Wild salmon were an Irish icon. Now they’re almost gone

by Admin
Wild salmon were an Irish icon. Now they’re almost gone

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Keen angler Andy Hill was fly fishing with a friend recently on the Moy in the west of Ireland, long considered the country’s premier salmon spot. “They get more fish there than any other river in Ireland,” he says. “We didn’t catch a single thing.”

This was not bad luck or any lack of technique — Hill has been fishing for 40-odd years. Instead, he was experiencing what officials have called a “catastrophic” plunge in the numbers of wild salmon returning to their native Irish rivers from the north Atlantic in one of the natural world’s greatest migrations dating back to the Ice Age.

Inland Fisheries Ireland, a state agency, estimates only 171,000 of the graceful, silver “king of fish” now return home to spawn, just one-tenth of the 1.76mn the country boasted in 1975.

Traditional Irish mythology reveres the “Salmon of Knowledge” — a fish that became the repository of all the world’s wisdom. But the nation’s inability to protect a species that has become a cultural icon and lucrative tourist draw looks cavalier, not to say foolish.

Turning back the tide is no easy feat. The problem is not exclusive to Ireland and there is little a small island on the edge of the Atlantic can do on its own to curb ocean warming, one of the culprits in the phenomenon.

Climate change is only part of the problem, however. Cathal Gallagher, deputy chief executive of Inland Fisheries Ireland, whose job is to protect, manage and conserve Irish fish stocks and waterways, says it is imperative to “manage the manageables”. Salmon fishing aficionados say these threats include run-off from agricultural fertilisers, sea lice spreading from the fish farming industry, other pollutants entering rivers and predators.

Still, the disastrous drop in salmon stocks also comes at a time when Ireland’s progress in meeting key climate goals is lamentable.

Water quality is declining overall and the country will only manage a 29 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions at best by 2030, way below the legally binding target of 51 per cent and potentially triggering billions of euros in EU fines. Offshore wind — a no-brainer in Ireland — is proving slow to roll out.

Irish people tell pollsters that environmental issues are of urgent concern, that they are increasingly worried and want more action. Yet voters dumped Green party representatives in local and European elections last month: the party shed half its council seats and lost both of its MEPs.

There is no guarantee that the Greens — who have used their position as part of Ireland’s three-party governing coalition to pass environmental policy and get climate targets enshrined in law — will remain in government after a general election that is widely expected this autumn.

The decline in salmon is a sad illustration of what is at stake when politicians and voters decide they have bigger fish to fry than environmental concerns.

“Many rivers have reached a situation where we don’t think they’ll ever recover,” says David Whitren, 101, who owns a fishery on the Boyne river in Ireland. A fisherman for 85 years, he has been teaching anglers and running international fishing trips for decades.

Recreational angling is a big money-spinner, contributing about €1bn a year to the Irish economy and supporting some 11,000 jobs.

“We’re in huge trouble,” agrees Ronan Collins, another longtime angler. “Salmon is a species that’s headed for extinction in our waters.”

Anglers say more could still be done to protect and replenish stocks, including banning anything except catch-and-release fishing, introducing hatcheries and targeting predators like seals, which are being sighted miles upriver, and cormorants.

With salmon’s future so uncertain, they say Ireland needs to wise up about the natural heritage around which it has built an international brand.

The Irish are guilty of just “giving lip service” to salmon’s status, says Collins. “We need to question really when we say it’s iconic, we’re proud of it, we love it — how much are we investing back ourselves?”


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