What’s missing from the Missing Salmon Alliance?

The Spring 2021 edition of Fly Culture gives space for an article about a loose amalgam of charities called the Missing Salmon Alliance (author not identified). I confess the MSA was unknown to me. Formed about a year ago, the principal members are the Atlantic Salmon Trust (AST) and the Game & Wildlife Conservancy Trust (GWCT). The Angling Trust plus a couple of river and fisheries bodies make up the others. Notably, Salmon and Trout Conservation (STC) is not a member.

The Chairman of the MSA is David Mayhew, an investment banker and presumably a salmon fisherman too (the preferred fishing of very wealthy city types). According to the GWCT website, he has ‘masterminded’ the MSA. One can see the value of a figurehead like Mayhew if there is fund-raising to be done but it’s not clear exactly what this masterminding has involved. In fact little is clear about the purpose of the MSA — how it is distinct from the AST or the STC or the GCWT, which hosts the MSA (same address).

Alas, the article reveals very little; it implies that the MSA doesn’t really know its own purpose either, beyond being some kind of catch-all. The sloppy quotes of figures on salmon decline are not encouraging. Contradictory percentages seem to be plucked from an assortment of other documents and the phrase “5% of every 100” suggests the author is not comfortable with numbers. Elsewhere the article is vaguer still: “The MSA pools together research and data, combines expertise, coordinates activities and advocates effective management solutions . . .”, etc. You can read this sort of rubbish in corporate documents everywhere; bombast is a favourite of show-off managers who have something to hide, often their ignorance. The MSA is off to a bad start coming out with this kind of stuff.

Unfortunately this is not simply the result of delegating the writing to an officious individual. Colin Bull, an AST biologist and MSA ‘principal investigator’ is quoted using the same language. The MSA’s “flagship project” the clumsily titled Likely Suspects Framework, intends to provide “non-descriptive outputs that empower salmon managers with the knowledge and tools to make good decisions . . .” This is waffle of the worst kind, obscurantism to impress the lay person. By non-descriptive I suspect he means quantitative data — hard numbers on salmon populations. If so, why not say this? There is much to say about wild salmon decline. The widely accepted view is the marine survival rate was higher in the past. We’re told that now only 5% of salmon return from the ocean, without any comparison of the return rate in the past. Does anyone know what this actually was?

The research on which Bull is currently engaged is the salmon tracking work with the AST. The question is how much value, if any, the MSA contributes. The suggestion that it can somehow collect a lot of disparate data from earlier work to reveal something important about salmon decline seems optimistic, assuming any useful data has not already been examined by scientists in the field. Do fisheries scientists not read each other’s papers?

We probably already have a good idea of the causes of the decline in salmon runs. Environmental destruction is the reason for the damage to wildlife worldwide. Aquaculture has been shown to have a major impact on wild fish, yet the industry continues to grow and pollute. How about the MSA taking on that economic behemoth? Global warming may be affecting the salmon, along with just about every other living thing on Earth, including humans. Is not the proposed collating work of the MSA fiddling with seashells while the oceans swallow the salmon?

Biologists in fisheries work often get a bad press, generally from those without scientific training or much ability to muster an intelligent argument. Yet I have found too many of these scientists to be insular and self-regarding; the FC article is an example of that. That’s not to say the research of the AST has no value: Ken Whelan, the research director, is a competent scientist and the tracking projects may well prove their worth. The Trust is in better hands now than when it was run by a bunch of retired military officers.

It’s hard to see what the MSA adds to the AST and STC. If it is going to take up several pages of an expensive magazine it had better have more to say than a lot of unreadable platitudes. I doubt it will attract many donations based on this uninformative, tedious read. Meanwhile it is just another distraction from tackling the immediate problem of environmental ruination.

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