Wednesday 23 January 2019

Lay of the Land: Wising up to the lack of fish in our salmon pool

Stock Photo
Stock Photo

Fiona O'Connell

Property developers have a penchant for calling their concrete creations after the natural wonders that were bulldozed to make way for them.

But not the salmon pool in this country town which lives up to its name, overlooking the stretch of river where this king of fish returns each year to spawn the next generation.

Though some would say you have as much chance of catching sight of this icon of Irish mythology as the heron hunched on the riverbank does of catching one for his dinner - for the Atlantic salmon population has declined drastically over the past 200 years. And the rate is accelerating, with average catches today some 80pc lower than in the 1970s.

The survival rate of young salmon leaving our rivers has likewise plunged in that period, with return rates of adults now as low as 5pc.

Salmon Watch Ireland says man's destructive relationship with the natural world lies behind the many causes. These include climate change, pushing a drastically-altered environment at sea; technological advances in high seas fisheries; illegal fishing, and even the rise in wildlife predation, caused by the scarcity of traditional prey due to overfishing.

Inland Fisheries Ireland admitted last year that various conservation measures, including the decade-long ban on drift netting for salmon at sea, don't appear to have worked.

But perhaps there are elephants in the room that explain the scarcity of these fish in our waters - for there has been little focus on salmon farming, which has been practised in Ireland since the mid-1980s, with devastating consequences for both salmon and sea trout survival.

It is ironic that the industrialised farming of a fish renowned for instilling wisdom has not made us smarter.

But despite all the evidence, both the industry and successive governments continue to promote salmon farms - with some estimating a 78pc rise in production by 2020.

Some opponents cite land-based farms as a possible compromise - which introduces the second elephant, that of the lethal link between what we put on our land and its effects on the water.

Along with acidic flushes through the degradation of peatlands and coniferous industry, intensive farming is ruining our rivers.

Environmentalists claim there is little or no management of river habitat or water-quality issues. River trusts would seem to lack statutory powers and the full-time staff need to be truly effective.

But it's not too late.

We could still save our salmon by laying off at least some of the land, designating certain areas as legally-protected habitat and allowing re-wilding to occur.

Otherwise, we face a chilling future, in which our country's children grow up thinking a salmon pool is just a nice name for an area, rather than a living place of natural reality.

Sunday Independent

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