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Speech given by Minister for Fisheries - Scottish Parliament


Good evening ladies and gentlemen.

I am very conscious that I stand before you following a line of the good and great in the angling world. And last year another non-angling Minister for Fisheries in the shape of John Sewel.

I confess that some of the happiest times of my childhood were spent with netsmen on the Tweed. But I have a lot of good friends who are anglers, and, after two years as Jack Cunningham's PPS I fully appreciate the supreme importance of the Atlantic salmon.

1999 has been a momentous year for Scotland and indeed the UK as a whole, with radical constitutional changes affecting each and every one of us, and myself in particular as a Westminster MP making a fresh start in Edinburgh. As time goes on, as the Scottish Parliament settles in, as the ability to devise Scottish solutions to Scottish problems become more manifest so I believe the impact on all our lives will become more evident- and for the better.

Lamentably - and I say that with some hesitation knowing that the Press are well represented this evening - there has been a tendency for parts of the Fourth Estate, and other detractors, to concentrate on trivia. Picking up on one of the issues, if only I could have 3 weeks annual holiday (never mind 17) I might be able to take up fishing!

But I don't think we should allow that to obscure the real progress which is being made on a number of fronts and the interest being shown in them. The Land Reform agenda is a good example and one which is relevant to your interests given the scope for opening up the related riparian rights and salmon fishing rights.

More broadly our "Programme for Government" sets out that rural Scotland is a place to live and work. That means we have to look at ways of sustaining rural life by diversifying rural communities, while still supporting the traditional industries of agriculture, forestry and of course fisheries.

One of the criticisms of Westminster - and as an MP of 21 years standing I readily acknowledge that there are many - is its remoteness from most of the country. We must ensure that Edinburgh does not fall in to the same trap. That is why Donald Dewar - and indeed the rest of his Ministerial team - are keen that we get out and meet our portfolio constituents. Tonight is an excellent opportunity and I am grateful to you. In the last few weeks I have also had interesting meetings with SANA and the Association of Salmon Fishery Boards. Tomorrow I go to Highland Council to talk about ISA - Scottish Ministers get all the good jobs!

The devolution settlement means that I can concentrate on fishing issues as none of my predecessors have ever been able to do. I am on the spot, I have the time, and the new Scottish Parliament has the power to legislate if that seems appropriate. What I would like to do this evening is to share with you some of the wider consideration relating to rivers and angling which is underway and to offer some of my perceptions of life on the river bank. I realise that after only 5 months in the post that may be a dangerous thing to do.

For convenience I will divide my comments into three sections: River management and angling generally: fish farming: and finally salmon/sea trout.

River management/angling

Let me then start with river management and angling. For perfectly understandable historic and economic reasons, we have inherited a body of fishing legislation and river management structures which are heavily dominated by salmon.

The intrinsic value of the Scottish salmon, and the economic benefits which it brings are well recognised. We ignore the salmon at its peril - and I will come back to that later - but I do feel that we need to look at other species, other fishery interests and how these can be brought into a broader management strategy and structure.

Why? The answer to that at one level is quite simple - we have a legal requirement to do so. The potential spread of European Special Areas of Conservation and the Water Framework Directive both point in the same direction - the need for whole river management in terms of the use of rivers and safeguarding of the species that inhabit them.

But there is much more to this than legal requirements. In recent months concerns have again been expressed about the infestation of Scottish rivers by non-indigenous species. Crayfish and ruff to name just two.

Crayfish have not simply fallen out of the skies. They were brought in illegally, possibly because somebody mistakenly thought they might have commercial potential. I suspect chefs may have released some that were surplus to their needs. But the point I want to emphasise is that no licences have ever been issued for their importation nor would they be. So how do we stop it? Enforcement of the law in this area like so many traffic offences, is very difficult. There is really no substitute for education, common sense and responsibility.

