Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee
Meeting date: Tuesday, January 19, 2021
Agenda: Climate Change Plan, Subordinate Legislation, European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018
Conservation of Salmon (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 2020 (SSI 2020/416)
Our second agenda item is to take evidence from Scottish Government officials on the amendment regulations. I welcome Keith Main, the policy manager for salmon and recreational fisheries for Marine Scotland, and Dr John Armstrong, director of the freshwater fisheries laboratory for Marine Scotland science. I believe that you would like to take us through the implications of the regulations first. After that, if members have any questions for our two guests, please use the chat box.
Thank you, convener. I start by offering apologies from Dr Antje Branding, who is the head of the salmon and recreational fisheries team. Unfortunately, Antje is unwell. Otherwise, she would have been here to talk about not just the regulations but wider issues. I do not cover everything that Antje covers as head of the team, but we will try to answer general questions as best we can. I hope that we can do that today but, if we cannot, we will certainly follow up as quickly as possible.
I will make a couple of general points that Antje wanted to make. One, inevitably, is to mention the implications of the pandemic for fishing and angling, as it has affected us, in the past year. When the first lockdown happened last March, angling was one of those activities that just stopped because of the various prohibitions. We were able to work with the sector and develop guidance that allowed an easing of restrictions on angling to a certain extent from the end of May. However, we are conscious that some fishing effectively stopped from March, through April and May and that spring fishing is a big activity for anglers.
The pandemic also had an impact on our work, of course. People on the team—on the policy side and the science side—have been involved in dealing with the implications of Covid-19 and working with the sector to develop guidance on what can be done. Some of our science colleagues have been seconded to the central effort, and we have not been able to engage with the sector as much as we would like. Therefore, some things that we talked about when we spoke to the committee last year have inevitably been delayed.
We are picking those up again now. For example, last year, we talked to the committee about our plans for developing our wild salmon strategy, which was a commitment in the 2019 programme for government. Inevitably, that work was delayed, but we have now started it. We have a strategic advisory group in place, which has met twice, and it remains Antje’s hope that, by spring, we will have published a high-level strategic document, working with stakeholders in the sector to give us a direction for the next few years in helping to protect, conserve and develop wild salmon in Scotland.
Beyond that, we will work on more focused implementation plans to address all the pressures—or as many as we can—that act on salmon. That work has started, and we will probably talk about some of the other work during the evidence session.11:00
For the committee’s interest, up until last year, through the EU, Scotland and the UK were members of NASCO, the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation. Members might remember that it was one of the sponsors of the international year of the salmon in 2019. Events were held, including a parliamentary event in January 2020. With the exit from the EU, we had confirmation last month that the UK is now a party to NASCO in its own right. We are working closely with our colleagues in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to see how we take that forward. We are finalising our implementation plans for the next five years in line with NASCO’s requirements. We hope that we will have quite a strong voice in NASCO now and that that will help us to press forward on some of the UK’s and Scotland’s priorities on issues such as the mortality of salmon at sea. I say that just for background information.
On the regulations, this is the sixth year of the salmon conservation regulations. You might recall that they were introduced in 2016 and did two things, mainly. One was to put a prohibition on retaining any salmon that are caught in coastal waters, which was effectively a ban on the netting of salmon at sea. That prohibition continues because of the state of the salmon population, which has not allowed us to consider easing that prohibition yet. The second thing that was introduced was an annual assessment of the 173 salmon rivers, as we have now assessed there to be, and their tributaries across Scotland. We decide on a year-to-year basis where it remains sustainable to catch and retain salmon and where salmon must be returned to the water if they are caught.
John Armstrong might say more about this but, last year, my colleagues completed the appraisal based on 2019 catch data. In summer 2020, from late August and through September, we consulted as required by legislation, seeking representations on the proposed grades. We had just 21 responses and representations this year from individuals and organisations, compared to 39 in each of the past two years and 170-odd in the year before that, when the regulations were quite new. Some people were supportive of the gradings and other people made similar comments and raised the same issues. However, as a result of the consultation, we agreed to make two changes to the proposed grades. In both cases, we raised the grading from grade 3, which is a mandatory catch-and-release grading, to grade 2. That was done for the River Clyde and for the Soval estate, which is part of the River Creed system.
I know that the committee has papers on this, but the overall figures show that grades 1, 2 and 3 have the same numbers, although there are inevitably some ups and downs for individual rivers. We have engaged and continue to engage with the stakeholders and some of those making representations. However, we believed that the evidence and representations that we had allowed us to go ahead and make the regulations that you now have in front of you. They were made on 3 December and I hope that they will come into force on 1 April in time for the full salmon fishing season. We hope that we have a full season this year.
