Belfast Telegraph

Net fishing ban on rivers as salmon levels plunge by 80%

By Brenda McDaid

All net fishing on two rivers in Northern Ireland has been banned for the 2012 season after it emerged that Atlantic salmon stocks have dropped by almost 80% in the past six years.

In the wake of the devastating figures, the Loughs Agency has imposed the suspension on commercial fishing on the Foyle and Finn rivers in the North West.

The chief executive of the Loughs Agency, Derick Anderson revealed that last year just 1,928 salmon had been counted in the River Finn compared to 8,571 in 2005.

The salmon return to Northern Ireland to spawn and must travel through Foyle lough and river to reach the Finn.

Now their survival is being threatened by a combination of excessive poaching and environmental changes.

In 2011, Loughs Agency staff seized 161 illegal nets, 12 boats and two cars suspected of being involved in poaching. Almost all of these were in the North West area. More poaching apparatus has also been seized over the first two months in 2012.

Last summer, it emerged that a number of the agency’s staff had come under attack during anti-poaching operations in the Strabane-Lifford area and elsewhere in the Foyle region.

In one incident, a breeze block was dropped from a bridge onto a patrol boat, narrowly missing an officer’s head.

Nail-studded booby traps and several assaults were also recorded.

There were also 134 commercial and agricultural pollution incidents detected along the river system — 11 of which are likely to progress to court.

However, recent scientific research has revealed that the over-riding reason for salmon depletion is very likely to be linked to environmental change in the north Atlantic.

Mr Anderson said: “The feeding grounds for the salmon are where the cold water from the Arctic meets the warm weather from the Gulf Stream.

“This has moved 250 miles further north which means the salmon have to swim that extra distance there and back and there are obviously more predators in those extra miles and the feeding times are also shorter because of the extra time it takes to get there and back.

“They are also probably weaker than they used to be with the extra distance coming back.

“That is probably the reason for the massive reduction and we are doing everything we can to protect them and ensure every fish that makes it back remains alive.”

Mr Anderson said when the salmon are about 12cm they leave Northern Ireland and go to sea and spend up to a year there feeding.

“Historically we have 30% coming back as adult salmon. In the 1960s that might have been up to 60%, but in the past few years those rates have been dropping across the North Atlantic to around 3-4%,” he said.

“Our target is to achieve 5,410 adult salmon counted in the Finn and if we do not achieve that there is a regulation that means we suspend commercial fishing and introduce catch and release.

“Effectively we want to ensure that any of the salmon coming back to the Finn are not killed.”

Back in 2007 there were 162 licensed fishermen operating on the local waterways.

But, due to concerns, they were offered a deal which stipulated that, if they gave up net fishing, a hardship package would be provided for them. All but 28 operators accepted the deal.

The Loughs Agency recently joined together with 19 partner agencies to study what was happening to the salmon out at sea.

Among the measures now signed-off by Mr Anderson are a “declaration” making the Finn a ‘catch and release’ area this year and the suspension of downstream commercial salmon fisheries.

SALMON IN NUMBERS

1,928 Salmon counted in the River Finn in 2011.

8,571 Salmon counted in the River Finn in 2005.

161 Illegal nets seized by Loughs Agency staff in 2011.

12 Number of boats seized last year.

134 Number of pollution incidents detected.

250 Extra distance in miles salmon now travel due to Gulf Stream shift.

From Foyle to Faroes, a nautical journey on an epic scale

Every year Ireland’s salmon embark on a nautical journey of epic proportions.

By the end of March the first of this year’s salmon start to return from their feeding grounds from as far away as the Faroe Islands and Greenland’s coast to swim into the mouth of Lough Foyle.

The greatest number of salmon arrive during the summer months of June and July, making their way back to the rivers of their birth.

Their arrival here marks the start of another journey — up the 30km-long lough into the River Foyle.

The salmon spend the rest of the summer recuperating from their journey in the river system here before fanning out along the tributaries that feed into the Foyle.

Spawning takes place in November and December in the gravel of the riverbeds where they were born themselves.

It is believed the fish use ocean currents, magnetic fields and the scent of their home river to find their way back.

The male fish will fertilise the eggs once they are laid.

Depending on water conditions, the eggs will hatch out into elvins over the coming months and use up their yolk sac before becoming fry.

The young fry move up to the surface of the riverbed, entering into the adolescent parr stage.

They will spend between one and four years in the river feeding and growing, and when they are about 12cms long they will move downriver in early May or June and head out into the sea.

But for their parents, the journey is likely over — after they have laid and fertilised the eggs, between 85% and 90% of the adult fish will die.

The survivors will also wait until spring before preparing for the trip back out to the sea to begin the cycle all over again.

The young salmon, if they survive their winter in the north Atlantic, return the following summer as grilse.

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