Over the course of my first season Fishing for Atlantic Salmon, I took it upon myself to research the subject of my quarry as if I wanted to catch more fish, It seemed like a sound strategy to know more about them.
What's the difference between a Salmon and a Grilse for example? Where in the river do they hold up? What do they eat whislt in the river...(which seemed a perfectly reasonable question at the time!).
Learning more about these fantastic creatures has been one of the main sources of enjoyment for me as before I started Fishing for our silver tourists, I had no idea of the incredibly impressive and perilous journey these fish take from river to sea and back again.
The fact that a Salmon can be born in a remote Scottish river then migrate to sea to feed and mature and then find its way back to its place of birth to spawn, navigating it's way past a vast array of predators, is simply incredible.
We can't even make our way to the supermarket these days without obeying every word our sat navs shout at us...even if it means driving round in circles at a roundabout 3 times to try and figure out what one was the third exit...(Be honest we've all done it).
I have really began to understand through my own research just how much of a keystone species they are in many places across the world, but I was genuinely shocked to discover how their very survival was being threatened.
As a newcomer I can say from experience that this message doesn't reach very far out with the circles of Salmon anglers and conservationists.
Unless someone were to talk you through the perils facing our wild Salmon and Sea Trout stocks, you would have no idea that they were under threat and in decline.
Although fishing at sea, over predation and anglers not practicing catch and release are all contributory factors to the decline in wild wish returning to our rivers. What was particularly alarming for me as an angler and a consumer, was learning that our native Wild Salmon and Sea Trout stocks were being put at risk particularly because of a disease and sea-lice ridden Salmon farming industry.
An industry that seems to have been granted unconditional support by the Scottish Government, who in 2017 were ruled to have unlawfully withheld information about the "liciest" farms in Scotland to avoid public scrutiny. (This was ruled to be the case when Salmon and Trout conservation Scotland lobbied the information commissioner to have this information released in 2017).
Never had I realised before taking up the sport that the Salmon I would order in a restaurant or picked up from a supermarket shelf was produced in one of these farms. I mean, to those not in the know, surely Loch Muir is a real place right?
For those who are unaware of the current issue, in a typical Salmon farm, the fish are penned into a circle of mesh measuring around 40 metres across and they may cram in up to 70,000 fish out in a natural area.
By being kept in such numbers in these cages, the Salmon become a stationary target for sea lice as they have nowhere to run. The lice then thrive in these farms and quickly establish themselves in huge numbers and then proceed to eat the Salmon alive or expose them to infections through open wounds where the lice have been eating them.
The salmon farms then respond to these infestations by pouring chemicals, some of which are known to also be present in pesticides, into the cages to kill the lice or instead supplement the food supply of the fish with these "medicines" which then ultimately reach our tables.
The by product of these infestations though is that wild fish who inhabit the same areas that these farms are located, have to then swim through dense clouds of sea lice whilst on their natural migratory journey...and you already now know what sea lice do to Salmon and Sea Trout.
Essentially, these cages are no different to the battery cages that hens are kept in.
I remember watching a Jamie Oliver show from years back on channel 4 that highlighted the horrible conditions for the Hens in these cages. The point of this was Jamie championing the need to make a more responsible consumer choice and only buy free range eggs from hens who are well looked after and live healthier lives. It was so insightful that myself and my family have ensured that only free range eggs have graced our tables ever since.
Wouldn't it be great if he did one of these shows to highlight the issues plaguing the Salmon farming industry and that someone as high profile as he could raise the public awareness levels to the point where change was then enforced? The only problem with that though, is that Jamie also uses Salmon farms in Iceland to supply his restaurants.
Salmon Farms create the same horrible conditions for these Salmon so why are they not subjected to the same level of public scrutiny?
Before taking up Salmon Fishing I would have opted for the smoked salmon starter from just about every restaurant menu I came across, not now, and neither would most of my family members as a result of me drawing their attention to it.
I don't want to be eating produce that has been plied with chemicals that has been produced by an industry that has had such a detrimental effect on our natural environment, despite the appealing nature of the fairytale named loch from whence it came or the claims on the packaging that it is environmentally aware.
Ultimately though, it's unreasonable to expect everyone to stop eating farmed salmon and for the industry to pack up and call it a day as there is of course a huge demand for the produce. Organisations such as Salmon and Trout Conservation are championing the need to moved to closed containment models where Fish can then be farmed in tanks safely away from the risks of sea lice infestations, and away from our natural habitats and wild fish stocks. Whilst ensuring that consumer demand is met, but in a more sustainable and responsible way. Encouragingly this seems to be gathering pace.
Scottish Salmon remain the most iconic fish in our waters, and with the development of a more sustainable Salmon Farming Industry, hopefully we can see their numbers increase to the level where we can once again boast of some the greatest Salmon and Sea Trout fishing in the world and attract anglers from all over the Globe.
If you are keen to know more about some of the excellent work which is being done to increase the pressure on the Salmon Farming industry and the Scottish Government to deliver improvements, then please visit the links to the Atlantic Salmon Trust and Trout and Salmon Conservation which are on the home page of my blog.