The spread of ruff and other species from south of the border raises similar issues but not necessarily the same legal ones as crayfish. The importation of alien species as live bait was probably entirely innocent but their release at the end of the day's fishing has led to the current situation. Again it is difficult to see what the law can do in all of this. We need to give the matter a lot more consideration but obviously anglers can serve a very useful function as eyes and ears and purveyors of common sense at the local level.

These environmental considerations are obviously important (and I could also mention the threat to native species like the freshwater mussel) but what about the small matter of the future of sport angling?

I read recently that the average age of Scottish anglers is getting older. It is claimed that this is a direct consequence of a decline in youngsters taking up the sport - maybe they're taking up virtual fishing on computers…

That said I am told that the opportunities to fish are, broadly speaking, as widespread as they ever were - indeed there seems to be a shortfall in the uptake of permits etc. If so that is fine. We can't make people take up the sport but we should ensure that people know what they are missing - and that goes for Scots and visitors alike. I think that that is an important factor which should be included in any wider consideration of the management of rivers.

You will gather than I am quite taken by the sort of ideas suggested by Angling for Change. I would wish its promoters well. Internally I have asked my officials, working with Scottish Natural Heritage, to let me have a report on how we might take this all forward. I hope we might be able to issue something on this early in the New Year as a possible basis for opening up the debate.

That debate might, for example, include the scope for extending the powers of District Boards to species other than salmonids. I know that possibility was mooted in the Nickson Strategy Task Force Report. It would require primary legislation and I have no doubt that matters such as funding might well feature. Certainly one would have an expectation of far broader representation on Boards than the current token angler.

Fish farming

The next issue I would like to talk about is Fish Farming.

You will be aware that the Court is currently considering the issue of sea lice and the powers of SEPA in that regard. So I have to be careful about what I say and I hope you will appreciate that I cannot comment specifically on that issue.

However I have noticed the friction which exists between those with an interest in wild salmonids and those promoting aquaculture. Both wild and farmed fish make substantial contributions to the Scottish economy. You are familiar enough with the statistics and arguments and I am not going to bore you with the checklist of economic, social and environmental facts and figures.

But I will say that there has to be a better way of accommodating both of these important interests.

The Tripartite Working Group which was established in the summer is seeking to do just that. The feedback I have is positive and encouraging. Exchanges have been full and frank but constructive and I am told that a framework is emerging for closer co-operation at a local level to address the concerns common to both sectors. We are not there yet, but I am keen to take this process forward.

Meanwhile you may have noticed that the expanded Environmental Assessment Regulations came into force in May. So we can now expect the environmental concerns surrounding aquaculture to be addressed more openly and rigorously.

Also one of the commitments which The Scottish Executive made in its "Programme for Government" was that we would issue locational guidelines on fish farming by November to identify no-go areas, areas of sensitivity etc. I am pleased to say that I was able to issue the guidelines last month and that the feedback received is positive.

I am not going to try to side-step the vexed issue of ISA.

The disease has understandably generated a great deal of anxiety since it was first discovered in Loch Nevis in May last year. There has been a lot of conjecture and debate about how the disease occurred, who caused it, and how we have responded to it.

The Scottish Executive, and The Scottish Office before it, have been determined to tackle it in a ruthless way. The disease is particularly nasty when it gets hold and it would be best for all concerned if we could stamp it out. This in turn has prompted controversy and, as some of you will know, The Scottish Executive is being pursued in the Courts by some fish farmers.

The recent identification of the virus - and I stress virus as distinct from disease - in wild fish of various species and in different parts of the country (some well removed from fish farms) does change the complexion and it means that we must reconsider our controls. But I can assure you that it remains our firm resolve to stamp out the disease where it occurs and to continue movement controls on those sites where the disease is suspect. Further surveillance in the wild will continue.

Salmon/sea trout

This brings me to the third section of my address and one which I suspect is of greatest interest to you, namely salmon/sea trout.

