Long-term Decline in Salmon Stocks

– in the Scottish Parliament on 4th April 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-15657, in the name of Rachael Hamilton, on a long-term decline in salmon stocks. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the reported long-term decline in salmon stocks across Scotland’s major rivers, including the Tweed, the Spey, the Dee and the Tay; understands that catches have decreased over the last decade; notes that, on the Tweed, rod catches have fallen from 23,219 in 2012 to 6,577 in 2017; believes that this is marginally above the previous worst years, 1977 and 1980; understands that angling in Scotland supports around 2,800 jobs and contributes £100 million to the economy; acknowledges that fishing generates significant employment opportunities in rural areas; recognises that there are significant challenges ahead if salmon stocks are to return to previous levels, and notes the calls for the Scottish Government to take urgent action to devise effective conservation and management plans in conjunction with relevant bodies to help address what it sees as the persistent decline in salmon stocks.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

I am delighted to bring my motion to the chamber this afternoon, and I extend a warm welcome to the members of various angling and fisheries associations—who are currently not in the gallery.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Can I pause you there? I am quite happy to pause the debate. If you had given me advance notice that you had people whom you wanted to come in and hear the debate—

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

That is very kind of you, Presiding Officer. It would probably take five minutes, so it is okay.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I am happy to do that.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

Bearing in mind other people’s commitments, I think we should crack on, but thank you.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I say to members that, if they have people coming to hear other members’ business debates, I will take advance notice, so I ask members to let me know.

I am happy to pause; we have plenty of time. I am being nice.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I will give you a couple of minutes.

12:49 Meeting suspended.

12:54 On resuming—

I call Rachael Hamilton—for a second time—to open the debate.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests as a hotel owner.

I am delighted to bring my motion to the chamber for debate this afternoon, and I thank the Presiding Officer for allowing time for the members of angling and fisheries associations to take off their waders before coming into the public gallery. I thank them for their briefing notes and documents, which have further enlightened me about the long-term decline in salmon stocks.

We have striking scenery and a richness of rivers, so Scotland boasts some of the best fishing in Europe. From the fantastic beats along the Spey and the Dee with their majestic Highland backdrops to the pools of the Tweed and the Tay that are flanked by rolling agricultural lowlands, we are spoiled for choice.

The value of angling to rural Scotland is significant. It supports around 2,800 jobs and contributes £100 million to the economy, with the bulk of the economic benefit being felt in remote and rural areas that would not survive without the presence of angling, game shooting and field sports. That is illustrated by the fact that the average spend of fishing tourists on trips to Scotland is substantial, at around £5,000, with an estimated 80 per cent of expenditure occurring within 12 to 15 miles of the river.

Unfortunately, over many years, the success of Scottish fishing has taken a knock. We are all too aware of the long-term decline in salmon stocks in Scottish rivers and of the grave consequences that are now faced by many areas. The issue has caught the attention of the likes of David Attenborough, who recently marked international year of the salmon by taking to YouTube to highlight the damage that intensive fish farming is doing to populations of wild salmon. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales has also voiced concerns, lamenting the 50 per cent reduction in salmon stocks along the River Dee. Some commentators have even said that salmon could become an endangered species in our lifetimes.

On the subject of the Dee, I do not intend to discuss the pros and cons of hatcheries. We can all acknowledge that there is no single cause of the decline in salmon stocks in Scotland’s rivers, and the picture is far more complex than we might imagine. In the latest Fisheries Management Scotland report, 12 high-level pressures on Atlantic salmon were identified, including increased mean sea temperatures, the acidification of the oceans, increased cyclicity in drought and flooding events, more invasive species and scarcer feeding opportunities, and all those things play a part in the story. Importantly, we must remember that most of those pressures are driven by climate change.

We cannot forget the impact of intensive fish farming on the west coast, either. Many believe that the decline in salmon rod catches has been steepest and most pronounced on the west coast because of the expansion of intensive aquaculture, which my colleague Finlay Carson will speak about.

In my constituency, the Tweed faces many of the same problems as other east-coast rivers, but it has its own unique set of challenges. For years, there was drift netting on the Northumberland coast, which affected the salmon returning to the river at Berwick. Worryingly, some 16,000 salmon were taken by north-east nets in 2015 but, thankfully, the Environment Agency proposed to stop the taking of salmon by the majority of net fisheries by 2019. However, piscivorous birds such as goosanders and cormorants and predatory mammals such as seals have also taken their toll.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

I have not read the report that Rachael Hamilton mentioned, but I am interested in what she is saying. Can she confirm whether trout anglers taking salmon is among the reasons that are listed for the decline in stocks?

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

It is important that a range of views is taken from across the sector, and we must take into consideration everybody’s point of view. However, I was talking specifically about drift netting.