Thank you. Before I hand over to my colleagues, I have a question on one point. You said that the prohibition on salmon netting in coastal waters has been in place since 2016. Is there any evidence yet about the impact of that on the salmon population?
I will ask John Armstrong to talk about the actual numbers. What I have seen from a policy point of view is that there have been no big changes in the numbers. However, if we had continued to allow coastal netting, that would have further reduced the number of salmon returning to our waters. It is maybe worth saying that colleagues in England originally planned a phased prohibition of coastal netting and fixed netting on coasts that would not have come in until 2022, but they advanced that and most, if not all, coastal netting is now prohibited in England. We are interested to see whether there is an impact from prohibiting the nets that previously operated off the north-east of England. As I understand it, the salmon come that way into the eastern rivers and those nets were at one time taking a lot of salmon.
I ask John Armstrong whether we have specific evidence on that.
Undoubtedly, more fish will be entering the rivers and some of those will have been caught. However, there are a large number of pressures on salmon and it is those pressures combined that result in the numbers of returning fish. Trying to tease out the effects of one pressure on its own is difficult, although one can do it theoretically. In the case of coastal netting, we can estimate from past data how many fish would have been caught by the nets and calculate what proportion of those fish we would expect to be caught. We could therefore come up with a modelled figure of the impacts of stopping netting. However, that is not enough to show a difference in the declining trend in broad catches.
I appreciate that it is more complex than that.
Claudia Beamish has some questions.
It has obviously been a difficult year for anglers and for the development of the science in relation to the gradings. However, I am pleased that, as salmon is a protected species under the EU habitats directive, it has been highlighted that there will continue to be the best possible protection for salmon on the same basis even though we have now left the EU. Have there been any developments in the granularity, as it was called in previous years, of the scientific evidence? If so, can you highlight those for us?
You are correct that it has been a difficult year, which is because of Covid and some staffing issues. Indeed, one of our modellers was transferred over to calculate the R values as part of the Covid response, and we have clearly given that a priority. We therefore have not achieved the rate of development that we would have expected. We have published part of the work on fecundity, but we have not advanced the other publications as we had intended to. There has been more analysis of the juvenile assessment that we have discussed previously, but there is still work to be done to see whether that can be integrated with the adult modelling in a meaningful way. Progress has therefore been slow.
That is understandable. Sorry—I see that Keith Main wants to comment.
As a general answer, what John Armstrong said is right. However, committee members might remember that, in the generality of the annual assessment that we do, we have given a commitment to stakeholders and the committee that we would not make significant changes for three years to the way in which we assess the annual status of salmon.
Some of the work that we have been developing on juvenile assessment would have been more advanced. Our aim would have been to take a view on whether to make changes to the assessment for the set of regulations for the 2022 fishings. In fact, Covid and the sorts of things that John Armstrong was talking about mean that that will probably not be done at least for next year. We will see what can and needs to be done, but we want to have proper discussions with people in the sector to make sure that we are heading in the right direction.
To go back to Claudia Beamish’s point about the EU habitats directive, ministers have made it clear that we want to continue with its principles. We have a number of special areas of conservation for salmon around the country and, more generally, as I discussed, we have international commitments through NASCO to protect salmon. The species is in crisis right across the northern hemisphere and we are looking to continue working with European and international partners on the path that we are on now. I cannot see that we will make significant changes to that commitment.
That is helpful.
I have a specific question from a regional perspective that builds on the discussions about coastal netting in relation to the instrument. I have been approached by the haaf netters on the Solway, who responded to your consultation. Will you highlight whether, and if so how, their concerns have been taken into account and what the response has been? The particular concern was about the different impact—in their perception, if I understand it correctly—on mortality from catch and release from their methods, in which a fish is kept in the water, although that is just one aspect of it.
Does John Armstrong want to talk about mortality or will I talk about the policy?
I can talk briefly about mortality. Mortality due to catch and release is an issue that we discussed briefly last year and I said that I would get back to the committee on it. We have a PhD student looking at the consequences of catch and release at the moment and at different components of it. I hope that that work will report next year, which will give us a fuller answer.
It is certainly the best situation for fish to keep them in the water. It is when they are removed from water that the risk of mortality increases substantially. If haaf netting can be conducted without taking fish out of the water, that will certainly be beneficial for the salmon. However, my understanding, which Keith Main can enlarge on, is that haaf netting is catch and release only at the moment, so it is important that that method is adapted, if possible, to minimise the impact on the fish.
