Salmon in Northern Irish rivers have plummeted to near extinction levels and could now be past the point of no return.
That’s the stark warning from South Belfast MLA Michael McGimpsey after the Stormont culture, arts and leisure committee learned that just three out of every 100 migrating wild salmon returned to our shores last year.
Leisure Minister Carál Ní Chuilín is now considering the way forward after consultation proposals to ban the commercial netting of salmon, and to restrict angling to ‘catch and release’, received an overwhelmingly positive response from the public.
A voluntary ban on commercial netting and a catch and release policy for DCAL waters have been in place since earlier this year in a bid to curb the decline.
Fifteen years ago, the River Bush salmon station was recording that 30% of wild salmon were returning to the waters of their hatching following their migration at sea. Now that figure is down to less than 5% as sea survival rates plummet.
After the meeting, committee member Ulster Unionist MLA, and former DCAL minister, Mr McGimpsey said he was concerned that local wild salmon stocks are nearly extinct.
“I believe that the public do not appreciate just how precarious the situation is. It is estimated that 1,000 to 1,500 salmon return to Northern Ireland each year to spawn. Of these, half are wild salmon and the other half locally hatched salmon,” he said.
“It is beyond question that there has been a serious collapse in local wild salmon numbers and this is a situation which has implications, not just for local anglers but for our tourist industry.
“The sad fact is that we have talked for so long about implementing strategies to save our wild salmon stocks that I fear we have left it too late to act and are now past the point of no return.”
Mr McGimpsey told the Belfast Telegraph that salmon stocks are “around dodo levels”.
“We are walking into this thing and it has got so bad that we need totally drastic action in and and around salmon,” he said.
Officials revealed that of six commercial netsmen who responded to the consultation, three supported a total cessation of netting. Two favoured quota regulation, while one preferred the ‘do nothing’ option.
Earlier this year, almost all the licensed netsmen gave a written undertaking not to catch salmon this year.
Two who had refused to agree to the voluntary ban were not issued with licences, and it is understood they are now challenging that decision in court.
However, DCAL officials insisted this court action should not prove an obstacle to introducing salmon stock-saving measures.
They said the proposals will be put to the minister by the end of October and Ms Ní Chuilín is keen to get legislation in place by 2013, although they admitted this will be an extremely tight timescale.
The Atlantic salmon is renowned for its vast migrations. 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.