HATCH A PLAN An Atlantic salmon fry hatching. Hatcheries are needed now, as relying solely on cleaning up the waterways is too long term and risks decimating our Atlantic salmon population. Pic: Wikimedia/Commons
Country Sights and Sounds
The period from late November through to the end of the year customarily sends me to the river looking for salmon. According to reports, some river systems are doing well, if ‘just about holding their own in terms of fish populations’ could rightly be termed as such. Others are struggling, while an unfortunate few appear to have lost their runs of migratory fish altogether.
We might wonder why this has happened or, more, why has it been allowed to happen. It is easy to blame commercial fishing on the high seas, where long-lines each holding hundreds of hooks take an unquantifiable catch year on year and factory ships hoover the sea bed for everything edible and otherwise. We can do little or nothing about such practices and have to trust the relevant authorities to regulate such industry. (In that regard, the government of Greenland recently negotiated for themselves a 30 tonne Altantic salmon catch quota that will operate until 2020.)
Perhaps, at a pinch, we could point one wavering finger at illegal fishing closer to home. There is no doubt this continues to be a problem, with nets being placed at strategic locations along the coast, in estuaries and even close to where the salmon spawn. Certainly, poaching has contributed to the long-term decline in fish stocks. As one man told me, ‘Where you have salmon you’ll have villains’.
I recently walked two small waterways where the pools ought to be populated with mature salmon waiting for the final push to the spawning redds, one a limestone stream on the Corrib system, the other an acidic tributary of the upper Moy.
Both told the same sorry tale of eutrophication, or water enrichment, which has led to heavy growths of algae. Shallow parts of both rivers, including the gravels where salmon like to spawn, are coated in a brown and slimy sludge. Perhaps autumn floods will scrub the stones clean and give the breeding fish a better opportunity.
Surely there is a case for more hatcheries, where mature salmon can be artificially spawned and their eggs safely hatched in controlled conditions. The encouragement is for investment in cleaning up the rivers and enabling wild fish populations to flourish under their own steam. That is fine and well, but if something isn’t done rather more quickly, the fish won’t be there at all, and restocking will have to be done with non-indigenous eggs or fry, as another specific race of our own Atlantic salmon disappears forever.
On the Corrib feeder stream I found a pair of salmon lying side by side at the tail of one pool, resting on the cushion of water just upstream of a large rock and within easy reach of the bank. The female, slightly the larger, was brown along her back and sides while the male was almost black. He already carried a large kype, or upturned hook, on his bottom jaw, which prevented his mouth from closing properly. Both fish formed one continual sinuous movement, pressing each other back and forth across a mere foot of current.
What is it, I wondered once more, that draws two such creatures together? Do they talk about where they’ve been, about North Atlantic waters, of the seals and the whales, the otters and the anglers they’ve met over the last few months? Do they share common goals and have similar aspirations? The chances are slim that either will survive the rigour of spawning, but in that act they will spend their lives and, after retiring to a quiet eddy, will slowly waste until, completely exhausted, they are carried into death by the same stream that gave them life.
For millennia the same dramatic tale has unfolded countless times. The gravels where this pair will spawn have been there since the land itself was born, and so many generations of their forebears found life in the tumbling stream it would be impossible to count them. Yet now, in 2018, there are fewer salmon than perhaps ever there were, and something needs to be done.
Salmon management seems to move in circles. Today the logical argument is that we manage the water catchment and leave the fish alone. That is all well and good while there are still fish enough to look after themselves. In some places there simply aren’t. Stocking with hatchery-reared fry is a sensible option. It needn’t be seen as a permanent solution. It could, however, keep our waters alive while better ways are found.