The impact of the decline of salmon fishing is being felt right across rural Scotland. Angling is worth £24 million to the Borders economy, but that is likely to fall as a result of decreasing rod catches. There have been behavioural changes such as anglers switching from week-long fishing trips to trips of just a few days, and many anglers now commute from larger cities and do not contribute directly to the economy, whether through tackle shops or meals in restaurants.

The impact of the decline is likely to affect young anglers, too. It is difficult to make angling an attractive sport to the next generation when stocks are decreasing and potential job opportunities are being eroded by the lack of spend in the rural economy.

It is time for us to take action and tackle the issues head on. I welcome the Scottish Government’s £700,000 of funding to be spent on work to address the range of pressures to which the decline relates. That is a start, but we need to get all stakeholders, including scientists, anglers and ghillies, round the table to forge a way forward.

The wild fisheries review of several years ago aimed to address the matter, and it could have been a positive step forward. However, the wild fisheries bill was pulled, much to the frustration of many stakeholders, who believed that it could help to tackle the issues that are outlined in the motion. I recognise that the Conservation of Salmon (Scotland) Regulations 2016 evolved from some of the review’s recommendations, but it would be beneficial if the remaining recommendations—for example, the recommendation of a national wild fisheries strategy—were acted on sooner rather than later.

It is clear from studying previous Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee discussions on the 2016 regulations that we lack sufficient data and evidence to implement scientifically sound river management plans. A one-size-fits-all approach for the whole of Scotland does not work. We need to turn our attention to local management plans that are flexible, regularly reviewed and subject to scrutiny. We also need to take a cautious, well-informed and balanced approach to the conservation and management of salmon stocks. There is a fine balance between behavioural change and Government regulation. As we know, the Scottish Conservatives are not in favour of too much bureaucracy.

On the ground, we need to look at the whole ecosystem along the entire course of the river. Effective management of predatory birds and mammals will help salmon numbers to recover by giving smolts the chance to leave the river. In addition, we must not ignore the impact of fish farms. Both of the parliamentary committees that were involved in last year’s inquiry into salmon farming—the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee and the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee—made it clear that effective regulation of salmon farms is imperative in order to protect wild salmon. However, I acknowledge that there is no silver bullet when it comes to reversing declining salmon stocks.

In this debate, we are focusing solely on the decline in salmon stocks, but salmon is the freshwater equivalent of the canary in the coal mine: it is an early warning system for something that is going wrong across the board. Healthy salmon populations are possibly one of the best indicators of a healthy environment, which every one of us will benefit from. If we do not take action now, it will not be only our fragile rural economy that takes the hit in the short term; it will be our fragile environment as a whole in the long term.

Photo of Michelle Ballantyne Michelle Ballantyne Conservative

I thank Rachael Hamilton for bringing forward this important debate.

At the end of last year, I was asked whether I would be the Scottish Environment LINK species champion for Atlantic salmon and I was delighted to take that on. It has been a learning curve—I did not know anything about it when I set out. What I have discovered has led to a number of worries.

The Atlantic salmon is a keystone species, which means that any decline in stock has a direct and immediate impact on freshwater biodiversity, with the presence of salmon being a useful indicator of the health of our rivers. It is therefore imperative that we work to preserve wild salmon stocks to secure the future of our aquatic ecosystem. Many steps have been taken to protect salmon, and exploitation in fisheries has been reduced significantly. Despite that, marine survival has decreased, from a situation in which around 25 adult fish return to Scotland for every 100 juveniles—smolts, as they are called—that leave our rivers, to the current situation, in which fewer than five adults now return for every 100 leavers. As a consequence, as Rachael Hamilton said, rod catches have reduced, with a knock-on effect on a fragile rural economy, reducing the ability of managers to raise money to support management and restoration activities.

To gain a deeper understanding of the salmon’s ecological importance, as well as existing conservation efforts for the species, I have visited and liaised with managing organisations, such as the Nith District Salmon Fishery Board and the Tweed Forum, and have learned about the many projects that they oversee and how they hope to improve the robustness of wild salmon stocks. Large-scale holistic projects, such as the Nith fisheries management plan, will be invaluable to improving the stocks. Those projects support salmon at all stages of development, from creating a safer environment for salmon spawning to removing barriers to migration. They also support improved river use, with renewable energy schemes and anti-poaching measures being key areas of work.

It is worrying that 94 of the 173 rivers that have been assessed by Marine Scotland are designated as category 3, which means that any additional pressures on salmon in those rivers is demonstrably unsustainable.

I am sure that we can all agree that more needs to be done to protect wild salmon and encourage the growth of stocks. I join the call on the Scottish Government to work closely with river management organisations and salmon farmers to help with the conservation efforts and introduce substantive measures that draw on the experience and expertise of existing local groups.

