First salmon hooked, but there's a catch

WEIGHING fifteen pounds, its scales shimmered as it was hauled on to the boat - the first salmon of the new fishing season.

For the hundreds of anglers who descended on the Tay yesterday it was an auspicious start to what the industry hopes will be another year of recovery for salmon stocks and catches on Scotland's rivers.

"It's a lovely-sized fish and the old timers have been telling me it's like the fish they used to get on the Tay - a short, stubby thick-set fish," Pete Gottgens, the proud angler said last night.

Mr Gottgens, the owner of the Ardeonaig Hotel, on the south shore of Loch Tay, said: "It was the first and, as far I know, only salmon caught today. It took me about 20 minutes to land with a gale blowing on the loch and quite a bit of rain as well. It wasn't the easiest day's fishing I've had, but certainly the most pleasurable."

According to the last official figures, covering 2005, the number of rod catches of salmon were the fifth highest on record - confirmation that the King of Fish is making a dramatic comeback to Scotland's rivers only three years after wild salmon stocks were feared to be in irreversible decline.

Provisional figures covering 2006, collated by the Association of Salmon Fishery Boards (ASFB) in Scotland, show that the comeback is continuing, despite last summer's drought.

But yesterday, as the first of Scotland's major salmon rivers opened for business, fresh concerns were raised about the impact of global warming on the future of the vital stocks as one of the main fishing beats on the lower reaches of the Tay remained closed to anglers in an unprecedented boycott.

Ian Redford and Gordon Mitchell, who own the Newtyle beat near Dunkeld, 20 miles downstream from Kenmore, had decided, with the backing of their ghillie Jock Monteith, to delay the opening of their beat until 1 February because of concerns about the number of unspawned fish.

Mr Monteith, who held a party at his bothy to mark the start of the season without a single rod being cast on the river, said there was clear evidence that the warmer winters in recent years had resulted in fish spawning well into the start of the traditional fishing season.

And he called for the official opening date of the salmon season to be put back because of the impact of climate change on fish stocks.

Mr Monteith, 42, said: "In the last four of five years, especially on this beat, 60 per cent of the fish we've caught on the opening day and subsequent weeks are fish that haven't spawned. It's not a good thing and it's clearly linked to climate change. Water temperatures are warmer.

"The salmon are spawning into January because of climate change, whereas before they would have spawned by the end of December.

"This means we are disturbing these fish at a crucial part in their life cycle, which is why we have taken this stance. We are on top of fish that are trying to reproduce, and that is not good news."

But Dr Richard Shelton, the research director of the Atlantic Salmon Trust, the body concerned with the conservation of wild salmon stocks, said the problem of later spawning salmon in the lower beats of the Tay was not a new phenomenon. And he argued there was no risk whatever of Scottish salmon stocks being in danger of collapse as a result of global warming.

He said: "There is lot of baloney talked about the state of the stocks. Scotland's wild salmon resource is tremendous and well worth looking after."

He continued: "If you look at the total numbers of fish, there are very much fewer fish than there were in the late 60s and early 70s and that is because of very major changes in marine climate.

"That was a period of a so-called mini Ice Age, when a lot of sub-Arctic species did extraordinarily well, including the Atlantic salmon, when sea temperatures cooled.

"Our salmon, because of our geographical position, are coping well with recent changes in the climate as temperatures have increased.

"But the component of the resource which is weakest is the earliest running fish - the spring run - such as the fish caught on the Tay today at Kenmore. And one of the reasons for that is that the earlier running fish tend to come from the north-west Atlantic which at the moment, for climatic reasons, doesn't provide the salmon with good growth and survival opportunities.

"Having said that, the later running fish - the summer and autumn fish - are actually very numerous. But there is an additional component of the very late running winter fish - like those at Newtyle - that are still just spawning now. They are not spring running fish, they are later winter running fish.

"You get these fish in the lower parts of catchments. But in the Upper Tay, spawning is over by November and there is no danger in places like Kenmore of getting these late spawning salmon."

Figures collated by the ASFB indicate that rod catches of salmon in Scotland are now stabilising at a "reasonably healthy" 80,000 fish per year.

Following a low point of just 52,000 salmon caught in 2003, catches increased to 93,000 in 2004 and almost 84,000 in 2005. A similar catch is expected to be confirmed for 2006.

Andrew Wallace, the ASFB's director, said: "The catch figures for 2005 and 2006 have given us continuing cause for encouragement and it is particularly gratifying to see stabilisation and in places a modest recovery in spring stocks."

Which is good news for Mr Gottgens' guests, with whom he was preparing to share his success last night. He said: "We aren't allowed to sell wild salmon but we are serving it to guests as a complementary course."

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