Last year the total number of salmon (and grilse) and sea trout caught and retained were 91,430 salmon and 45,267 sea trout. In addition there were 13,455 salmon and grilse and 6,824 sea trout caught and released. The caught and retained salmon and grilse catch was 5.3% higher (mainly grilse) and the sea trout catch 16.5% higher than the previous year. But there are absolutely no grounds for complacency. Those catches were still the second lowest on record and indeed the lowest by weight ever.

Before coming here this evening I asked my officials to give me the year's statistics for five rivers and the corresponding figures for five years ago. We chose 1993 completely at random though I was conscious that whatever recent year I chose would fall short of the halcyon days when it is claimed salmon and sea trout were virtually jumping into landing nets.

The figures I was given for salmon make illuminating reading. They were:

















Kyle of Sutherland








That is an average catch reduction of 50% for those five rivers in just 5 years.

But that is only part of the story. Were you to break the figures down into the months of the year the catches of spring fish would make even more depressing reading.

To illustrate this, most of you will be aware that the Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory carries out monitoring of the status of stocks throughout Scotland. For example, detailed studies on the Girnock and Baddoch, two tributaries in the upper reaches of the River Dee, have revealed that the numbers of female salmon returning are insufficient to maintain future populations.

Some people might challenge the sense of extrapolating these figures across the whole of Scotland. But the evidence from detailed examination of catch statistics is clear: despite reductions in exploitation not only in our own net fisheries but also in fisheries in distant waters, rod catches of early running salmon are now at an all time low.

The results paint a grim picture and it is one that we cannot ignore. Prudence and indeed the Precautionary Approach requires that we take action. We cannot afford to wait until we can show beyond all reasonable doubt that the fish have disappeared, because that would be far too late.

So what do we do?

For a start we have to get away from the notion that there is a single cause for the decline in salmon and sea trout numbers. The issue is much more complex than that. We have to recognise that all forms of exploitation have an effect: and effect which, at current stock levels is detrimental.

In particular, you cannot go on blaming netsmen or simplistically believe that if all the nets were removed the problem would be solved. Despite sacrifices over the years by netsmen the fish are simply no longer there. I say that with some feeling, having grown up among netsmen on the Tweed.

I welcome the measures being taken by certain Boards: some are investing in stock enhancement and appropriate re-stocking; 17 Boards now have baits and lures regulations in place; some are promoting voluntary catch and release. But I am advised that there are still a lot of Boards that could and should do more. I applaud the measures being taken by the ASFB to spread best practice, but I have to say that time is running out for the laggards.

It must be self-evident that the more fish that are allowed to spawn the greater the prospects for the survival of the species in general and spring fish in particular. So why is it, I wonder, that anglers are still arguing the toss about the case for catch and release. I know catch and release has never really been part of the culture amongst game anglers here but then it wasn't on the other side of the Atlantic until recently - it is now. It must make sense to foster the development of catch and release whilst we still have fish to save rather than waiting until we are confronted with the situation of terminal decline where somebody may earn the distinction of killing the last salmon in a river.

Today we still have the choice to make, tomorrow things may be different. Let's get it right.

I don't want to ruin your evening, but let's be clear: My officials are in discussion with the Netsmen Association and with the Association of Salmon Boards. We may well have to consider the possibility of introducing other statutory controls, but it may not be possible to do this by the start of next season.

So I will be looking to you as anglers and the District Boards as the statutory managers of rivers to review urgently the controls on early season catches. If that means proprietors imposing catch and release then that is what it means. Blaming everyone else for the problems when 65 % of all fish caught and 85% of rare spring fish are taken by rod and line frankly doesn't wash.

The picture that I have just presented is a depressing one. Pessimists will regard it as the end of the world as we know it. Optimists will say that we are over-reacting and there have been ups and downs of salmon stocks throughout history, that the species has survived despite what man has thrown at it and that it will do so again.

I would like to share that optimism. Salmon is a magnificent species. It is something of which Scotland can be proud - But let's be absolutely sure that we keep it for the coming millenium.

On that sobering note could I ask you to raise your glasses in a toast to the Atlantic Salmon.


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