FED UP with the mealy-mouthed political wrangling in the big election debate? Take the increasingly cynical view that it’s all a bit of a waste of time?

Well if you have ever enjoyed a day’s salmon or sea trout fishing on a Scottish river, and think politics doesn’t really matter when it comes to having a day out on the bankside, you should take a glance at the Government’s report on mixed stock fisheries and be very worried indeed.

Salmon netting

Salmon netting: still no agreement

You don’t need to read all nine parts, eight appendices and countless thousands of words, just the executive summary will do, unless you are feeling particularly brave.

It sets out in stark relief the precise reasons why we as a nation, face such a massive task in helping to protect the future of one of the most iconic, and “at risk” species on the planet – the Atlantic salmon.

It demonstrates how a group of so-called experts can take 20 months devising a plan – on behalf of the Scottish Government – about how to manage the netting of salmon and sea trout in our marine and coastal waters.

And fail to reach agreement.

The multi-disciplinary group, under chairman David Crawley of Scottish Natural Heritage, was charged with devising a robust plan for tackling so-called “mixed stock” fisheries (MSF) which, until 2006, still accounted for almost a third of the Scottish salmon catch.

Rural affairs minister Richard Lochhead was depending on it to chart a clear way to head off growing international criticism of Scotland’s laggardly approach in dealing with coastline netting, of which more than 70 stations remain round our shores.

Instead, the wordy document is now labelled “a fudge”.  It illustrates the enormous gulf between commercial netsmen on the one hand, and salmon beat owners and conservationists on the other. And it spotlights the stark inability of scientists and government officials – and at the end of the day, politicians themselves – to hammer out quick and meaningful action to help preserve ever-dwindling stocks of returning fish.

The evidence of diminishing numbers of salmon and sea trout reaching our rivers to spawn and regenerate, is overwhelming and seems to be the one fact which no-one really disputes.

Even the Environment Agency in England and Wales reported this week that 2009 rod catches of both grilse (12,890) and larger salmon (3,770) were the lowest for over five years though the number of annual licences sold was the highest since 1994.

Yet despite mounting pressure from the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation (NASCO), the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) and EU for drastic action, despite threats from Greenland and Faroese fishermen to rescind their ban on netting at sea if Scotland fails to act, what exactly are we doing about it today that is different from yesterday?

Er, well, very little.

Crawley was faced with issuing a report which contains screeds of research data, pleas for more scientific work and several recommendations, but no consensus.

He admits that “some provision must be made to deal with the lack of confidence between the parties where this prevents rational decision making” and suggests that in future an independent assessor from a panel maintained by Government be used to provide “independent mediation.”

He calls for the Government to provide a “a firm pathway to any legislative changes that might be required” together with an initial response to the report by September.

Richard Lochhead

Richard Lochhead: MSF report 'strikes the right balance'

Lochhead, despite his applause for what he describes as an “important report” must be wondering why he ever believed that creating a working group with such diverse interests would ever result in chummy harmony.

He asserts that its 21 recommendations “strike the right balance and reflect in most respects a broad consensus”.

That “consensus” resulted in the wild fish lobby, in the shape of the Salmon & Trout Association (S&TA) and the Association of Salmon Fishery Boards (ASFB) – both members of the working group – lambasting the Government yet again.

In a joint statement this week, the two organisations exemplify the mounting frustration and growing acrimony now becoming evident. They say the MSF report “fails to condemn indiscriminate exploitation of salmon and sea trout by coastal nets, or face up to the inequality in the burden of management costs – a mere £2 is raised from a netted fish, while a rod and line caught salmon generates £70 towards management costs and conservation projects. These issues were deemed too contentious by the chairman.”

Paul Knight, chief executive of the S&TA warns bleakly:

Scotland risks becoming the pariah of the international salmon world, by its attitude to managing wild fish stocks.”

The salmon is one of the most regulated creatures on earth. But the web of rights and responsibilities, committees, organisations and individuals with vested interests in Scotland’s king of fishes, is frighteningly complex. The bureaucracy surrounding its administration is unwieldy and uncoordinated nationally. Ownership of fishing rights is still based on archaic heritable laws.

It should be no surprise why complete agreement seems impossible to achieve and the MSF report actions appear ineffectual.

It is going to take a political statesman of courage and stature to straddle all the shades of opinion and take the difficult decisions necessary to sweep away the many conflicting shades of self-interest; it is the interests of the salmon which are paramount after all.

A visionary and fearless politician, if he or she could be found, might for example consider measures such as:

  • Mandatory catch and release for rods in all Scottish waters pending statistically verifiable improvements in returns.
  • The choice for netsmen of a moratorium on catches or acceptance of a Government-backed compulsory buy-out scheme
  • Nationwide statutory salmon fishery board management for all catchments, part centrally funded, part funded by rod licence and to include a mandatory online returns system
  • Increased funding for rivers and fisheries trusts and for related international marine eco-system research

Measures like these would not meet with universal approval. But that, surely, is not the point. Our salmon and sea trout stocks need protection and that protection has to start with rapid decisive action.

Politicians cannot delegate responsibility for their role in the future of the Atlantic salmon to a new committee report or yet another table of scientific research data. Their time for playing politics with the preservation of these fish is past.

As anglers, our time for playing politics will come in a year’s time at the Holyrood elections. A fact to be borne in mind the next time you trudge home from a blank day on the river.

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