Good morning and thank you, convener. I thank the committee for the opportunity to give evidence this morning in support of our petition. Looking round the room, I think that many of you, like me, are old enough to remember when salmon were truly abundant. That was back in the 1960s and 1970s. Back then, wild salmon was widely available in fishmongers, restaurants and so on. Sadly, that is no longer the case.
What has happened? As I am sure most people will know, each spring, young salmon that are about six inches long leave their rivers of origin and migrate to sea. In the 1960s and 1970s, for every 100 young salmon that migrated to sea, some 25 to 30 would in due course, after one, two or three years at sea, return to our coasts. Marine survival, as it is known, was then 25 to 30 per cent. In stark contrast, it is now less than 10 per cent. In the River Bush in Northern Ireland, which is probably the most closely monitored salmon river in the UK, marine survival has fallen to less than 3 per cent in the past two monitored years.
What has caused those declines? Changes in the environment, pollution, parasites—particularly parasites from fish farms on the west coast—predators, fisheries, bycatch and, probably most important of all, problems in young salmon finding food while they are at sea. The latter factor is probably due to climate change and, as I am sure most people will agree, climate change is here to stay. Despite what Lord Lawson might say, climate change is not going to be reversed; if anything, it is likely to get worse and the impacts that it is producing will get worse.
The result is, to quote from a Marine Scotland Science report of January 2015:
“The overall strength of the Scottish salmon stock (all populations combined) has declined markedly in the last fifty years due to increased mortality at sea”.
Coinciding with that decline has been a great reduction in the coastal salmon netting industry, which has acted as a “buffer”, as Marine Scotland Science puts it, allowing the number of salmon reaching their rivers of origin to remain reasonably healthy. Worryingly, however, we are now seeing significant falls in the numbers reaching key rivers. Marine Scotland Science closely monitors the North Esk river: a counter on the lower river counts all the returning adult fish as they come in from the sea. The five-year average from 2007 to 2011 of the upstream count was just over 14,000; the average for the three years from 2012 to 2014 was 9,300, which was a 35 per cent decline on the previous five-year average. I emphasise that that fact is slightly at odds with the impression given by the briefing that SPICe prepared.
We have now had three poor or very poor years in terms of salmon runs. Although the writing has been on the wall, the Scottish Government has been slow to react and reluctant to employ the powers that it has. However, in the past six months or so, there has been a sea change in the Scottish Government’s approach; indeed, there has been a willingness to address the problems, which we welcome. A year ago, the Scottish Government set up the wild fisheries review, which reported in September 2014 and tacitly spelled out the problems, recommending that any harvesting must be sustainable and that there should be no exploitation without a licence to kill.
I had a meeting at Marine Scotland in November 2014 with a senior civil servant who agreed that we do indeed have a problem. I am pleased to say that there is no longer a denial that there is a problem. The Scottish Government is now starting to take some remedial action. In recent months it rushed through a Scottish statutory instrument for the season that has just started to ensure that there should be no killing of any salmon before 1 April. That is a recognition that the earliest-running fish are the most depleted. However, we believe that that is somewhat unambitious because, on the basis of the 2013 catch figures, the number of salmon killed in Scotland before the end of March was just 200. If the ban on killing salmon was extended to the end of June, that would save 6,500, on the official figures.
In the Salmon & Trout Association Scotland’s response to the consultation on the measure, we urged ministers to give urgent consideration to introducing another order in time for the 2016 season to say that there should be no exploitation or killing of salmon before 1 July. We have re-emphasised that point in the petition.
The Scottish ministers are now consulting on a licence-to-kill system to be brought in for 2016. We support that, but believe that it should be allied to a presumption against any killing of salmon before 1 July. There is simply no surplus of early-running salmon to enable a crop to be taken.
The second part of our petition addresses the issue of mixed-stock fisheries, which are indiscriminate coastal fisheries for salmon that exploit salmon before they reach their rivers of origin. They are indiscriminate because we do not know whether the fish being caught are from river stocks where there is a sustainable surplus.
The North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization met in June 2014. Scotland is a member of NASCO, through its membership of the European Union, and all salmon-producing countries are members of this important conservation organisation, which meets for a week every summer. At the June 2014 meeting, Scotland was singled out for criticism, because of its failure to develop conservation limits for individual rivers in line with a NASCO agreement on the adoption of a precautionary approach.
Given that failure and the fact that it will take years to address it, Scotland should now, if it is to live up to its international obligations, move swiftly to end exploitation by mixed-stock fisheries. Regrettably, Scotland is moving in the other direction.
The net catch increased by 50 per cent in 2013 compared with 2012. In the past three years, several netting stations have been reopened, having been dormant for several years. That is contrary to basic conservation principles, particularly at a time of declining stocks.
Our petition, if enacted, will go a long way towards giving vital added protection to our declining wild salmon runs.