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
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
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
For convenience I will divide my comments
into three sections: River management and
angling generally: fish farming: and finally
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
On that sobering note could I ask you to
raise your glasses in a toast to the Atlantic