The principle characteristic of salmon fishermen is one of optimism supported by patience and sanguine humour. Those qualities though are under duress after the worst start to the fishing season on many rivers in the UK since..... well forever, (although it must be mentioned that many more fishing days than average have been lost to bad weather conditions this year so far). The years preceding 2013 were bountiful but the salmon catch since has collapsed and salmon beats are now recording their worst five year averages since records began. Most of us have clung to the belief that the downtrend is cyclical in nature and will pick up again, as it did after very poor years in 1904 and 1915 for example.
The precipitous and accelerating catch decline though is now causing deep anxiety rather than a concerned raise of the eyebrows. On most rivers, fisheries management is first class and despite grumpy complaints from fishermen about predatory birds such as cormorants and goosanders they alone cannot justify the decline in returning salmon. Nor can coastal and estuary netting, poaching or obstructions in the rivers, almost all of which have been eliminated. Seals remain a problem, having doubled in numbers around our coastline since 2000 but even they are not sufficient to explain what has happened.
The problem lies out at sea and debate rages whenever salmon fisherman get together about what the problem or problems could be. The answer is unlikely to be a simple one. More likely newly commissioned research will conclude that poor salmon survival rates at sea are the result of many complex and contributory factors. One scientist believes he has identified one factor and it is a whopper. Professor Jens Christian Holst suggests that the massive growth of the mackerel population, (and herring and blue whiting), in the North Atlantic, between the Faroes, Iceland and Norway has created unequal competition for food with young salmon losing out to vast millions of mackerel. The mackerel in turn have been pushed into these areas by an absence of plankton further south.
There is some robust research available on the poleward migration of mackerel stock, most of it rather too academic for this post but if you wish to learn more it may be read here, here and here . A very good talk given by Professor Holst last year may be found here.
So, with salmon fisherman in a melancholic if not glum mood what is to be done? Contrarians of course will look to purchase fishing at depressed prices waiting for them to rally but who know's when that might be. One thing is certain, the way to deplete mackerel stocks is to eat them so please, eat some bloody mackerel!
Salmon fishermen are doing their bit within the limits of what is under their control. Virtually no fish are killed on the bank these days and in a complete reversal of historical habits well over 90% are returned and virtually 100% of the spring stock is returned on most if not all UK rivers. Catch and release is treated with near reverend religious devotion these days rather than as a 'good habit.' Many though incorrectly take the fish out of the water for a quick photograph before releasing. It is understandable that folk want a picture given catching the things is both an expensive and rare event but more and more people are frowning on it and many ghillies are encouraging catch and release from the net only without lifting the fish.