Shooting and fishing: The Scottish Government persists in supporting what it agrees is the unsupportable

If I were a member of a salmon river board I’d be checking up on any vacant netting rights in my area before the netsmen get their hands on them.

Last month it emerged that Usan Salmon Fisheries, the Scottish Government’s favourite netsmen, had bought the rights to a moribund netting station at New Aberdour on the Moray Firth near Fraserburgh. The sale came as a nasty shock to the local angling fraternity, and notably the Deveron board which might reasonably expect a good number of the fish now being caught at New Aberdour to end up in their river. At the same time as acquiring the New Aberdour rights, Usan bought rights near Dunnet Head in Caithness.

The Pullar family that runs Usan knows its stuff. These easterly corners with their netting stations are on the route of migrating salmon heading for Moray Firth rivers. We cannot be sure that fish caught at New Aberdour may even be trying to reach the Dee and the Don or an Esk or two. That’s the whole trouble; no-one knows.

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The great difficulty with these coastal nets – technically a “mixed stock” fishery – is that no-one can tell which fish are heading for which river. This inability to distinguish between fish heading for rivers with healthy stocks and those destined for rivers with depleted stocks is an absolute no-no in conservation terms. Everyone says so, even the Scottish Government. Yet it persists in supporting what it agrees is the unsupportable. And positively encouraging it, by backing the Usan application for a £100,000 EU grant to build a net and boat factory at Montrose. With its latest netting stations under its belt we know why Usan needs the factory.

I have a sneaking liking for the netting industry. Men have been netting for thousands of years and the Pullars are really an extension of the old hunter gatherer business – horny-handed sons of the sea and all that. Which is how the Scottish Government sees them – the last bastions of an ancient tradition, so let’s just forget the conservation baloney. Fine. But the complaint against netting, apart from the fact some of us would prefer to catch the fish ourselves rather than let the Pullars have them, is that whereas river owners pay roughly £75 to the river board for every fish caught – cash which goes toward river upkeep and management, netsmen pay nearer 75p and kill the fish that come their way; no question of catch and release.

Of course, the long-held suspicions that some net-caught salmon do not appear on official records might be better allayed if the government insisted that all wild fish for sale were number tagged.