In this, the international year of the salmon, I was delighted to attend the Fisheries Management Scotland conference for a short time on Friday. It was really interesting to hear about some of the issues that have played into the system. For example, climate change and the warming of the seas has meant that salmon food stocks appear to have moved. There was discussion of the invasion of the Pacific pink salmon, which was introduced into Russia’s White Sea basin in the 1950s. However, the fish did not like the cold and have moved west, and in 2017, we saw a huge influx of pink salmon. The initial advice was that they would probably not spawn, but spawning surveillance with underwater cameras suggests that that is beginning to happen. We will need that kind of detailed work in the future, and we really need to support, in any way that we can, the experts who are carrying it out.

As the species champion for Atlantic salmon, I hope that I will learn a lot more and will be able to contribute to the debate. In this international year of the salmon, we have an opportunity to bring the problem of declining salmon stocks to the attention of the public. I hope that the Scottish Government will make bold efforts to publicise this ecological issue of national importance. The Atlantic salmon is one of Scotland’s most treasured species. It is vital to the health of our rivers and our rural economy, and we must strive to secure its future.

Photo of Claudia Beamish Claudia Beamish Labour

I, too, thank Rachael Hamilton for instigating this debate. As the motion rightly acknowledges, there is a worrying decline in our salmon stocks. The motion also acknowledges the importance of fishing to our rural economy, through leisure and tourism, and the job opportunities that it provides. However, it does not stress the importance of leisure for local people, who fish not just in our big rivers, which have been mentioned, but in burns, such as in Strathmore up in Sutherland, or in the places where, as a child, I fished for brown trout while my dad fished for salmon. The issue of where local people fish is really important.

We are not just talking about salmon, either. There are also sea trout, brown trout and other forms of angling. Angling is vital for our economy, but for it to have a long-term future, it must be sustainable.

The system of three river gradings was established in 2016 to determine the level of exploitation of fish stocks that is sustainable for each river. As many will know, that means mandatory catch and release for some rivers; for others, some retention is permitted. The system aims to strike a balance on rivers locally and nationally, while recognising the overall downward trend in salmon stocks. That is a challenge.

In 2017, 98 per cent of rod-caught spring salmon were released, as was 90 per cent of the annual rod catch. Our catch-and-release levels are the highest of any signatory to the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization. There is a clear commitment from the angling community—broad as it is—to fish responsibly, as much of the rod catch and return is done on a voluntary basis.

In South Scotland, I support the pressure that the River Tweed Commission has put on the Scottish Government to extend the close time on the Tweed to further protect fragile spring salmon stocks. I thank ghillie Ian Farr who, in his briefing, succinctly outlined the significance of the salmon decline on the River Tweed. I note with care the points that he has made.

In this and the previous parliamentary session, my concern has always been to ensure that robust data is available to enable informed choices to be made. Along with others on the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, I will continue to scrutinise that. Marine Scotland has consistently acknowledged that challenge, and I see that steps are being taken to improve the granularity of the science behind the assessments. More can always be done, and I expect to see the science in that area develop and progress.

I recognise the complexities of the issue. Reversing the decline in salmon stocks needs to be tackled in a number of ways, not just by limiting fishing. There are environmental concerns to consider. Rivers are at a constant risk of pollution from industrial chemicals, agriculture and plastics, and fish stocks are an indication of the health of our rivers and our ecosystems. Climate change is also a serious challenge; riparian tree planting is one of the ways in which that is being addressed.

Fisheries Management Scotland has said that there are many ways in which we need to tackle the problem. It has highlighted that planning authorities and SEPA must be more connected. Its briefing says:

“It is vital that the conservation status of salmon is fully considered in all planning and regulatory decisions.”

I ask the minister to commit today to assessing how joined up the regulation of safeguarding wild salmon—and, indeed, sea trout—is and whether the issue can be addressed by the Scottish Government.

I thank Rachael Hamilton for bringing the debate forward. Let us all do our best for the future of this iconic species: the salmon.

Photo of Joan McAlpine Joan McAlpine Scottish National Party

I, too, thank Rachael Hamilton for securing this important debate, the subject of which is vital to the rural economy of South Scotland. That region includes not only the Borders, which Rachael represents and has talked about extensively, but Dumfries and Galloway in the west. It is significant that Rachael’s motion raises the issues of catches in four east coast rivers: the Tweed, the Spey, the Dee and the Tay. Many people on the west coast look enviously at those rivers, and there is certainly a perception that the west has been harder hit. Others have spoken about the effect of aquaculture, which we will hear more on later.

As Rachael Hamilton’s motion states, the benefits of angling to the economy of rural Scotland are significant: it supports 2,800 jobs and contributes £100 million to the Scottish economy.

