Furious anglers hit DARD with £50k bill after gravel removed from salmon spawning beds
Furious anglers say no salmon will spawn in the River Lagan this season after Rivers Agency staff destroyed a vital stretch of gravel - and they've billed the department £50,000 for the damage.
The Lagan River Trust said three diggers were used to scrape all the gravel from the spawning beds upstream from Sir Thomas & Lady Dixon Park and dump it on the riverbank.
The banks were left damaged and exposed to winter flooding and trees along the banks were damaged and removed, they added.
The Trust has now invoiced the Rivers Agency for £50,000, which is what they say it would cost to buy fresh gravel, get it delivered to the inaccessible stretch of riverbank and restore the spawning beds correctly.
In a complaint to both the Agriculture Minister and the Culture, Arts and Leisure Minister, the Trust said gravel had been removed from the riverbed without consulting the local angling club.
"A Service Level Agreement exists between DARD Rivers Agency and DCAL for all in-river works where DCAL are to consult with local angling clubs where river works are proposed by DARD," spokesman Trevor Ogborn said.
"DCAL has deliberately failed to communicate with the local club and River Trust. This situation has happened frequently and meetings with DARD and DCAL have failed to remedy the communication failure."
The Trust says it has leased full and exclusive rights over the riverbed, soil, banks, water and fishing of the River Lagan and tributaries - a lease covering 60,000 acres once held by the Wallace Estate.
Mr Ogborn told the Belfast Telegraph that the salmon are now running, and in dry autumns the only place in the Lagan where they can spawn is the gravel bed that has been destroyed, as the weir upstream has no fish pass.
"This will destroy the habitat for this year and any chance of the fish being able to spawn. All the work that was put in will be wasted."
Atlantic salmon, which are protected by law, only returned to the River Lagan in the 1990s as part of a restocking programme following improvements in the river's water quality. A 6.5lb salmon was caught at the stretch in question in the past week.
The Trust said it had asked the Rivers Agency to return the gravel to the river but were told this would not happen without an order from DARD.
A DCAL spokesperson said: "The Department has received correspondence from the Lagan Rivers Trust regarding gravel removal from the River Lagan and is investigating the matter."
A Rivers Agency spokeswoman said: "The works were carried out under the Drainage Order which provides Rivers Agency with permissive powers to carry out routine maintenance."
The Atlantic salmon, often referred to as the 'king of fish', is renowned for its vast migrations across the North Atlantic and for its ability to leap over obstacles as it makes its way upstream when it returns to the river of its birth. In its North Atlantic range the species is now extinct, or in critical condition, in about one-third of rivers, and is endangered or vulnerable in a further third, with substantial declines having also occurred in local rivers. It has declined considerably in recent decades in Northern Ireland, although some populations have shown recent increases and the species has been reintroduced to the Lagan and Erne systems.