anglers to use sections of the banks on some beats.

At FCW we found that the Haughs Aqueduct was seriously undermined. Initially we thought it was in danger of collapsing, but after a meeting of experts on the riverbank on Tuesday 12th February we found that the heavily engineered structure is well supported by substantial foundations. With the overall weight of the aqueduct and its steel water pipe exceeding 100 tons, it would have been a major disaster had it fallen into the river, where it would almost certainly have become an obstacle to the passage of fish.

Erosion of Haughs aqueduct support

This is the right bank end of the Haughs Aqueduct after the winter spates removed most of the river bank on either side of the structure. At that point the river has a strong tendency to turn southwards into the Bogardo woods. Fortunately the structure is built on deep reinforced concrete foundations. Our job now is to work with SEPA and the Fishery Board to find a ‘soft engineering’ way of restoring the bank on each side of the aqueduct. We are looking at a range of  environmentally sensitive options recommended by SEPA, and have arranged to meet their senior specialist on the river in march to discuss the way forward.

Radio Tagging Project 2013. I was pleased to meet Fran and James from Marine Scotland Science when they were positionoing the receivers for the 2013 tracking exercise. The two receivers at Finavon will be located in the same places as in 2012.

Marine Scotland's field biologists positioning the Red Brae receiver

February 2013. The Marine Scotland (Montrose) field biologists position one of the receivers at Finavon to track our early running salmon.

The project will be done in much the same way as last year except that some salmon will, it is hoped, be netted in fresh water, probably at Kinnaird, about 8 miles downstream of FCW. Much will depend on water levels because it is not possible to net fish in the river in high water.

Judging by the huge amounts of snow in the glens and corries of the catchment there is little chance of there being extended periods of levels suitable for in-river netting. Two methods of netting in the river may be employed 1) a net set across the river 2) a moving net in much the same way as a net and coble operates. In-river netting will be done on one day each week where possible. All other salmon will be caught by the Usan nets, as they were in 2012, from where they will be tagged and released.

Glen Clova great juvenile habitat

Prime juvenile habitat for salmon and trout in the upper reaches of the South Esk in Glen Clova.

A reflection on the 2012 project is perhaps useful at this point. 153 mainly two sea-winter salmon were tagged and released into the sea after being caught in coastal nets at Usan, just south of Montrose. About one third of these fish were later recorded by receivers placed on the South Esk, North Esk, Dee and Tay. A helicopter survey was carried out at the end of the season in the Don, Lunan and Earn catchments, which resulted in two tagged fish being identified in the River Don, north of Aberdeen. Both these fish had been tagged in September, and were not therefore likely to be from a target spring salmon population. 

Other fish recorded by terrestrial receivers included 3 at sea, 19 in the North Esk, 18 in the South Esk, 8 in the Dee and 6 in the Tay. I have written separately about the wider implications of the Usan mixed stocks fishery in the Bulletin of December 12th 2012.

Glen Clova great juvenile habitat

Glen Clova. This is the old ice age glacial lake floor, through which the upper river runs for about 10 miles. Natural erosion, assisted in places by some poor forestry drainage, continues here every year, generating huge amounts of gritty silt. In places, between the long quiet pools, there are gravel banks providing spawning opportunities, but they are few and far between. The deeper pools of Glen Clova are not fished hard and provide a virtual sanctuary for salmon as they await the winter floods to take them into the tributaries to spawn.

So, in the first year of three years of this fascinating project, about one third of all the salmon tagged were later picked up by receivers. The other 97 salmon disappeared, but that doesn’t mean they died. My friend and well known fishery scientist, Dr David Solomon, was a pioneer of radio tagging salmon on the Hampshire Avon in the 1970s and 1980s. He noted that salmon tagged in the early spring are more liable to regurgitate the radio transmitter than fish tagged later in the season. This may be attributable to the metabolism of the salmon still being operative, and the stomach not entirely atrophied in preparation for the salmon’s freshwater migration. Other tagged salmon may have been killed by predators, human or otherwise. The ‘wastage’ of about 65% is normal for tagging projects, so we can fairly describe the 2012 tagging and tracking operation as successful. Well done Julian and the MSS team!

The main purpose of the project was to identify spawning areas and juvenile habitat for the South Esk’s early running salmon. It was reassuring to see that Glen Clova, including the newly restored Rottal Burn (see 2012 summer bulletins), are providing spawning locations for our spring salmon. I understand from Marshall Halliday, the Director of the Esk Rivers Trust, that as many as 30 salmon spawned in the Rottal Burn. He also mentioned that some sea trout made use of the finer gravels near the confluence with the main stem of the river. The Rottal Burn clearly played its part in the regeneration of the South Esk’s migratory salmonids.

Year Two of the South Esk project starts on Saturday. I anticipate more of the same. It would be great if there were a big spring run into the South Esk as there was in 2011. That was the year when the Usan nets killed 2,307 spring salmon in the month of May, a fact which I argue is the basis for understanding that the South Esk’s spring salmon smolt output can, in the right circumstances, generate a strong spring run. As Colin Gibb of Inshewan said to me this morning, “the South Esk has always had erratic runs of salmon: a year of plenty followed by a year of scarcity. There’s nothing new in that” I think Colin is right. A small river is probably more dependent on good spawning conditions and parr survival than larger rivers. It is in the nature of small rivers that their surfeits and deficiences are more obvious than in bigger rivers. It is really a question of the size of the margins – call it a safety net if you like. Little rivers are, by their very nature, more prone to the effects of weather, flood and drought than their bigger neighbours.

I am not going to make an unfounded guess as to the abundance and quality in 2013 of the runs of salmon and sea trout into the South Esk because there are too many unknown variables to make a sensible estimate. What I can say from scientific evidence of monitoring the conditions in the North Atlantic Ocean, and from sampling salmon during their migrations, is that areas west of Iceland continue to offer salmon better feeding that in the NE Atlantic and Norwegian Sea. You only have to look at what is happening to mackerel, herring and blue whiting stocks to recognise that there is a lot of change going on at sea.

What do these data signify for the angler on the bank of the South Esk? Put very simply (and I know I shouldn’t) it means poor grilse runs, some grilse thin and small, but some (lucky) grilse may have fed in a richer patch of ocean, because it is not uniformly poor. In contrast, perhaps there will be more big fish, not many, but those that do make it back from the NW Atlantic should be in tip-top condition, if they don’t get snarled up in coastal nets, eaten by dolphins or seals, or taken by gill nets in the Ferryden estuary.

Kintrockat South Esk

Great Sea Trout Water on the South Esk. This is Kintrockat, a few miles downstream of FCW.

As for sea trout, I am not going to try to predict how strong the 2013 runs will be, except to say that I am not unduly worried about their capacity to regenerate when conditions allow. South Esk sea trout are individually in great nick: there just haven’t been very many of them in recent years, at least not available to the angler! And there is nothing new in that, as 130 years of records at Finavon conclusively demonstrate.