Doubts raised over impact of net fishing

Net fishermen working in the River Tweed estuary have raised doubts about their impact on fragile spring salmon stocks.

Tuesday, 17th July 2018, 8:22 am
Gardo netting station, using traditional fishing methods on the Tweed estuary

The River Tweed Commission (RTC) has applied to the Scottish Government to ban the catching of salmon by net between February 1 and May 31 each year.

But at a meeting of Berwick Regeneration Commission on Monday, representatives of the River Tweed Wild Salmon Company, along with a number of local residents, expressed strong concerns about a proposal which could result in the end of the centuries-old tradition of net fishing.

They queried how a fishery which takes fewer than 50 spring salmon could put the stock at risk, suggesting other factors such as rod fishing and predation by the increasing number of dolphins at the mouth of the river had a bigger impact.

Michael Hindhaugh, owner of the River Tweed Wild Salmon Company, leases Gardo – the last commercial net fishing station on the river – and pointed out there are handling and stress-related mortality rates attached to the catch and release policy adopted by anglers.

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He argued: “You can attach a percentage to the number of rod caught fish. 2,030 fish is the average number of spring fish over the last five years, with a high of 2,500 in 2016, so you should attach that mortality rate to that number.

“The Scottish Government work off 12 per cent, other organisations work off higher figures. Undoubtedly the rod fisheries do contribute to a mortality of the spring salmon.

“I would suggest we are having less impact on the spring run than the rods. Our numbers are 49-50 on average over the last three years.”

Andy Richardson, chairman of Berwick Harbour Commission, criticised the RTC’s lack of consultation.

RTC clerk Fay Hieatt and fishing conservation expert Dr Ronald Campbell of the Tweed Foundation gave presentations at the meeting.

Ms Hyiatt said: “Since 2016 when Gardo started fishing commercially, the fishery has reported an average catch of 48 salmon including grilse in each year before May 31. One way of looking at this is that the fishery only catches around 50 spring salmon each year so it can have little impact on the stock as a whole. The flip side of this is that the stock is so small and springers so rare that every salmon taken is a huge loss to the system.

“An 8lb hen fish can have between 5,000-10,000 eggs which in years such as the one we are experiencing now, when we believe we will quite possibly be below our spawning limit, will have a significant impact. Fifty spring fish can represent the loss of between 250,000 to 500,000 eggs to the system.

“It has never been the RTC’s intention to close the netting concerns in Berwick when and where there is an adequate stock of fish that can be exploited.

“The RTC recognises the long netting history on the Tweed and wishes only for the industry in return to recognise that some salmon stocks on the river are more fragile than others and can therefore not be safely exploited. That would mean fishing sustainably by putting the fish first and not killing the salmon until after the spring season has concluded.

“It seems manifestly unfair and unreasonable that whilst anglers have and are making an effort to protect fragile spring stock by voluntary returning a fish, there is a fishery near the mouth of the river exploiting it commercially.”

She continued: “Catch and release in the spring has been a norm for 20 years on this river. Despite anglers returning spring fish the stock is not recovering at present and 2017 saw a 30 per cent drop in numbers on the previous year. This is 600 fish less than the previous season which is a huge decline.

“A great deal of pressure is now being put on the RTC to do something about it. The RTC therefore seeks only to further protect the fragile spring salmon stock on the river for everyone.

“We want to see a fair and equitable policy whereby all types of fishing on the river recognise this weak stock and allow it the chance to reach its home rivers within the system to fully spawn the next generation.

“In 2018, more than ever, it is incredibly important due to the paucity of early running fish in the river. The Tweed summer stock of salmon are holding up so it is unnecessary to prevent rods or nets from taking some of those fish.”

She explained that radio tracking of salmon in the 1990s showed the Tweed system were two main sources of spring salmon - a smaller stock which heads up the River Whiteadder and a large stock which heads up the Ettrick beyond Selkirk.

“This stock probably accounts for over half the spring salmon stock in the Tweed catchment,” she said. “The total population of spring salmon is estimated at 5,000 to 7,000 and is the weakest run of salmon we have on the river.

“Since 1998 we have been working with those on the river to reduce the exploitation of spring salmon to try and bolster this stock. We have a voluntary catch and release policy until the end of June each year which means that rod fishers return all springers unharmed to the water.

“The Ettrick springers were monitored by a fish counter from 1998-2009. During that period the counts of spring salmon did not improve. In some years we were very close to the minumum number of fish required to meet spawnuing targets. Without fish caught and released by angklers we woyuld not have reached that arget in some years. This, coupled with the fact that spring salmon are more susceptible to capture, means the stock is at risk.

“We now have a new counter installed on the Ettrick fish pass which commenced operation in April and which will resume monitoring of the spring stock for us.”