Photo Life Science Ltd


If one ignores the greater capital value of salmon rivers as compared to golf courses, the two pursuits are roughly equal in the total economic value each generates annually in Scotland. However, this masks a tremendous difference between different parts of the country. In some areas there is no contest. Around St Andrews, it’s golf. In the Flow Country it’s salmon. The total population of Caithness and Sutherland  is only 55,000, a tiny number of souls in such a huge chunk of land. The golf is splendid on the links courses but without the income from salmon fishing, some communities would be almost wiped out.

In 2012 the total rod catch of wild salmon and grilse over the whole of Scotland was 86,013, the tenth highest on record. This apparent plenitude is consistent with the reports for that year from the Flow Country rivers.

For 2013 the provisional figure is 66, 387. This is the lowest reported catch since 2003. The main culprit, but probably not the only one, was the hot summer.

Of the 2013 catch, 80% was released, as opposed to 74% in the previous year. Again, this figure is roughly replicated in the Flow Country. Showing spring/summer first and then autumn, the figures were: Naver 93:88; Thurso 100:88 and the Halladale 85:78. Research estimates for the percentage of returned fish that breed vary between 94% and 100%. Marine Scotland has posted an attractive video on the subject of Catch and Release on YouTube.

While it is of undoubted benefit that salmon are returned to a river to breed, many will baulk at the falseness that has now been implanted in our salmon statistics. On rivers with a long stem such as the Spey some fish may be caught (and released) as many as five times in the course of their journey upstream. These will count in the statistics as five different salmon. One river will differ from another. No calculation of the overall miscount is available at the moment. Some estimates would place the ‘ghost’ catch at 25%, which would reduce the actual 2013 catch to around 50,000.

The plight of the sea trout grows worse every year. In 2013 the total reported catch was only 15,824. Ominously, this is the lowest figure since 1952, when the current statistical series started. On the other hand, 77% of the catch was released, which is the highest percentage to date.

Since 1952 the rod catch of salmon and grilse has in theory doubled. The story of the net fisheries is the opposite. In 1952 the netsmen accounted for 89% of the total catch. The figure for 2012 was 16%, or 16,230 fish and for 2013, 37% or 24,311 fish, the netsmen (and the seals) naturally being the beneficiaries of a dry summer. The reasons for the overall decline of the netting operations are well known: insufficient financial returns and their purchase by angling interests. Whether it will stay that way is questionable. The recent strength in the market for wholesale farmed salmon is likely to be reflected in the price of wild salmon and thus the viability of the net fisheries.

The colouration and wear of its skin (above left) shows that in this, the last year of its life, it had been in its birth river for some time before spawning. For this it followed a hen fish up a narrow burn and when weakened by spawning was unable to escape from an otter.

Photo David Hay

Photo David Hay

Photo David Hay

Photo David Hay

Photo David Hay

The life cycle of a male salmon


By a flagship species we mean one that dictates our actions. The salmon is a prime example of this. Organisations exist in many parts of the world with the sole purpose of improving the lot of the wild salmon. Some of them have considerable clout. Much greater sums of money are raised on behalf of the salmon then are for the brown trout, for example, even though the latter is every bit as interesting and possesses a far greater beauty. We might suppose, therefore, that with all this attention salmon numbers would be healthier than those of other major fish species. But this is not the case. The smolt run has been in decline for a number of years. In its Marine Resource Tables 1950-2009, the UN classes salmon as over-exploited. The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea [ICES] has an up-to-date assessment of wild salmon stocks at http://www.ices.dk It also attributes the decline to poor marine survival.

But in fact the decline in the salmon population  is a general one. In the 1960s the nets off the coasts of Britain and Ireland were killing 500,000 salmon every year. An even greater number was taken by the interceptor nets off Greenland and the Faroes, to which must be added the catch made by the long-line boats operating in those areas, their lines often extending to 10 miles (15km) and 1,000 hooks. This catch has now been so vastly reduced that one would expect the number of salmon entering Scottish rivers to be tremendous. Painting with a very broad brush one could say that the reduction in the net and long-line catch should have resulted in an extra 1,000 salmon breeding annually in every river system (of which there are 381 in Scotland, as per NASCO’s map). Had this happened we would have been reading by now of people walking across the rivers on the backs of fish.

Photo Alan Youngson

The reasons for the decline are not precisely known and perhaps cannot be since they appear to be connected to marine rather than river conditions. Something is happening but what? Where? How? Only 6% of North Esk smolts now return to the river. In the 1980s the figure was estimated at 20%. As Marine Scotland commented when introducing the statistics for 2012, “The decline in the netting industry has thus acted as a buffer for the rod fishery.”

Curiously, this decline does not seem to have been accompanied by a decline in best weights. The RAFTS/ASFB report for 2013 remarks specifically on the increase in the number of larger salmon being landed, fish of 45 lbs being recorded from both the Tay and the Tweed, 40 lbs from the Findhorn, 36 lbs from the Stinchar and so on. By coincidence, catches of large cod have also been reported (March 2014). Here is Kristinn Gestsson, skipper of a Grandi factory trawler: “The average weight has to be over 6 kilos (13 lbs), which has caused a few problems with the filleting machine settings. We’ve had one man on each shift hand-filleting non-stop all trip.”

There is a strange tension at work here. On the one hand a significant number of small thin grilse – 2 lbs or so – are being seen in several rivers and on the other hand there are these whoppers. We can only hope that the glory days of the past are set to return.

These photographs are from Fred Buller’s The Domesday Book of Giant Salmon (2007)

Mr and Mrs Harold de Pass with his 51lb salmon.

Egil Larsen’s

52lb salmon