That is right. The reason why we classify the haaf netters in the Solway as a catch-and-release fishery is that they are in effect what we term a mixed-stock fishery. When the salmon come into the estuary, they are heading for a number of rivers—the Annan, the Nith, the Eden and the border Esk. At the point where the haaf netters are catching the fish, we cannot say which rivers they are going to. Most of those rivers are grade 3 rivers and on a precautionary basis we therefore want the fish to get to the river.
The haaf netters were the first people I met when I started this job and I understand their concerns and the historic nature of fishing in the Solway with a haaf net. They have asked whether, because at least some level of mortality is assumed from rod-and-line fishing, they can have a kill licence to that level for their fishery. However, our position is for the mortality level to be zero in any unsustainable fishery and, therefore, giving that sort of kill licence would not be appropriate. That has been our position for a long time.
The haaf netters make the point that theirs is a historic fishery and one that is not practised anywhere else in Scotland. My answer to that is that we are not stopping the fishing: the haaf netters can fish for and can catch and retain sea trout or any other species that they catch in those nets.11:15
Some members might recall that ministers made a contribution towards developing educational and tourist information to preserve the heritage of the haaf netters. We are not discussing whether they can catch salmon but whether they can kill them. The fisheries in the rivers that feed the Solway are so unsustainable that we have concluded that we cannot currently allow catch and kill.
I mentioned the Eden and the border Esk on the English side of the border. In the past two years, our colleagues in the Environment Agency have introduced mandatory catch and release for salmon in all those rivers on that side of the border. Before that, anglers and netsmen were allowed to catch fish on the English side of the Solway firth. That is no longer the case, which also reflects the continuing downward trend in fish.
I have some questions on the same subject. There were initially some flaws in the methodology, which had to be changed. That is one of the reasons for our being keen to speak to you every year when the Scottish statutory instrument is brought in and to review the regulations. We were far more satisfied with the evidence on which the river grading was subsequently based. I welcome that.
Am I correct in thinking that I heard—please put me right if I misheard this—that no scientific research was done on what the impact of coastal netting was and that it was just assumed that taking any fish out of the water would have an impact? Can you assure me that research has been done on the issue and that it was found that what was taken out through coastal netting by commercial fisheries had a significant impact? Are there any plans to do more work on that if there is no such scientific evidence?
Extensive work has been done on coastal netting. Indeed, a few years ago, we conducted a large acoustic tracking study to update our understanding of the impacts of netting. We tagged fish at a site at Armadale on the north coast with little acoustic transmitters that give out pings of ultrasound. We had a network of receivers on a wide range of rivers around the coast, and we monitored the returns of those fish that had been tagged at Armadale to rivers around Scotland. We also looked at the genetics of the fish, which enabled us to work out which regions those fish had come to, so we knew what the impact of that particular net fishery would have been on a range of rivers and we could scope out the number and range of fish. It was quite an intensive piece of research.
That built on many decades of research as part of which smolts have been tagged with tiny tags as they go out. That research showed us where those smolts were captured in different nets around Scotland. There is a substantial data set that is presented in two Marine Scotland science reports, which are freely available. We can send those to you after the meeting so that you have the detail of the information that is available.
I have a follow-up question. Given the data that you have, there is no level of commercial netting—for example, on the Cree, Urr, Annan or Nith estuaries—that can be sustainable, which is why it is prohibited. On that basis, the issue of compensation for the loss of those commercial fisheries has always been contentious. Are there any plans to review the compensation—or lack of it—to the commercial netters on those estuaries?
In order to explain, I will expand a little on the science. The main fact that has come out of the research into coastal netting is that netting stations tend to impact a wide range of rivers. So many rivers are now in a poor conservation status that it is likely that almost every netting station will impact a grade 3 river, because it is intercepting fish that are heading to distant rivers. That is the nub of the issue when it comes to impacts and why coastal netting cannot continue on a scientific basis.
I will hand over to Keith Main to talk about the compensation issues.
Before I talk about compensation, I point out that although we are talking about coastal netting, which is from vessels, there are still a few netting operations around a few rivers that involve in-river nets. People are allowed to put out nets and catch fish in a number of areas where the river has been classified as a grade 1 or 2 sustainable fishery. When they do so, they must tag fish under carcass tagging regulations. We offer them tags each year, so that there is an audit trail and people can track fish that have been caught and are perhaps being passed on or sold. There are very few such operations, but they are all in river.
The coastal netting prohibition was brought in in 2016; we committed to review it after three years, and compensation was paid to the netting operators for that first three-year period. After the review, ministers decided that it was appropriate to continue the prohibition and that it should remain open-ended. We have been in discussions with the netting operations since that time.