I am grateful for the briefing from Ian Farr, the ghillie at Melrose, who outlines clearly how important salmon is to tourism and what factors might explain the decline in numbers—and declining they are. I note the Scottish Government’s own figures on the Atlantic salmon, which demonstrate a dramatic decline across the country of more than 50 per cent—from around 1.25 million in the 1960s to 600,000 in 2016.

As the Government has previously pointed out and others have pointed out today, there is no single cause for that decline. Inevitably, some of the impacts are beyond our control, so it is essential that all stakeholders work together to do what they can to manage pressures, which include the impacts of predation, barriers to migration and increased temperature due to climate change.

I note with admiration and approval the steps that Mr Farr and other river managers are taking. Obviously, Mr Farr cannot make much of a dent on global temperatures by himself in Melrose, but he is working hard on his doorstep and he makes some interesting suggestions about the need to remove man-made barriers, including obsolete ones that are left over from the tweed industry.

I note with interest his observations about the increasing number of predators that feed on smolts, 60 per cent of which never reach the sea. He tells us that cormorants, which are seabirds, are now numerous on the Tweed and that a roost in Rutherford has up to 100 birds. He says that seals are travelling up the river and that goosanders are a problem. I am not an expert in those matters, so I would be interested to know the minister’s view on those predators and whether research is being done in that area, particularly on cormorant numbers, which I thought were interesting and notable.

The issue of predators and bird numbers has also arisen in relation to the rivers in my own patch, and it was raised by the chairman of the River Nith board last year. Angling tourism is also important in south-west Scotland, so I will say a few things about the rivers there. Although we are talking about salmon today, the River Annan is considered to be the best river in Scotland for big brown trout. It is certainly worth a visit for that reason.

Workers on the Nith are doing a number of important things to put in place the precautionary principle that the Government encourages in respect of the conservation of salmon. They, too, have seen numbers decline and have promoted catch and release. They maximise natural stock production by improving habitats and authorising and stocking fry where appropriate.

On the Nith, electrofishing is conducted as part of the Scottish Government’s national programme, which is vital to providing data. Members and the minister will be aware that, on many rivers in Scotland, we simply do not have enough data on the numbers and behaviour of fish, which is really important when we classify rivers in ways that have an impact on angling. Claudia Beamish and others noted that angling communities felt aggrieved when their rivers were classified on the basis of not much information at all. I therefore very much welcome any increase in data gathering.

I note—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I am sorry, but will you please conclude, as you are almost a minute over your time?

Photo of Joan McAlpine Joan McAlpine Scottish National Party

I also note that the Government has commissioned research on the mortality rate for catch and release, and I very much look forward to hearing about that when it is complete.

Photo of Finlay Carson Finlay Carson Conservative

I thank my colleague Rachael Hamilton for bringing this important debate to the chamber today.

A cultural icon is an artefact that is identified by members of a culture as representative of that culture. Icons are judged by the extent to which they can be seen as an authentic proxy for that culture. Our wild salmon fit absolutely into that description, as do our rivers—they are up there with golden eagles, ospreys and Scottish wildcats.

Many of the recognised iconic salmon rivers are in the east, but rivers such as the Bladnoch, Cree, Urr, Dee, Nith and Annan in my constituency make a hugely important contribution to the rural economy of the communities around them. Undoubtedly, greater protection and enhancement of stocks will help to maximise the socioeconomic benefits that flow from them.

Salmon are a protected species under the European Union habitats directive, yet we know that they continue to face many pressures in marine and freshwater environments.

Annual rod catches generally increased over the period from 1952 to 2010 but declined in each subsequent year until 2014, which had the second-lowest figures on record. Reported rod catches recovered slightly in 2015 and 2016, only to fall again in 2017. That is worrying, given that the proportion of the rod catch accounted for by catch and release has generally increased since 1994. In 2017, 90 per cent of the annual rod catch was released, compared with less than 8 per cent in 1994. How much of that fall was down to external factors other than fish numbers? Fishing effort reporting is critical if the information is to be robust.

However, the most important question is: what are the causes of salmon decline? Atlantic salmon face a number of pressures during their life cycle. Those include, but are not limited to, predation; poor water quality; disease and parasites; barriers to migration; poor physical habitat quality; food availability; and factors affecting survival while at sea, including the challenge of climate change and the associated warming of the seas.

The Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee recently published a report on farmed salmon, which highlighted the potential issues that commercial farms may bring for the wild salmon population, including the impact of disease and parasites such as sea lice. I am confident that the report will result in the impact of such farms greatly reducing over the coming years.

There is also emerging evidence that predation by cormorants and goosanders may be more important than previously thought on at least some rivers, as well as evidence that the size and condition of smolts leaving the river may have an impact on their subsequent survival.

We have fantastic volunteer groups on my local rivers, such as the Nith District Salmon Fishery Board, the River Cree District Salmon Fishery Board and the Galloway Fisheries Trust, which work to improve water quality, remove barriers to migration and promote responsible angling. I take this opportunity to invite the minister to visit the Cree to see that for herself.

