I caught my first wild salmon in river Glass, Scotland, at the beginning of October. Although only small, its strength was incredible. I to and fro-ed with the salmon, allowing the fishing line to slacken as the fish pulled away only to reel it back in. Eventually the salmon tired and we scooped its exhausted body into our small wooden boat using a net. A four pounder, I was told. We examined the speckled scales of the gasping fish – a young male – and then we let it go.
Salmon numbers are falling rapidly. Overfishing has been heralded as a major driver of this decline.The catch and release practice in Scotland means that every other salmon caught, starting with the first, is returned to the river to help conserve numbers. Some think that fishing for wild salmon should be banned completely.
However, recreational salmon fishing is a mere minnow of a problem compared with commercial fishing. The Marine Conservation Society’s (MCS)Sustainable Eating Guide warns against eating wild caught Atlantic Salmon at all as fish stocks have become so depleted due to unsustainable fishing practises. Today over 85% fish stocks are being pushed to the brink of collapse due to commercial overfishing.
As well as overfishing, wild salmon are hugely threatened by climate change and ocean acidification. Salmon start their lives in freshwater rivers before migrating to the sea. Most salmon travel to the sub-arctic where they feed on small fish, plankton and crustaceans for one or two years before returning to their spawning ground to breed. As sub-arctic ice melts, salmon are forced to travel further between their feeding and spawning grounds, meaning that salmon arrive to spawn exhausted. Many do not make it back.
Salmon species are important keystones in some of the richest ecosystems in the world. Without them important ecosystems would collapse and dependent species would die out. There would also be severe financial repercussions. Salmon fishing underpins many important economies which would suffer hugely with a decline in wild stocks. In Scotland alone the salmon industry is worth over £400m in exports.
However, we need not cross salmon off our menus just yet. Certain salmon stocks are managing better than others and so can be harvested sustainably. The MCS suggest trying wild caught pacific salmon with the MCS label or farmed Atlantic salmon which carry certifying labels such as those from the Soil Association or the RSPCA’s Freedom Food Scheme Freedom Food Scheme.
And if you feel like that is not enough to save our salmon you can always choose a salmon substitute fish such as mackerel from the EU and Norway or North-East Arctic haddock.
Whether it is releasing your salmon back into the river, keeping a keen eye out for a trusted label or making a dietary shift, there are simple but necessary steps we can all make to help the dwindling wild salmon populations bounce back to recovery.