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Back on the throne -- the king of Irish fish is coming home

David Norris might fancy himself as the comeback kid of the week, but the anglers of Ireland believe they have a much worthier catch for that title.

For decades, the salmon, our greatest and most precious sea creature, has been driven to the brink of extinction by filthy rivers and commercial drift nets that evict them from their natural spawning grounds.

But this week, for once, Ireland was being praised for an environmental success story: the return of a long-lost visitor, the king of fish, to what was once the capital's dirtiest river.

For the first time in at least a century, wild Atlantic salmon have returned to Dublin's Tolka River to hatch their young fry, safe in the knowledge that a waterway which was once choked with pollution and slime is now thriving again and teeming with nutrients.

Along its banks, from the north city suburbs of Finglas to Glasnevin, their glistening silver bodies and forked tails have been spotted slicing through the water, testimony to the ambitious efforts made to clean up the river in recent years. Another significant factor in their return has been the removal of man-made weirs to open up the river to migratory fish.

While earlier this year, London was forced to abandon a multi-million pound project to entice fish back to the Thames, Dublin now has three rivers producing wild salmon stocks -- the Liffey, the Dodder and the Tolka -- making it the only European capital to hold such an accolade.

Scientists say the return of Atlantic salmon to the city's waters is significant because they are 'bio-indicators': species whose choice of habitat indicates a healthy environment.

Every wild salmon that makes its epic journey from the ocean back to its home river is vital too for the survival of other species, such as kingfishers and otters, which have also been spotted in greater numbers on the waterway.

For former fisheries officer Peter O'Reilly, author of the definitive books on Irish game angling, the news is breathtaking.

"I would have been very pessimistic about water quality in Dublin and the Tolka would never have been on my list as a place where salmon could survive," he says.

"They need a very high standard of water in order to hatch their eggs. The fact that they have returned is an indicator that the water is clean. I take my hat off to the state authorities that their efforts are now showing results."

But the return of salmon to Dublin is by no means a unique triumph. As the fly-fishing season draws to a close this weekend, around the country anglers are celebrating a bumper year with numbers exceeding anything they hoped for. Following decades of decline, this year saw the re-opening to anglers of 20 rivers because of an improvement in salmon stocks.

Glenda Powell, who runs an angling centre on the River Blackwater in Waterford, puts her excellent season primarily down to the removal of drift nets, dubbed by critics as a wall of death at the mouth of rivers that forces fish away from their natural spawning habitat.

For years, Irish drift nets were blamed for taking fish returning from their feeding grounds in the north Atlantic to rivers in Britain, Germany, France and Spain.

Following legal pressure from British anglers and conversation groups, in 2007 then Marine Minister Noel Dempsey introduced a total ban on salmon netting to allow more than 70,000 fish caught in nets to return to their native rivers.

"We are finally seeing the fruits of that ban," says Powell.

"Since the drift netting stopped, we have seen an increase in salmon and we are seeing bigger salmon. Our autumn run of fish is getting later and later, and we are now seeking an extension of a couple of weeks so we can fish into October.

"We were the last country to ban drift netting, and it was the reason why we saw a massive decline in angling tourism, which is so important to the economy. It brings so much to the local towns and villages.

"The anglers buy petrol and diesel, they shop in local shops and they buy their lunch in local pubs and restaurants. They end up spending about €40 at every stop. For centuries, salmon angling has been a sport in Ireland. More than ever, it's something we really need to protect."

Indo Review