For the past 14 years the members of the Salmon Net Fishing Association of Scotland (SNFAS), which represents the majority of netsmen around the coast, have championed the postponement of the start of their netting season by six weeks to help protect the early-running Spring salmon, the most vulnerable component of wild Atlantic salmon stocks.
Netsmen are legally entitled to start netting in mid February but the delay has meant that, since 1999, no Spring salmon has been caught until April at the earliest.
It has now been revealed that, at the association’s annual general meeting in Dunkeld, Scottish netsmen voted to scrap the voluntary six week delay in a move that salmon anglers claim will place the Spring run at risk.
Hugh Campbell-Adamson, chairman of the Salmon and Trout Association (Scotland), condemned the netsmen’s decision.
He claimed: “For years SNFAS has milked the six week delay to the netting season as evidence of its members’ conservation credentials. The intention to start earlier shows that the netsmen are determined to kill a proportion of the scarcest, most vulnerable and indeed most valuable of our salmon runs.
“For many years rod interests have given maximum protection to these fish and now virtually none are killed by anglers in the early weeks of the season. In fact most rivers operate 100 per cent catch and release until May or even later.”
Mr Campbell-Adamson said the official Scottish catch statistics confirmed that in 2012 almost every salmon caught by anglers in February and March was released back into the water.
He said: “Netsmen, like anglers, have the right to kill fish. However this backward decision reflects the failure of netsmen, unlike anglers, to recognise that these early runs must be protected.”
He called for action by the Scottish Government to help protect salmon stocks.
Campbell-Adamson said: “Only Scottish Ministers have the legal power to prevent this exploitation under the terms of the Salmon Act of 2003 – if they consider that it is necessary or expedient to do so for the conservation of salmon.
“Ministers cannot on the one hand advocate that anglers release all the early-running salmon they catch, and on the other hand sit back and sanction the wholesale killing of these fish before they reach our rivers. Scottish Ministers need to act now if early-running salmon are to be protected.”
A spokesman for the Salmon and Trout Association said: “Mixed stocks coastal netting stations indiscriminately catch any salmon passing by, regardless of where they are heading or the strength of the various populations in their home rivers. They are completely non-selective, making the management of individual river stocks almost impossible.”
Netsmen hit back
Keith Allan, the secretary of the netsmen’s association, refuted the anglers claims, accusing the anglers of doing nothing for salmon conservation for 14 years while netsmen had suffered financially as a result of their voluntary postponement.
Mr Allan declared: “The netsmen do have a very strong and ongoing respect for the conservation of salmon stocks, despite a perceived absence of reciprocation from anglers. We have said for 14 years that we are the only ones who have done anything positive and effective in terms of conserving stocks.
“Catch and release is not proven to work because there are lots of scientific papers on catch and release which show there is damage to the fish - they are stressed and nobody really knows what happens to them once they go back into the river.
“If (anglers) are that keen on conservation, why don’t they stop fishing for six weeks as well at the start of the season. But, of course, the economic argument for that is that they want the money for selling their beats at high prices.”
Mr Allan stressed that netsmen were, however, willing to enter into negotiations at a local level with district salmon fishery boards.
He said: “They are ready to talk to their district boards about continuing the postponement of the season - provided they get compensation which they don’t at the moment. They are fed up because they have done this for 14 years and they don’t believe that the anglers have done anything material.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The Scottish Government recognises the significant support that has been shown by anglers for voluntary action to protect vulnerable early stock components including catch and release and the Salmon Net Fisherman’s Association of Scotland’s six week delay to the start of the net fishing season.
“We actively support these voluntary measures, and have encouraged both the Salmon Net Fisherman’s Association of Scotland and the District Salmon Fishery Boards to enter into early local discussions to agree a proportionate and pragmatic way forward.”