So much good work and research is being done on our rivers, but there is broad consensus that the main problems occur at sea and in the near-shore environment. In the marine environment, there have been huge shifts in the distribution of plankton, which are linked to changes in sea surface temperatures. Such ecosystem shifts are likely to have a significant impact on salmon.

The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea is doing work that looks at the by-catch in commercial fisheries, with a developing theory that mackerel and herring stocks in the north Atlantic have been significantly underestimated and that salmon in that area are suffering due to predation or competition from those species.

We urgently need to look into evidence that suggests that not only Scottish salmon stocks, but populations of sea birds that depend on plankton and small fishes for food, such as kittiwakes and puffins, are plummeting. Both salmon and those sea birds are in direct competition with mackerel. We need to ask whether north-east Atlantic mackerel stocks have been allowed to develop to a point where they are a serious threat to the salmon and the sea birds that are competing with them for the same food.

A fully integrated scientific study to find out what is happening to wild salmon on their journey down our river systems and out to sea is needed. Only then can evidence-based recommendations be made to inform policy and enable management solutions.

The Atlantic Salmon Trust has launched the missing salmon project—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I am sorry, but you cannot launch on to something else. You will have to wind down and conclude.

Photo of Finlay Carson Finlay Carson Conservative

Certainly, Presiding Officer.

Over a period of just 40 years, wild Atlantic salmon numbers around the world have more than halved. The total population has fallen from 8 million to 10 million fish in the early 1970s to 3 million to 4 million today. Nobody knows where the mortality is happening, so I urge the Government to take action now—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That is not winding down in my book.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Just say, “Thank you very much,” and sit down.

Photo of Finlay Carson Finlay Carson Conservative

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That is fine.

In view of the remaining number of members who wish to speak in the debate, I am minded to accept a motion without notice, under rule 8.14.3, to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes. I invite Rachael Hamilton to move such a motion.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[

Rachael Hamilton

]

Motion agreed to.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green

I join members in thanking Rachel Hamilton for securing the debate. I have learned a lot more about salmon in the past half an hour than I knew previously.

Unfortunately, I cannot declare an interest as a salmon angler, but I will declare an interest as somebody who lives just a few feet from the River Teith, which flows into the Forth and is one of Scotland’s most iconic salmon rivers. I have never fished in it, but I have occasionally swum in it. Living next to the river helps me understand a little about how the pressures of climate change are affecting the health of our rivers and protected species, such as the salmon and the lamprey, which is protected by a special area of conservation on the River Teith.

It is clear that our rivers face major challenges as water temperatures rise, while water levels reduce and dramatic weather events become more frequent. A couple of years ago, I saw levels on the Teith drop to their lowest for decades. On what is the fastest-flowing river in Scotland, there were vast areas of exposed bedrock and isolated pools of increasingly warming water, linked by tiny streams that were getting narrower day by day.

Such weather events are going to increase, putting a huge strain on salmon and other species that require a cooler environment and good water flow to breed and succeed. We need catchment-wide approaches to tackling the issue—for example, joining up land owners to provide better riparian environments through tree planting, to which Claudia Beamish alluded, which can help to reduce river water temperatures.

A number of members have mentioned the success on the River Tweed, where management has shown what is possible with a strong catchment-wide approach, not only for salmon management but in tackling other issues, such as the scourge of non-native invasive species. We need to look at having more joined-up approaches in other areas.

Scotland’s fisheries trusts are in a position to co-ordinate a lot of the action that is needed to restore the environment in our catchments, but too often they have been excluded from the funding—through the Scottish rural development programme, for example—that is required to play that role. It is important that we take a catchment approach, because preventative action will always be cheaper in the long run, and we have to ensure that the right incentives are there to take action in a way that joins interests together in protecting our river catchments.

It is precisely because of the pressures of climate change and a number of the other issues that members have raised in the debate that we need to take a far more precautionary approach to the siting of salmon farms. Again, I call for a moratorium on expansions to be put in place until we have the right system in place to manage the impacts of the industry on wild salmon populations.

I turn from the east to the west coast, where bad decisions are still being made, allowing vast expansions of salmon farms. For example, Argyll and Bute Council has just allowed a massive increase in biomass production from three farms on Loch Fyne, despite major concerns about the impact on sea lice levels in wild fish. The company in question has produced an environmental management plan that is vague and which lacked proper consultation. There are also major questions about how it could ever be enforced by the council, which has neither the resource nor expertise to do so.

Despite the central recommendation of the Parliament’s report on salmon farming that

“the status quo is not an option”,

planning permissions are still being granted for the expansion of farms that are in the wrong places and have performed very poorly in the past.

