Salmon anglers have called for urgent action to protect Scotland’s wild salmon after the lowest numbers on record were caught last year.
The latest official data shows that 35,693 Atlantic salmon were caught by anglers in Scottish rivers last year, the lowest number since records began in 1952 and just 75% of the average for the past five years.
Figures for sea trout, a species that uses the same rivers as salmon, were also the lowest on record, at 12,636 and 77% off the last five-year average.
Last year’s catch figures were affected by the Covid lockdowns in spring 2021, but the data is consistent with recent trends. In 2018, the last full year before the pandemic, wild salmon catches set the previous record of just over 37,600. In 2010, anglers caught more than 111,400 salmon.
The data has alarmed fisheries experts and conservationists. Wild salmon and trout are a keystone species for many mammals and birds, and a plummeting fish population is harming other creatures such as otters, ospreys and mergansers, damaging the wider ecosystem .
Salmon are very sensitive to water temperature and reduced water purity. Their decline is seen as unequivocal proof that the climate crisis, pollution, fish farming and industrial activities are causing greater environmental damage.
Alan Wells, director of Fisheries Management Scotland, urged the Scottish government to accelerate its new strategies to improve and protect salmon stocks. “The latest figures underline how serious the situation has become. We urge the government to deliver on its existing commitments without delay and to go much further in all areas where it has the power to make a difference,” he said.
In January, the government agreed that the wild salmon population was in crisis. He promised to improve water quality, review conservation law enforcement, reduce conflicts with human activities at sea and in coastal areas, and strengthen marine conservation efforts.
Since the 1990s, Scottish anglers have returned their catch to the river under a voluntary conservation code that is heavily policed by fishing organizations and ghillies, the experts who guide anglers on many fishing routes.
Along with removing dams and weirs, district fisheries councils across the country have pledged to plant millions of native trees along thousands of miles of riverbanks to lower water temperatures and reduce flash floods. . “Trees act as natural umbrellas,” Wells said.
Some fisheries have investigated restocking heavily depopulated rivers with hatchery-reared young salmon from local wild stocks, although the strategy remains controversial due to uncertainty about their survival rates.
Landowners and salmon experts along the Carron, a river that empties into Loch Carron in Wester Ross, north Skye, believe their reintroduction of hatchery fish has saved its wild salmon population from a near extinction.
A succession of very large floods or floods on the Carron in the late 1990s wiped out young salmon, leaving it with a five-year average catch of just 10 salmon. By 2020, that number had risen to 187.
Wells said restocking programs could work in some rivers, but the focus should be on improving and protecting the rivers and the wider environment.
“There is no silver bullet here,” he said. “What we need to do is take concerted action across a range of pressures and policy areas. To ensure that the bed and board for the salmon are as good as possible, and we maintain optimum water temperatures for the salmon.