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Sea trout and global warming: a new link?

Friday 18 July 2003

Our country commentator John Sheard ponders the mystery of the ever-growing sea trout and its causes. Could it be global warning?

I HAVE done many things in the Mistral, that wonderful hot wind that blows across the South of France from, or to, the Mediterranean, depending on the time of day. I've snorkelled, sun-bathed, pitched a tent, even sat and enjoyed a glass of the local wine under its warm caresses.

Trouble on the river bank - is global warming to blame?

But I have never ever cast a fly for sea trout in it - or in its more northerly offspring. I tried to do so without success this week and it set me to thinking about global warming.

There are winds like this in many parts of the world. In Gibraltar, they have one they call the Levanter. In the Caribbean - and of the eastern coast of Africa - it is the Trade Winds, which made Britain and her colonies rich on slaves, rum and sugar.

But there has never been one to my knowledge in the Yorkshire Dales. Not until this week, that is, and it must surely be a portent of global warming. The question is: will it become a regular feature and, if so, how will it affect Dales life?

On this, it is of little use to consult the experts, for they have no idea what is going on either. The most recent theory I have read (which, I admit, is but one of many) suggested that although Southern England would get drier, here in the North we would have warm, very wet summers, with the constant risk of flooding.

What a joke that is for me, now, at the very peak of the sea trout season. My river in Cumbria - a big river too - has all but dried up. Down stream, they are catching sea trout weighing 8 lbs or more. For me, not a touch - perhaps they don't like the Mistral either.

In the 30-odd years that I have fished this particular stretch of water, strange things have become to happen in the past few seasons. The salmon run has declined so much that, voluntarily, we do not fish for them in the spring.

When I started there three decades ago, a good sea trout would weight three pounds, a very good one six. If I remember correctly, the English national record was just over eleven.

Fish of that size have been caught several times in the past three years on my stretch and there are reports from rivers in Wales of sea trout weighing 20 lbs and more - bigger than the biggest local salmon taken for yonks.

So just what has happened to make two species change places at the top of angling's Premier League? The river's much the same, the tackle I use now is if anything much better, I have learned many more tricks of the trade, but my catches have steadily declined.

There have been many man-made hazards introduced to the marine environment since then. Disease caused by salmon farming off the West coast of Scotland has spread to wild fish, sometimes with terrible consequences.

Thirty years ago, many farmers still made hay, instead of the easier silage, which gives off some of the most toxic wastes ever to enter our rivers - a 500-acre farm under silage can produce as much pollution as a town the size of Harrogate.

And very big winter floods - not summer, note - have caused massive bank erosion which can do great damage to the delicate chain of freshwater marine life on which fish are the top predator.

But that still doesn't explain why sea trout - which go to sea and stay mainly in inland waters for just one winter at a time - are growing bigger than salmon, which go the North Atlantic and can stay away from their native rivers for as long as four or five years.

It has got to be the weather. It has got to be global warming. But how and why I have no idea.

So I apologise to any reader who came to this column hoping to see a riddle of nature solved. I am totally baffled. So are the scientists. But if and when I get more facts, I shall let you know. In the meantime, enjoy the Mistral...

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