Anglers could be legally banned from eating the salmon they catch in Scottish rivers, under a bill to preserve fish numbers.
The Scottish Government aims to encourage more anglers to practice ‘catch and release’ every time they land a salmon.
But ministers have issued a stern warning that unless stocks improve significantly they will consider making it illegal to bring home a pole-and-line salmon.
The radical proposal, which would effectively mean the end of a practice as ancient as fishing itself, has sparked fierce debate among fishermen and conservationists.
Some say a ban on catching wild salmon to eat would undermine one of the main pleasures and purposes of fishing – and would also seriously damage the sport tourism industry, which is worth millions to Scotland’s economy.
Others say the measure is needed to protect rapidly declining salmon populations in the country’s rivers – warning that only drastic measures can save Scotland’s ‘king of fish’ from extinction.
The potential ban is mentioned in a Scottish Government consultation on how to improve wild salmon catch and release rates.
Currently, 95% of all Atlantic salmon caught by pole and line are voluntarily released by anglers.
But the government’s proposals contain a disclaimer which states: “If these voluntary measures are not successful in achieving 100% catch and release, we are also seeking views on the prospect of introducing mandatory measures at the future to achieve this goal.
“This would potentially involve changing the legislation to ban the retention of Atlantic salmon on all rivers in Scotland, regardless of their classification.”
The Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) said a blanket ban on taking salmon was “onerous”.
Bob White from the SGA said: “Everyone I know is against it. We are already turning over 90% of the fish. In fact this year of my customers we only kept two – and that’s because they were damaged.
“You can’t describe the joy fishing brings to people. It’s in the DNA of humanity to catch fish. You can see the buzz it gives people when they hook a salmon, and they are always shaken when they catch one.
“We don’t need this heavy hand from government. There are a lot of jobs at stake. We have a voluntary system that works well, and the Scottish government has taken this draconian approach.
“It would send the wrong message if pole-and-line salmon were banned from consumption – it would deter people from coming to Scotland to fish.”
The Atlantic Salmon Trust, whose patron is avid fisherman King Charles, said the ban would have little impact on fish stocks because the number of salmon caught is already so low.
Chief executive Mark Bilsby called for action to tackle other factors affecting salmon, such as climate change, river barriers and pollution. He said: “These are small numbers compared to the bigger picture. We need to focus on the causes of the sustained decline in the return of salmon to UK waters since the 1980s.”
Official figures show 35,693 wild salmon were caught in Scottish rivers last year, the lowest since records began in 1952.
The Scottish government has said a report on the consultation will be published by the end of the year.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We recognize the importance that angling plays in supporting employment and the wider rural economy across Scotland.
“Consultation on proposals to achieve higher catch and release rates and proposed river levels for 2023 is now complete. All responses are being thoroughly reviewed and a final report will be released by the end of the year.”