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Cooper’s environmental limits

Trout & Salmon magazine likes to give space to opinion writers, which often amounts to free advertising for their angling businesses. Simon Cooper is one of them. He’s a middleman who rents out fishing on some of the most expensive chalkstreams in the country. This of course heavily colours much of what he writes. A few years ago he made some dubious arguments against releasing fish [link]. The underlying reason was clearly that catch-and-release is bad for his business. Concern for the environment goes little further than that for too many people, anglers included.

This time he has got his teeth into rewilding, calling it a ‘fad’. Once again the motivation is self interest, though instead of admitting this he makes spurious links to tame dolphins and misrepresents science, then implies we should do nothing at all because it will not solve every problem with the rivers. Cooper also misrepresents rewilding. It is not, as he suggests, an attempt to return the world to biological prehistory: its purpose is to restore the environment to a self-sustaining state, a necessary condition for our own survival, never mind all the other species we’re driving to extinction.

Specifically it is the Environment Agency’s policy on stocking trout that upsets him, yet he doesn’t seem to know what that is. The policy is and has been for some time to allow stocking only with infertile triploid fish, not to ban stocking altogether. Stocking has indeed been shown to reduce fitness of wild populations, at least with the Atlantic salmon, but no one has suggested there are ‘marauding packs of slob trout’ as Cooper does in his tabloidese. The Wild Trout Trust believes that stocking may be unnecessary if habitat is nurtured so that wild trout thrive. As Cooper notes, wild trout are doing well in at least some of the chalk rivers, though they are not as tough as he thinks: they need plenty of clean, cool, well oxygenated water to thrive. He should remind himself of his earlier article which noted the prediction of rivers becoming too warm for trout as climate changes progresses. Like the tabloids, Cooper often contradicts himself.

Apart from interfering with an ecosystem, of which we do a great deal, stocking introduces artificiality into fishing, especially in rivers when stocking is not really necessary. If Cooper sees so many wild fish, why does he wish to continually supplement them? The answer is simple. It’s good business. If a punter shells out a few hundred quid for a day’s fly fishing, they expect a few fish in return, preferably a lot of fish (all knocked on the head). Happy customers are return customers. A day stalking tricky wild fish for maybe one or two caught, or none, is not something many will pay a lot for. But for some of us the difficult wild trout is preferable to half a dozen stockies caught during the mayfly without even moving from the spot.

Rewilding covers a great deal more than brown trout. It’s an important part of maintaining a habitable environment for us, for fish and all wildlife. This is no fad; there is more to fishing than Cooper’s business model. To borrow from his borrowed metaphor about rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, it seems he is comfortable so long as he can sit in his deckchair while the ship goes down. I’ll bet he drives a four by four too.

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Salmon, suspect frameworks and other diversions

We know two things about the Atlantic salmon. They are in decline and little progress is being made to arrest this decline. The last few years have been the worst. It’s no great insight to blame the bad state of salmon stocks on exploitation and environmental degradation, the same reason many species in the animal and plant kingdoms are at risk or endangered (or extinct). The more difficult question to answer is where do we look exactly to save the salmon. Habitat loss in the rivers? Commercial fishing? Climate change and warming oceans? Current knowledge suggests the problem lies out at sea, from where the salmon are not returning. There are exceptions, notably Norway and Russia, the second of which attracts wealthy visiting anglers to its Kola Peninsula who have the cash and are willing to brave rides in decrepit helicopters. This raises the important question of why salmon runs have held up in the far north.

To whom do we look for answers? Marine and freshwater biologists of course. One feels on the one hand that scientists deserve a pat on the back. They’re poorly paid, research is underfunded, and criticism of their work overdone, too much of which comes from anglers themselves. Then again, looking at amalgams like the Missing Salmon Alliance, some biologists seem intent on wandering around a maze of their own making instead of getting on with it.

The MSA website is largely a few photographs and hyperbole.  Under the title What is the Missing Salmon Alliance, we are told that ‘by combining expertise, coordinating activities and advocating effective management solutions’ they will ‘help wild Atlantic salmon survive’. Does not the scientific community combine its expertise already? As for coordinating activities and effective management solutions, what activities and what solutions? As I wrote before, this is the vacuous waffle of businessmen and politicians with something to hide or nothing to say. The MSA’s Likely Suspects Framework is the same sort of thing, a very long-winded of saying we need to assemble all the existing data we can get hold of, add to it if necessary, study it and reach a conclusion. This they call the flagship project. But it’s not a project, it’s just a statement of how science is done. Colin Bull, the main man of the MSA, maybe the only one (the rest are employees of the member organisations), has co-authored an academic report of several thousand words about this Framework. Academic writing unavoidably relies on technical jargon but this is dense with the flannel used to give the illusion of importance.

