One of the world's leading experts with a double-handed rod, and with nearly 30 years in the salmon fishing industry, Ian Gordon shares his views.
When did you start fishing?
At the age of seven. I caught my first salmon on the worm when I was eight, and my first salmon on the fly from the River Deveron (19lb), aged 12.
How long have you been working as a ghillie for?
Nearly 30 years now. I have been on the Knockando beat of the Spey since 1985.
Are you concerned about the future of wild salmon stocks?
Yes, without a question. Although wild salmon are one of nature's survivors, we seem to do our level best to completely wipe them out.
What is your stance on catch and release in the UK?
In the early days, I wasn't too convinced about catch and release because, despite returning almost every hen for years, numbers continued to decline. Obviously, the problem was much bigger. However, I now support it completely because I know that the total biomass of fish in the Atlantic is continuing to fall, and our rivers now need every fish to spawn successfully.
Do you think that salmon hatcheries are beneficial?
I have watched what has happened on the Ranga River in Iceland with interest and seeing it transformed from producing 50 salmon a year to averaging more than 12,000 fish a season is enough to convince me of the merits of salmon hatcheries.
But, unfortunately, the Ranga's example isn't necessarily applicable to Scotland because, prior to restocking, the Ranga was deemed to be commercially devoid of salmon, so interference by man could, in theory, do no harm to the economic value of the river or the wild fish stocks. Because our rivers, although supporting poorer runs than that of the past, are a long way from being commercially devoid, practices such as those seen on the Ranga will never be sanctioned for fear of upsetting the genetic integrity of that particular river and tributaries. So in essence, the river will have to die before this type of restocking would ever take place here in Scotland.
However, there are 15 rivers in Scotland which have been classed by NASCO as being ‘commercially devoid' of fish, but none of them have been earmarked for such projects. One can't help but wonder why.
Aquaculture expansion – what are the main issues?
Both the Scottish and Norwegian Governments are very keen supporters of fish farming, so, unless their current stance changes, fish farming will still be here after wild salmon have died out. What we must do is play the percentage game and campaign to have all salmon farms taken on-shore. Although not perfect, this is the best and only solution to all environmental and sea-lice problems associated with sea cages.
Salmon netting and mixed stock fisheries – what needs to change?
The biomass of wild Atlantic salmon continues to decrease. NASCO and ICES and 4,500 people who have spent time working and fishing our rivers here in Scotland and elsewhere, agree that this is the case. Yet it would seem we don't have sufficient legislation to stop the killing off our coast. For me, the question is one of political will. I have never in my life come across a problem with no solution. If we want to protect the remaining wild salmon and prevent our rivers from being turned into a ‘ranching fishery', such as the Ranga, then the killing needs to stop.
Does Scottish Independence spell trouble for wild salmon?
The common perception amongst most would be yes, because of the overwhelming support of salmon farming from within the ranks of the SNP. However, as with all, there is a flip side. An independent Scotland would have to cosy-up to Europe, and in doing so would also need to conform to EU Law, including the Habitats Directive which is being flaunted by both Scotland and the UK at the moment. So, it is by no means a black and white issue.
Do you think seals and dolphins are affecting numbers?
The seal population around the UK shoreline has increased from around 5,000 in 1900 – a very low number due to the UK being a whaling nation at this time – to 40,000 by 1980 when the question of culling became a political one. Controlling seal numbers – once the privilege of keepers and ghillies – was lost due to pressure from those studying and compiling reports to government, and so the circle goes on. The result? An explosion in seal numbers. There are now 300,000 seals. This is what happens to anything if you trust management to quangos and politicians rather than those who have hands-on experience at the coal face of the countryside.
Do you think climate change is contributing towards the decreasing level of stocks?
The ever-changing climate has been the main factor in natural abundance of salmon for the past 10,000 or more years. Fluctuating sea surface temperatures (SST), the knock-on effect in plankton bloom, and thus the effect on the food chain is, and has always been, the main player in determining whether we have good or poor runs of fish. Interestingly, most would like us to think of SST rise as uniform. On the contrary, due to the North Atlantic Oscillation, a 2˚C increase in the western Atlantic, for instance, will almost certainly mean a similar fall in the eastern and northern sides and in Norwegian seas. This creates an abundance of food in one area but not the other. All of this is part of the reason why multi sea-winter fish will fair better than grilse some years, and visa versa. As with everything wild, it is all driven by weather and food.
The full effects of hydro schemes on the Spey have taken about 60 years to become evident, but I believe it is now clear that this form of water abstraction, and the cutting off of hundreds of miles of potential spawning grounds (even with fish passes), has had an adverse effect. The number of fish trying to ascend the dam at Loch Spey is now a fraction of the numbers that used to travel that far upstream prior to the 1940s.
Change is inevitable and, like the salmon, we must adapt accordingly. At this moment in time, although numbers continue to drop, there is still plenty of fishing to be had and enjoyed, albeit with reduced expectations. However, at this stage/part of the natural cycle and remembering also that there are many more predators than in the past, we must protect all fish returning to our coastline.
What needs to be prioritised to reverse the decline?
A complete moratorium on the killing of all wild salmon.The research has been done – if we want to keep populations of wild salmon healthy and not go down the line of hatchery-reared fish, then the time for action is now. Salmon are highly adaptable and the oceans are big, two factors that, even in times of very poor natural survival, have provided salmon with a certain level of protection. However, mankind's tendency to destroy the environment, along with our failure to properly control the number of predators, makes us the worst enemy of the salmon. Yet, paradoxically, anglers are also their closest ally.