That is happening regardless of what stakeholders such as Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland, Fisheries Management Scotland, district salmon fishery boards and communities themselves say, even where the track record of sea lice control on the farms is very poor, as it has been on Loch Fyne.

That must change if we are to see one of Scotland’s most iconic and legally protected species start to recover. To fail to act at a time when the salmon faces huge environmental pressures is nothing short of a dereliction of duty.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

I declare an interest as a very keen trout fisherman with a season ticket for the Tweed—I will soon purchase season tickets for the Tay and the Clyde, too.

I apologise, but I must leave after I speak in order to attend another engagement.

I did not intend to speak in the debate, but when I saw the motion in the

Business Bulletin today, I decided to take the opportunity to raise one issue, which is the continuation of protection orders on many of the major waters across Scotland. Many protection orders have been in place for decades—since before the formation of the Scottish Parliament. There are now 14 orders in force on major water systems such as the Clyde, the Tweed, the Earn, the Tay, the Tummel and the Spey. They were put in place supposedly to protect fish stocks and access to fishing. However, I remember that when the orders were introduced, many trout anglers believed that they had been introduced to keep trout anglers off some of the major river systems, leaving them free for the more exclusive salmon syndicates. I do not want us to divide fishermen. Whatever they fish for, fishermen are some of the greatest conservationists that there are. However, at the time, there was division between trout anglers and salmon anglers.

As a conservation measure that was intended to protect stocks, as the example in Rachael Hamilton’s motion shows, protection orders have been an abject failure. As the motion says, 23,000 salmon were caught on the Tweed in 2012 but only 6,500 were caught in 2017. A protection order has been in place on the Tweed throughout that time. Something else must be at play. I do not know whether that is climate change, the impact of salmon farming, predation by goosanders and cormorants—as I have seen with my own eyes—or something else, but one thing that I know for sure is that it ain’t fishermen that are causing the problem.

I fished the River Earn throughout my teenage years and beyond; it was once a river abundant with salmon and sea trout and I have seen it experience a tragic decline. That decline has happened since the protection order was made. There is definitely something else at play.

I have asked parliamentary questions to pursue the Scottish Government on the continuation of protection orders. Orders are put on rivers with no end date in place—none. I have asked the Government to carry out an analysis of protection orders to tell us whether they are working as a conservation management system. There is no plan to carry out any scientific analysis of whether they are a successful conservation method.

We are supposed to be in an era of evidence-based policy. In no other policy area would we provide no evidence and simply continue, as we are doing, when it is fairly obvious that we are failing.

Therefore, I ask the minister—and I will look for her reply in the

Official Report

, as I will not be here when she speaks—what the Government will do to provide scientific evidence to justify the continuation of protection orders on waters across Scotland. It is not acceptable to say, “We will do nothing and just watch the decline.”

I hope that the minister will take a much more proactive stance than the cabinet secretary has done. The irony of Ms Cunningham’s position is that, in the 1980s and 1990s, she was a young, radical lawyer who represented members of the Scottish campaign for public angling when they were arrested for fishing illegally on the Queen’s beat on the Dee and on the river Tay. She defended those people—rightly, in my opinion—who were deemed to be fishing illegally, and now she is the cabinet secretary who is responsible for continuing the system that she once railed against.

I respect the minister greatly. I ask her to take a strong interest in the matter and to look into the system of protection orders, to see whether such orders are justified and whether they work as a conservation policy.

Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

Let me first thank Neil Findlay for his remarks, because I know that he has to head off. His speech was very interesting, and I share his sentiments.

I declare an interest: I, too, am a keen angler. I am a member of a number of angling clubs, including the Perth and District Anglers Association and the Stormont Angling Club. I can often be found incognito, dressed in waders and a balaclava—I will leave that image with members for them to ponder.

More important, I am a member of the Parliament’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee and co-authored, with my fellow members, the report of our inquiry into aquaculture, about which we have heard so much today.

I was not scheduled to speak in the debate but, like Mr Findlay, I take a keen interest in angling. It is a hobby, a sport, an industry and part of our rural economy. It provides me and so many others with much-needed escape, not least from politics on occasion.

Over the past year, I have learned that angling is also a valuable, indeed invaluable, industry in Scotland. Let me talk more about the industry and the people whom it employs, specifically the ghillies. They are a strange breed, I have to say. I have come across many over the past year, since I took up angling. They are a truly wonderful part of the fabric of Scotland; they represent the link between the days of old and the days of new—the link between breeches and tweed, and Gore-Tex and graphite. They can be grumpy, they can be fun and they can be knowledgeable. They are the keepers of our rivers, the protectors of our wildlife, the teachers of our young, the advocates for our countryside, the managers of our riverbanks and the guides for our tourists—and they are usually owners of a kettle on a cold February morning.