This is how Bull summarises the aim of the Framework (‘The ‘Likely Suspects’ conceptual framework proposes to place candidate population dynamics factors within an overall spatial-temporal matrix covering the freshwater migration and marine phases of the life cycle of Atlantic salmon’):

  1. Better describe conditions facing salmon during the marine phase of their life-cycle,
  2. Mobilise existing evidence and synthesise new data to test the resulting hypotheses relating to reduced ocean survival,
  3. Test and rank these against competing hypotheses,
  4. Assist the movement away from single-species stock status and catch advice towards a wider ecosystem management and assessment-based system.

Point 1 sounds well and good but what is the nature of this better description? The existing evidence is point 2 has surely been studied by those who gathered it in the first place. What mobilising does the MSA have in mind? The bit about testing hypotheses seems to be a favourite of fishery biologists who often misunderstand how to interpret statistics. This suggests that they expect a bit of number crunching to throw bright light all over the mystery of the vanishing salmon. The final point, like the description quoted above, is back to the general waffle with no useful meaning.

The concrete project behind the verbosity is the Salmon Ecosystem Data Hub, intended to assemble all worthwhile data collected so far into a usable database. The scale of the task is great, as this sprawling report from the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (NASCO) suggests. The various surveys of salmon abundance and movements over the years are piecemeal; bringing these together will be difficult and take time (as Bull and co-authors admit), even disregarding the traditional reluctance of many scientists to make their data publically available. Even once complete its usefulness may prove limited.

Meanwhile the salmon are declining. The Data Hub is for the future, not the answer to the urgent problem of the missing salmon. That Bull places so much importance on it feels like a diversion from the matter at hand. The Moray tracking project which studies smolt migration downriver does not fit well with the theory that salmon are being lost at sea. Is this another study of minor interest that doesn’t address the real problem? Lest readers of this post think all science is a waste of time, let me cite a research review (Dadswell et al 2021) that offers far more insight than the Missing Salmon Alliance. This paper, the work principally of Canadian scientists, written in much clearer language, looks back at salmon abundances over more than a century. An interesting observation is the cyclic nature of healthy stocks such that abundance would vary substantially from year to year. Since the 1980s this cycle has been replaced by ‘flatlining’ and shrinking fish weights, the consequence of collapsing stocks.

From Dadswell 2021

Dadswell makes a strong case for the reason behind this collapse, also arguing why other theories, such as changes to climate or increases in predation, are unlikely to be correct. Legal commercial salmon fisheries closed almost completely in the late 1980s, yet from then salmon stocks went into steep decline. Unfortunately licensed fishing is not the only exploitation of fish stocks. As we know there is plenty of ‘illegal, unreported and unregulated’ (IUU) commercial fishing on the high seas, which are poorly policed. Illegal whaling went on for many years undetected. Bluefin tuna were exploited to the point of extinction by Japan and South Korea, which has a parallel to the tuna (tunny) fishery in the North Sea in the early 20th century. The old black and white photographs of anglers with their mighty catches suspended at the quayside rapidly came to an end when the tuna were depleted by commercial fishing, just as the once abundant herring were. Other unregulated fisheries include krill harvesting by European countries to sustain the aquaculture industry (and pellets for coarse anglers).

The most obvious explanation for vanishing salmon stocks is these IUU fisheries. Migration routes of salmon at sea are well known and vessels that previously legally fished for them may well have just carried on as before once they knew there was no enforcement, and joined by others who saw an easy profit. Humanity has quite happily wiped out species in the past through over-exploitation; ‘get it while you can and to hell with the future’ may be the motto of the illegal netsmen, and many others.

Where does this leave the Missing Salmon Alliance and the likely suspects framework? Fiddling while salmon vanish down the maws of rapacious humanity? It puts into pale light the Atlantic Salmon Trust’s work on smolts, which, according to Dadswell, remain at good levels despite the low adult returns. An important corollary of this observation is the futility of stocking from hatcheries. If illegal fisheries are really the cause of salmon mortality, building databases is just a diversion from dealing with the problem. There the MSA has its hypothesis; research should be directed at the potential impact of IUU fisheries. Pressure should be put on governments and fishery commissions to investigate them. Fish have to be landed somewhere and although it is easier to conceal them nowadays, enforcement is not impossible. Perversely NASCO believes IUU fisheries are not a problem, despite the evidence. It does not even contribute to the Combined IUU Vessel List, an organisation to combat fisheries crime.

Illegal exploitation is the simplest explanation for the missing salmon. Before embarking on the ill-defined research proposed by Bull and the MSA, this possibility should be eliminated. Meanwhile fisheries enforcement agencies should get their act together. The Atlantic salmon really is on the verge of disappearing from British rivers.

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