Shooting & Fishing: To this day the snowy waters of Kashmiri rivers bubble with brown trout

For years the question of whether or not to stock rivers with baby salmon rattled back and forth through the letters pages of bespoke trout and salmon magazines. And in the end the stockists won. Or at least won the battle. But they may not have won the war. It now looks as if the Spey has decided that stocking was all a waste of money. And others may follow.

For a long time stocking rivers with baby fish was seen as the only answer to declining salmon catches. After all, it had worked with trout.

In 1899, the Duke of Bedford sent 10,000 trout eggs to the Maharaja of Kashmir, which perished en route. The next lot from Loch Leven fared better and were reared by a keen angling Brit in his Srinagar carpet factory (you couldn't make it up). And to this day the snowy waters of Kashmiri rivers bubble with brown trout, with ancestors born in Kinross.

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So as salmon catches went down in Scottish rivers in the 1970s and 1980s, rearing extra fish in purpose-built hatcheries became an attractive prospect. And even if river boards were doubtful – and members fell out over the subject – at least building a hatchery showed they were doing something. Stocking became a PR exercise as much as anything else. It also appealed to the well-heeled angler, frequently successful men who hadn't got where they had got by doing nothing. So suddenly every river had to have a hatchery.

So what has happened to change minds on the Spey? Well, such has been the forward march of technology and genetic analysis that it is now possible to tell not just which salmon belongs to which river but to which population a fish belongs within that river. So clever is the science that it is also possible to tell if a rod-caught fish is wild or was reared in the hatchery. And the trouble is that very few are.

Of 558 fish analysed over 2008-2009, three originated in the Spey's hatchery. This is a return rate to the rod fishery of 0.5 per cent. To put this in perspective: of the 8,626 fish caught during 2009, the hatchery produced about 40. Which is not very many. Worse in a way, has been the expense.

The hatchery costs around 120,000 a year to operate, so if only 40 fish were being caught each has cost 3,000, which even on the Spey is a lot of money. The Spey is now reviewing its situation. As indeed will other rivers with their own once fashionable hatcheries. I feel sorry for hatchery staff. Still, perhaps it needed doing only to discover it doesn't work. At least something has been done.

- This article was first published in The Scotsman on July 30, 2011

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