Most important, ghillies are the eyes and ears of our rivers and we must listen to them. Fish numbers are so low across Scottish rivers that angling is a dying tradition. We could be witnessing the last generation of angling and the last generation of ghillies. I sincerely hope that that is not the case, but last week just 38 salmon were caught on the Tweed, and I suspect that there are beats on the Tweed where, in the good years, that would have been the catch in a single day.

An angler used to have to wait on a waiting list for a dead man’s shoes to get a week on a prestigious fishing beat. Now, demand has dropped so much that we can use an app on our mobile phones to book a day rod.

We could argue that that has opened up the sport and made it more affordable and accessible. That is the case, but how do we attract new entrants when there are simply no fish to catch? Anglers often say during the lunch break, “How many did you catch last season?” “Two or three,” is often the answer. “What, per day?” “No, over the whole year.”

The industry is in difficulties and we need to tackle some of the challenges that it faces. There is no simple solution. First, we need to tackle perceptions of salmon fishing. Most of the anglers I meet are retired, local and friendly. They are happy and willing—sometimes too willing—to impart their knowledge and advice. They love their rivers. This is not a sport for the rich, as it is in Iceland and Russia, where people take a 10-grand trip. For many people, it is a £30-a-day day out.

The debates about salmon farming’s effect in some areas have been well rehearsed. People on the east coast say that that is not the only problem. We do not know why there are such huge reductions in salmon. Perhaps therein lies the problem: not enough scientific research has gone into the matter.

Predation is an issue. Like Mr Findlay, I have seen cormorants and goosanders feeding on fish. I have seen seals so far up river that I have wondered what on earth they are doing there. Why are they feeding there? Why are salmon going further out to sea and heading in different directions? Where is their feed heading? Why are the river beds changing? Why have we not dealt with the damage of floods and storms and the years of lack of management or investment in some rivers? Why have we not righted the wrongs of the industrial era on our rivers?

As policy makers, we have to have a frank discussion about some of these areas, mainly catch and release. We also need to have a conversation about Sunday fishing. Tradition is one thing, but we are on the brink of having no industry at all. We need a healthy and open debate. Change is often unwelcome, but perhaps it is inevitable.

I thank Rachael Hamilton for the debate. I remain positive but, if action is not taken, I am afraid that the only thing we will be fishing for in future is sympathy.

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

I begin by thanking Rachael Hamilton for bringing this vitally important issue to the chamber today. Although we have had many speakers, it is a shame that more people are not in the chamber to hear the debate. Like Mark Ruskell, I have learned more about salmon in the past half hour than I have in the past while. It is something that I find fascinating. I do not have direct portfolio responsibility for the issue, but it is one that I have been involved with.

Michelle Ballantyne and a few other members made the important point that the salmon is a keystone species and talked about what the decline in numbers means for our biodiversity. As Claudia Beamish stated, it indicates the health of our rivers and our ecosystems. Although we might consider the issue to be a rural issue, and there are not that many people in the public gallery today, what it means for our wider ecosystems and biodiversity is so important.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

I thank the minister for giving way and refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

One of the most important threats to salmon and other species in rivers is the invasion of non-native and native species outwith their ecosystems. Will the Government work proactively to control such species in rivers as ranunculus, which is choking the very fish that the minister is talking about today?

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

I am happy to look at that. I was going to talk about the point that Mark Ruskell raised later in my contribution.

The salmon is one of Scotland’s most iconic species. As we have heard today, fewer of the fish that leave our rivers for the ocean are returning. The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea estimates that, in the 1960s, approximately 1.25 million salmon returned to Scottish waters each year, but by the end of 2016, that figure was down to just 600,000. That pattern is replicated across the North Atlantic, with ICES estimating that overall numbers, which were around 8 million to 10 million in the 1980s, are now down to just 3 million.

There is a variety of reasons for that decline in numbers. In Scotland, we have worked with Fisheries Management Scotland and its member district salmon fishery boards and trusts to identify 12 high-level pressures on salmon, some of which Rachael Hamilton, Finlay Carson and others outlined today. We have published a list of those pressures online, and I will outline some of them today, along with the key mitigation activities that we are undertaking.

One such pressure is exploitation through angling and netting in our rivers and around our coasts. During the past few years, we have introduced a range of new measures to help to conserve and protect salmon in rivers. Changes to the annual close times on most rivers, for example, extend the period during which it is illegal to fish for salmon or to keep those that you have caught. Annual salmon conservation regulations set out the results of our annual assessment of stocks and detail those rivers where anglers must practise catch-and-release fishing.

Photo of Finlay Carson Finlay Carson Conservative

Does the minister agree that, given the evidence that was recently given at the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, angling effort could be insignificant compared to other pressures on salmon?

