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Saving the salmon: a conservationist's dilemma

Friday 07 October 2005

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who has been fishing (without too much success) for salmon for almost 40 years, discusses the moral issues raised by the Environment Agency's plea to anglers to return unharmed any salmon caught of the River Ribble this autumn

MANY years ago, I interviewed the late Sir Peter Scott, one of Britain's pioneering conservationists and son of Scott of the Antarctic, about a life changing incident which took place amongst a bank of sand dunes on the Lancashire coast.

It happened when he was a young man out wildfowling and he shot and wounded an incoming goose. Tragically, it fell to a patch of sand beyond the reach of his retriever until the tide receded.

He lay in the mud for several hours, watching that wonderful bird die in agony, and when he returned to base that day, the threw away his gun and never shot another creature. Instead, he became a wildlife guru, author and TV presenter, and creator of the famous water fowl refuge at Slimbridge in the West Country.

A risk: the King of Fish

This weekend, I face a similar, if not quite so dramatic, dilemma. I could, if I wish, fish for salmon on the River Ribble between Long Preston and Settle. But should I do so, I have been asked by the Environment Agency, along with thousands of other salmon fishermen, to return any catch unharmed to the water (see News)

The reason: stocks in the Ribble and eight other North West rivers are so low that they are on the verge of extinction from a whole raft of largely man-made threats: pollution, poaching both on land and on the Irish Sea, flooding which has swept away their breeding grounds and others as yet unexplained.

Now I could have an easy way out here. I do most of my salmon fishing on the River Lune, which is not on the black list and therefore I could metaphorically fill my boots (unlikely: it is three years since last grassed a salmon).

One of the reasons is that fishermen on the Lune voluntarily imposed a limit of three fish per season some years ago - and banned the taking of spring run fish completely. That was a tough choice because the biggest fish I have ever caught was a 25 lb cock salmon taken from the Lune during a March flood.

However, despite having escaped the blacklist, the Lune stocks need rebuilding, a painfully slow process. So how should I get a nice fish to freeze now so that I can poach it and serve it cold as the centrepiece of a family cold buffet we like to organise on Boxing Day?

Certainly, I won't buy one. If I did, it would be either a farmed fish from Scotland, full of growth hormones and chemicals, or a wild one that had either been poached or netted in the estuary, so how would that conserve stocks?

But I have, I think an answer which does not mean hanging up my rod forever (antis should understand that without the conservation efforts of game fishermen, the salmon would have been extinct decades ago).

I have already taken the barbs off my hooks and, should I land a fish this weekend, I shall release it if it is a female - and take it if it is a cock. The females, you see, always find a male to fertilise their eggs - cock fights are legion on the spawning grounds (or redds, as they are known) over such matters.

So can I have my fish an eat it? I hope so. But one thing is certain: if I were to give up my salmon fishing for good, along with thousands who already have because of a dearth of fish, the worst to suffer would be the greatest of all game fish. For millions of pounds go into conservation work each year - from anglers.

The money (quite a lot of it, sadly) I put into the sport would no longer be there to boost the survival prospects of the King of Fish. An odd choice, perhaps - but a sane one for someone who understands that wildlife must be managed, and sometimes even killed, for its long-term success.

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