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Guest Column, July 2003

Orri Vigfùsson, International Chairman of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF) has been the most significant force for good in preserving wild salmon stocks. His negotiating skills and commitment to this cause has been responsible for saving millions of North Atlantic salmon from high-sea and coastal drift net capture fisheries. The NASF has created a ‘safe haven’ in the North Atlantic where salmon may feed and prosper. Here, Mr. Vigfùsson pleads with the Scottish Executive to end the interceptory netting of wild fish returning to spawn in their natal rivers in Scotland.

The Failures of the Scottish Executive

Orri Vigfùsson, international chairman of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund accuses Scottish Executive of deciding that Scotland’s wild salmon are not worth saving.

The Scottish Executive has spent £375 million, so far, on a new Parliament building but claims that it can’t afford to invest in the restoration of one of your country’s most precious natural resources, its wild salmon and sea-trout.

These wonderful fish were once plentiful in Scottish rivers and anglers from around the world came to try to catch them. Now, as in most other salmon-producing countries on both sides of the Atlantic, wild salmon and sea-trout are in perilous decline.

Anglers used to put a great deal of money into Scotland’s rural economy. They now travel to Russia and Iceland in search of sport where unpolluted waters and sound management has averted the decline in stocks experienced elsewhere. This is a disaster for the thousands of people in Scotland who rely upon sport angling for employment.

The Scottish Executive seems to have decided that Scotland’s wild salmon, fish that have survived in your waters since the end of the last Ice Age, are not worth saving. Instead, the Executive appear to be besotted with the salmon farming, and is apparently prepared to do everything it can to protect the industry from criticism.

In financial terms the fish farming industry is important to Scotland, but it has been and is an environmental nightmare. Quite apart from the threat to the genes of wild salmon from interbreeding with escapee farm fish, and imported diseases, plagues of fish farm sea lice have decimated West Highland and Islands wild salmon and sea trout populations

Salmon farmers can’t function without wild fish to feed to captive salmon. Scotland’s beleaguered fishing fleets claim that it takes three to five kilos of sand eels, pout and other small fish to produce one kilo of farmed salmon. They say that the removal of the huge quantities of these fish by industrial trawlers is denuding their fishing grounds of the natural food of other species, including salmon.

While the Scottish Executive ignores these facts, the English Government is doing a lot to help the recovery of Scotland’s wild stocks. Fisheries Minister Elliot Morley has allocated in £1.25 million of taxpayers’ money to help the private sector raise the large sum needed to buy out most of the drift net salmon fishermen of North East England.

These nets have been catching 20,000 to 30,000 salmon a year and 70-80 per cent of those fish are not even heading for English rivers. The vast majority of the salmon that will be saved as a result of the buyout are fish returning to major Scottish salmon streams, including Tweed, Tay, the Angus Esks and the Dee.

So, you might think, the Scottish Executive will be delving deep into its tartan pocket to help our work? You could not be more wrong. The Executive has not been prepared to contribute a single penny. Scottish river fishery boards and private individuals have been generous in their support, but public funds have been entirely withheld.

It’s not for want of trying on our part. Andrew Whitehead, Secretary of NASF (UK), whose work eventually secured a voluntary deal with most of the 68 North East drift net licence holders, and myself, have tried to convince Allan Wilson, the responsible Minister at the Department of the Environment & Rural Affairs, that a precious part of Scotland’s heritage is at risk.

In May last year, after Andrew and I had had what then seemed to be a productive meeting with the minister, I advised Mr Wilson that I thought that Scotland should be in the forefront of NASF’s fund raising campaign. I told him that we were promoting fair and voluntary buyout agreements to remove all commercial mixed stock net fisheries to allow the international stocks of wild salmon to rebuild.

I reminded Mr Wilson of NASF’s efforts around the North Atlantic; of our agreements with commercial fishermen in Greenland, Iceland and the Faroes to protect salmon on high seas feeding grounds; of our progress in the Irish Republic where quotas have at last been set to curb what is the largest remaining mixed stock salmon fishery; I spoke of Northern Ireland, where the Government is to provide three-quarters of our £2 million buyout of all their mixed stock net fishings.

I added: “All these endeavours will help Scotland’s stocks. We very much hope similar co-operative arrangements can be agreed between the Scottish Executive and NASF or NASF(UK).” I suggested that if he could find ways of supporting the closure of the NE England nets, then that would send a great number of extra fish into Scottish rivers.

I said: “You may wish to share in the cost but, more importantly, it cannot be right that the extra fish saved should then be intercepted by Scottish nets. You might consider contributing to the international funds for salmon conservation. Alternatively, you could use public funds towards the closure of the remainder of Scotland’s mixed stock nets.”

After twelve months the silence is deafening. The Executive’s choice appears to have been made. No financial contribution to the drift net buyout. No effort to end Scotland’s own shameful coastal netting that kills upwards of 30,000 fish each year just they are approaching their native rivers to spawn.

We asked the Scottish Executive for a sum that now seems a pittance compared to the overspend on the Parliament building. We suggested that Scotland should give us £500,000 in each of the following three years. All our suggestions have been rejected and the destruction of what little is left of Scotland’s wild salmon stocks continues unchecked.

The North Atlantic Salmon Fund’s torch lies spluttering in a Scottish gutter. Surely there must be somebody in Scotland’s Parliament who cares enough for these miracle fish to pick up the torch and say: “This is our fight, too.”