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An rud bhios na do bhroin, cha bhi e na do thiomhnadh
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Guest Column, October 2003

Mark Bowler began fly fishing 20 years ago and started tying flies at the same time. He joined the fishing magazine world in 1988 and in 1990 set up FLY FISHING and FLY TYING. Now living in Tayside, he finds he can indulge in salmon and river trout fly fishing, and pursue his special love - Scottish loch-trout. A keen float-tuber, recent convert to bonefishing, and a regular visitor to Ireland, Mark Bowler has been active in raising public awareness of the danger fish farming posses to the future of wild fisheries.

Lost at Sea

From Argentina to northern Russia and from the Bahamas to Alaska, wild fish are seen as a huge asset to a country's resource. The attraction of anglers to wild fish acts like a powerful magnet, drawing in fishing-rod laden tourists from all around the world.

Why this is not so in Scotland? Why does the acknowledged home of game fishing for both salmon and trout, which has in its possession numerous commissioned reports on the value of wild fish to its economy, and is politically independent in relation to fisheries, do nothing to protect its ailling wild game fishing?

As an editor of a Scottish-based fly-fishing magazine, I find that this 'laissez faire' attitude of the Scottish Executive exasperating; it has already cost Scotland's wild fish dear. The tourism value of Scottish fishing is plummeting; anglers are fed up with the bad press that Scotland's rivers receive, and have realised that the rivers of Iceland, Russia and Norway offer them better fishing for their money.

In their rush to get to the prolific rivers of Russia, wealthy American anglers fly directly past northern Scotland without so much as a wistful gaze down to the rivers lying below them - once the most famous salmon rivers in the world.

Missed opportunity? Certainly. But what is of more concern is that the blight on Scotland's wild fisheries looks like having a more lasting effect - the salmon's struggle against man's influence gets worse with every report that emanates from the various crisis meetings.

The latest publication of the papers from the Salmon at the Edge conference (organised by the Atlantic Salmon Trust and the Atlantic Salmon Federation and, ironically, held in Edinburgh) shows just how dire the situation has become.

Salmon and sea trout at sea are having a hard time these days, and no year more so than this, when many rivers are reporting low numbers of returning grilse. ‘Lost at sea’ is now the most common factor in the salmon's failure to return. This is despite the fact that many rivers in the United Kingdom have been improved to support young salmon through their freshwater stages.

Indeed, many rivers that were once too polluted to support any salmon at all now support small runs of fish, albeit precariously. Getting sufficient young stock to migrate to the seas from the home rivers doesn't appear to be the problem, but two occurrences this summer demonstrate what an increasingly hostile environment the sea has become.

In late May, reports of emaciated sea trout heavily infested with sea lice returning two months earlier than normal to the Loch Maree system underlined what anglers have known for years - that infestations of sea lice from the salmon cage farms at the river mouth and around the coast where these fish feed have made the sea an impossible environment for young salmonids to live in.

Various papers from the Salmon at the Edge conference confirm the facts:

* rivers with salmon farms at their mouths lost 86% of their smolt run before the run had reached the open sea compared with 26% in rivers with no salmon farms at their mouths;

* 14 out of 28 rivers along the west coast of Scotland with salmon farms at their mouths have Osevere stock collapsesą of wild salmon; * studies showed that infestations of 11 sea lice on a salmon smolt could kill it; on the Maree sea trout sampled there were an average of 67 lice per fish;

* salmon farms produce 98% of the sea lice larvae that live off the West Coast of Scotland.

So it would appear that our wild salmon and sea trout's 'lost at sea' story begins as soon as they taste saltwater.

Or does it? Experiments crossing wild fish with farmed fish provide a more worrying picture. Papers from the conference concerning the genetic make-up of migrating smolts showed that in the spawning river the faster-growing, dominant and territorial farmed crosses will oust young wild fish from the river completely.

However, these same farmed parr crosses are also recorded as having lower survival rates to smolt (migration to sea) stage. Then, on migration to sea, the farmed crosses that survive appear to lack the ability to navigate to the distant feeding grounds and back again - fish possessing farm genes were shown to be 25 times less likely to return than a truly wild fish.

These discoveries come on the back of the Scottish Executive figures stating that over 1,000,000 salmon have now escaped from fish farms countrywide. Escapes of massive numbers of farmed fish are so prevalent that now 9% of rod-caught salmon on rivers with salmon farms at their mouths are actually fish of farmed origin.

The Scottish west coast is littered with escaped farmed fish, all possessing the urge to spawn, but a very weak gene for survival. As you read this, our salmon (both wild and farmed escapees) are running the rivers to spawn; in doing so, they could be breeding their own downfall.