Members might recall that the netsmen’s organisation sought a judicial review of the way in which the Scottish Government was seeking to calculate and offer compensation to them for loss of business. I cannot remember the exact dates but, around this time last year, the judicial review found that the Scottish Government’s position was, in effect, correct and supported the principle of the offers that we were making. In spring last year, we went back to each operation, explained our position again, offered to recalculate compensation on historical catch data that they could provide and made offers of compensation on that basis.
We have now made final settlements with all but three of the operators. Letters will be going to those three—or perhaps four—in the next week to say that we wish to get that settled. One or two operators are still trying to negotiate further on the amount of compensation. We simply have not heard from the other one or two for a while, so we are chasing that up. We hope to get the final compensation payments made.
Those payments are not for the fishery as such; we are not buying the fishery, so anybody who has the right to fish off the coast will retain that, but we have offered compensation in lieu of a projected 10 years’ catches. That is the offer that we have made and, in most cases, have paid.
If—we keep our fingers crossed—Atlantic salmon makes a major comeback in the next five years and we decide that fishing has become sustainable again and that is extended into the coastal waters, it remains open for those netting operations to restart without any penalty on the compensation.
However, we wanted to make a long-term offer to allow operators time to adjust their businesses and make transitional arrangements. Some—[Inaudible.]—and other fish, too, but we wanted to make a long-term offer to give them time to change—[Inaudible.].
This must be your final question, Mr Carson, then we will move on to Liz Smith.
Is the compensation based on the raw product, which is the fish that were caught, or is the compensation for the opportunity that has been lost to add value to the product that was caught? Particularly along the Solway, operators were catching fish and smoking them, which added value to them. Is the compensation based on how many kilos of fish were caught or on the opportunity that has been lost to add value?
To be honest, I do not know the fine detail of that. However, I can certainly find out and write to let you know. That was looked at carefully by us, the operators’ legal representatives and the judicial review. I would hate to give you information that was wrong, so we will write to you on that.
We go to Liz Smith for a final question.
I am simply seeking confirmation. Three years ago, there was an issue about the data that was used for the categorisation of rivers, particularly at grades 2 and 3. Has the controversy about that been resolved? I think that you are aware that I represent constituents based around the River Earn who are in the angling clubs of Comrie and Kinkell Bridge. In 2017, they were vociferous in arguing that the Marine Scotland data was not as accurate as it could have been. That is not particularly relevant to the current SSI, but the issue of data is and its accuracy is even more important. Can you assure me that we have now resolved the difficulties that we encountered in 2017—as you will know, those were raised at the committee—to do with the methodologies used to measure fish catch?
John Armstrong will talk about data, but I can tell you that we continue to correspond with angling clubs on the River Earn. They have written to us again this year, and the fisheries director for the Tay district is also in correspondence with us and has regular discussions with us about the data. I understand the point that—
Can you just confirm that the issue has not yet been resolved?
We have not persuaded the clubs that our methodology is the correct way in which to go. I think that some people are not going to agree with us on that. However, John Armstrong will talk about the robustness of the data. We work on the basis of data that is provided to us by clubs and district salmon fishery boards, and we endeavour to make it as accurate and complete as possible every year. The model does all sorts of things that I do not pretend to understand fully, but we believe that we have a robust methodology. John, do you want to go further on that?
Sure. There is always room for improving ecological-based models. We are trying to capture complicated and variable systems in a way that can be used to make management judgments. There are undoubtedly many uncertainties that can never be fully dealt with. However, we use the best available information in a structure that we have consulted on extensively and continue to refine. For example, we are working increasingly with scientists in England and Wales to see how we can bring together some of the data sets that they have on their key rivers and, by the same token, they can use some of the Scottish data to add increased weight to decisions. For example, one can have stock recruitment curves from a range of different types of river, which reduces the uncertainty in the estimates.11:30
We have thought about the comments that constituents on the Earn have made. We have looked at how we can modify the models to account for fish coming in late in the year, for example, and we have made adjustments as we have gone along.
We continue to upgrade the models and we will continue to get better data. We have had to put a hold on the work on the Ayr fish counter, which, as I think we mentioned the last time we appeared before the committee, is the next counter that we are developing as part of a network that we hope to grow. We intend to continue that work in the coming year and to get more fish counters in. That, too, will reduce the uncertainty in the models.
I have no doubt that there will be people who want to see improvements. We will seek to make improvements; that will be an on-going process.
Thank you both for your time this morning and for answering all our questions. I hope that the next time we see you it will be in person.
Environmental Protection (Disposal of Polychlorinated Biphenyls and other Dangerous Substances) (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 (SSI 2020/434)
We move on to agenda item 3, which is consideration of a negative instrument. Do members have any comments to make on the instrument?
As no one has any comments to make, I confirm that the committee has no recommendations to make on the instrument.