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

We have to consider all the pressures. As I understand the discussion that took place at the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee on 12 March, when the Conservation of Salmon (Scotland) Amendment Regulations were considered and passed, Claudia Beamish noted the significant improvement in this year’s assessment approach. We have to consider everything in the round and make sure that we do the research into each of the individual pressures.

We are continuing to develop and improve our annual assessment of adult stocks. Last year, we introduced a Scotland-wide assessment of juvenile stocks, which we hope will complement and improve the existing science. However, angling is just one part of the picture; as I have just stated, research in the area is vital.

In March 2018, we announced a package of £500,000 to be invested across a range of research and practical projects that are helping us to examine and address the wider pressures on salmon. For example, on predation we are working with the sea mammal research unit to analyse the behaviour and movement of seals in the River Dee. Later this year, Marine Scotland will publish the results of research that was carried out with the Ness district salmon fishery board and the University of Aberdeen to identify the impact of dolphin predation on returning adult salmon in the Moray Firth. I am also happy to confirm to Joan McAlpine that we have recently commissioned new research to analyse the feeding habits of fish-predating birds, to identify where and when they are feeding and what they are eating—a point of concern that was raised by members during the debate. I know that, in the past, the impact of such birds has been of concern to Rachael Hamilton and to many anglers and fisheries managers.

SEPA is working with local authorities, landowners, fishery trusts and conservation bodies to deliver an annual programme of projects to remove and ease barriers to migrating fish. There is a recent example of that in West Lothian, where, since January, water is now flowing down a new bypass channel around the redundant rugby club weir, which is the third of seven weirs that will be tackled by 2021 to restore fish access to the River Almond catchment. The project is opening up around 200km of the river network to native fish, including salmon, for the first time in generations. It will also create new opportunities for angling, tourism and recreation.

I recently visited the Esk district salmon fishery board in Brechin to hear about the work that it does. I was taken to the site of the Pow Burn project, in which the board is working with SEPA to change the morphology of the burn and look at the impact that that has made. The board is starting to see trout return to that part of the river, where there had been none for a number of years. Board members also described to me their work on the catchment-wide approaches that Mark Ruskell mentioned. That vital work includes the tree planting that is happening further up the glens and other work around the Esk in relation to invasive non-native species.

On habitat improvement, fisheries boards are working with SEPA to address acidification and reduce diffuse pollution. Scottish Water is working to improve abstraction regimes in nine zones, to ensure that sufficient water remains in our rivers and lochs during periods of low rainfall.

As a number of members have mentioned, other pressures are associated with our salmon farming industry, giving rise to concerns. We have responded to the recent report of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee on salmon, and identified links to many of our current initiatives, including the farmed fish health framework, the interactions working group, and SEPA’s sector plan.

During the debate on the report on 6 February, there was broad cross-chamber support for the sector, but with an emphasis on making progress on the known issues. We agree with that and have acknowledged that salmon farming must be developed sustainably, with appropriate improvements that help to minimise and address environmental impact.

However, such pressures do not affect only the salmon in our rivers. As the ICES figures show, the issues exist much more widely, and the loss of so many fish in the marine environment is also of great concern. That is why it is so important that we work with our partners across the world. Marine Scotland is taking part in sea sailor, which is a research programme that is being conducted by an expert international consortium to examine the factors that impact on the variation in marine survival of Atlantic salmon over time and in different geographical areas.

More widely, this is the international year of the salmon, which is an initiative that is being led by the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization and the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission. I recall that Michelle Ballantyne also lodged a motion on the issue, much of which the Scottish Government agreed with. At the time, I did not realise that she was also the species champion for the salmon.

The international year of the salmon aims to raise awareness and understanding of the social and economic benefits that salmon provide, and to highlight the many issues that they face around the world. Last October, Roseanna Cunningham launched the Scottish component of the international year, when she met the presidents of NASCO and the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission in Perth. Officials from Marine Scotland were among a range of international speakers who contributed to last Friday’s annual meeting of Fisheries Management Scotland.

I want to make a couple of points before we close, although I realise that I have gone way over my time. I recognise the importance of angling to the Scottish economy that many members outlined today.

Claudia Beamish talked about regulation and a joined-up approach, and we will certainly consider that. When we do that and it works, it is most effective.

I will be more than happy to accept Finlay Carson’s invitation and to further discuss some of the issues that he raised.

Neil Findlay raised particular points that he wants us to address, and I am happy to look at those.

I realise that we have identified a number of pressures today, but we are undertaking the research to mitigate those as best we can. We need to work together so that we can do that, and so that we do not end up in the situation that Jamie Greene outlined, in which angling becomes a thing of the past. We certainly do not want to see that happen.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you. My efforts to curtail things were in vain. I thank all members for an interesting and informed debate—and, yes, I wish more people had heard it. It was extremely interesting.

13:45 Meeting suspended.

14:30 On resuming—