A Milestone for the Foyle; Entering a New Era where Abundance is the Target, not Minimum Levels


On 14th June 2010 The Loughs Agency, Foyle Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission, announced that due to a collapse in the salmon stock of the River Finn, all netting in the greater Foyle river system area would be stopped for a minimum of four years to promote stock recovery. Angling would be permitted, but only on a catch and release basis, as a result of a previously agreed protocol requested by anglers to help guard against poaching and pollution, and agreed by The Loughs Agency.

This represents a milestone in the development of salmon fisheries policy in the North West of Ireland; the Foyle system is a cross-border river system administered on a joint basis by two sovereign Governments, The Republic of Ireland, and The United Kingdom.

This change in policy has come about to protect stocks, but also because a failure to act by the Loughs Agency would have rendered The Republic of Ireland and The United Kingdom liable to infraction proceedings from the EU for breach of the Habitats Directive.

The history of salmon policy in the North of Ireland is not an advertisement for good Government. It has been characterised in the early years by a bureaucratic neglect to the extent that when NASF asked the responsible senior Civil Servant to outline Government policy on salmon, he was unable to do so, simply because no policy existed.

In the face of falling stocks, through pressure from anglers led by NASF and others, Government in time were forced to set out their policy on salmon - which amounted to neglect of duty. Instead of looking at the problem, Government simply allowed mixed stock interceptory netting to continue largely unhindered.

It is an interesting commentary on salmon policy in the North of Ireland that Governments always end up doing what NASF and anglers tell them they must do, but there is a lethal time lag while they do what they can to hide the fact that their previous policies were in error. Saving face, it seems, is more important than saving the salmon.

When NASF told Governments in the early 1990s that we needed to stop netting and conserve the freshwater habitats, we were literally laughed at; we were told in fact that the Foyle salmon netting effort may need to be increased, “to make sure we don’t allow too many salmon to reach the spawning grounds”. This is typical of the wilful refusal to look to the future that NASF has faced down through the years.

Time and again when NASF submitted plans to reduce or buy out netting, we were told it was not necessary, Government had everything in hand; all would be well, the bureaucrats knew much more about salmon than mere anglers in NASF. In fact, all was not well, and it now turns out that the anglers and NASF were right all along.

The collapse in the salmon stock of the River Finn must now mark a complete break from the misguided policies of the past as promoted by the Loughs Agency and supported by the two sovereign Governments, The Republic of Ireland, and The United Kingdom.

The Lough Agency has used models based upon minimum spawning escapement levels instead of listening to the NASF call for a return to abundance and the creation of a stronger population base through greater numbers. We at NASF criticize the narrow focus on egg deposition targets because rivers need far more spawning fish than are necessary to satisfy meagre theoretical minimum levels.

The practice of calculating backwards from juvenile habitat surveys to an estimation of required egg deposits is insufficient on its own, because it ignores the salmon's need for the diversity and protection against threats that abundant numbers provide. It also takes no account of the normal but highly variable occurrence of lethal weather, pollution, and other events that inflict high egg and fry mortality. There is good reason why salmon populations are prodigious when it comes to spawning. The fish deposit large numbers of eggs because so few of their ova survive and every season is different in terms of the unpredictability of weather, damaging events, and water levels.

It is not reasonable ignore these diverse factors and assume that a one-fits-all scenario can be safely constructed on a computer which does not recognise what mother nature has been very successfully doing for the last ten thousand years. Given the current abysmally low number of adult salmon in many rivers, the only rational strategy is to maximize egg deposition from the current runs and to work simultaneously to re-establish the environmental qualities of the rivers.

In the Loughs Agency area, this milestone presents an opportunity which must not be squandered.

We are running out of time to save the salmon, we can no longer afford the lethal time lag while Government Agencies try to save face. We need a complete break from a sterile dependence solely on minimum Conservation Limit targets; while these may form a useful contribution to a management regime, we must no longer rely on the concept of minimum numbers as targets for spawning.

We must firstly negotiate with the remaining netsmen to bring a permanent end to all netting in the entire Foyle area, with suitable safeguards on angling exploitation. Then we must embark on a long term programme of habitat conservation, protection, and enhancement, to maximise freshwater productivity. We must strive to achieve the NASF objective of abundance of salmon in our rivers, and to aim to achieve this every year. Only by doing this can we protect our salmon runs for the future.

Orri Vigfusson. NASF


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Notes for Editors:

The North Atlantic Salmon Fund, NASF, is an international coalition of voluntary private sector conservation groups who have come together to restore stocks of wild Atlantic salmon to their historic abundance. – nasf@vortex.isNorth Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF). Helping restore Atlantic salmon to their natural abundance