Obituary: William MacDonald Shearer BSc, MSc, CBiol, FIBiol

William Shearer: Fresh water fisheries biologist with a particular expertise in salmon
William Shearer: Fresh water fisheries biologist with a particular expertise in salmon
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Born: 30 September, 1926, in Wick, Caithness.Died: 18 November, 2014, in Montrose, Angus, aged 88.

William MacDonald Shearer, known to his family as “Mac”, and to the salmon fisheries and salmon research world as “Willie”, was born in Wick, Caithness, on 30 September, 1926 and died at his home near Montrose, Angus, on 18 November.

A graduate of the University of Edinburgh, Willie started out studying medicine, but soon moved over to zoology, graduating with Honours in 1951. As a student, he had spent holidays working with a small team of scientists studying the salmon populations of the River Forss in Caithness.

After graduating, Willie joined the staff of the Brown Trout Research Laboratory at Faskally, Pitlochry, a facility run at that time by the Scottish Home Department primarily to investigate the implications for trout of the expanding hydro-electricity development that took place in Scotland after the First World War.

However, Willie was a member of a small team at the laboratory whose energy was directed at salmon research, a subject that eventually dominated the work at Faskally.

In the early years of his work at the laboratory, Willie worked on projects on rivers including the Forss, Barvas and Dee. In association with his long-time friend from university days, Niall Campbell, who also worked at Faskally before moving to the Nature Conservancy Council, Willie worked on research into the salmon and sea trout of the River Tweed. Willie and Niall collaborated on many of each other’s projects when both were based at Faskally.

However, Willie will be best remembered for the programme of work to investigate the population dynamics of the Atlantic salmon of the North Esk, near Montrose, work which continues to this day, making the North Esk probably the most intensively studied salmon river in the world.

Willie started work on the North Esk in 1961, laying the groundwork for a programme that he envisioned and which he had designed in collaboration with statisticians based at the Marine Laboratory, Aberdeen.

Developing a close working relationship with Joseph Johnston & Sons Ltd and the Tay Salmon Fisheries Co Ltd, the principal salmon fishers in the area, he established sampling programmes to study the age composition, growth rates, survival rates and migration pathways of salmon originating in the North Esk, seminal work that has been copied in many rivers since.

He also established trapping and sampling facilities at various locations throughout the North Esk catchment area to investigate the contributions to the salmon production made in different parts of the system.

As the programme developed, it became increasingly difficult to manage it from Pitlochry, and in early 1967 an office was opened in Montrose, where Willie managed a small staff more able to provide the daily attention to the work that was required.

Willie remained in charge of the office in Montrose until he retired in 1989, expanding the facilities to include a purpose-built trap for catching juvenile and adult salmon at Kinnaber on the North Esk, and electronic fish counters at Logie, West Water and Invermark to quantify the numbers of adult salmon ascending the river.

The data derived from the North Esk research programme remain among the most comprehensive available to international organisations such as the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), and the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation (Nasco).

In addition to the work based on the North Esk, Willie participated in some experiments using underwater television cameras to investigate the behaviour of salmon at bag nets set to catch them at Achilitibuie and at Macduff.

He also repeated some the experiments carried out during the 1920s and 1930s to investigate salmon migration in Scottish coastal waters by tagging salmon on the west, north, Moray Firth and east coasts of Scotland. These experiments were used to estimate exploitation rates in the various fisheries that catch salmon in Scotland.

During the 1980s, Willie represented UK (Scotland) on the ICES Working Group on North Atlantic Salmon, and attended meetings of Nasco as a member of the EU delegation.

Willie was invited by the trustees of the Buckland Foundation to be Buckland Professor for 1989. He presented a series of three lectures: at the Assembly Rooms, Wick, at the Museum and Art Gallery, Perth, and at the Linnean Society, London.

The work he described was published in 1992 in The Atlantic Salmon: Natural History, Exploitation and Future Management”.

During the course of his research for this book, and in later years too, Willie was instrumental in saving a number of priceless records of salmon catches, prices, gear specifications and other information relating to salmon fishing from companies that used to fish around Scotland.

After retiring from the Scientific Civil Service, Willie continued to work on matters related to salmon biology and salmon fisheries management.

He undertook consultancy work on a number of rivers, including the Naver, Thurso, Forss, North Esk and Arnisdale.

He provided scientific advice to a number of district salmon fishery boards, including the Esk and Caithness boards. He provided scientific advice to the Salmon Net Fishing Association of Scotland right up until his death last month, having represented the association within the NGO group at Nasco.

In 2006, Willie was the driving force behind the production and release of a set of two DVDs about salmon netting. Netting Scotland’s King of Fish: The History of the Scottish Wild Salmon Fishing Industry chronicles the many facets associated with the story of the wild salmon netting industry that once thrived all along the Scottish coast and in many rivers.

Willie managed to secure funding from a number of sources for this project, including Angus Council, Awards for All, Highland Marine Resources and Communities Scheme, Historic Scotland, Scottish Cultural Resources Access Network and the Crown estate.

During the 1990s and 2000s, Willie made invaluable contributions to the deliberations of a number of working groups established by the Scottish Government to examine the management of salmon and freshwater fisheries in Scotland.

In addition to his scientific work, Willie was involved in local matters in and around Montrose. He was a past president of Montrose Rotary Club, and helped enormously with events organised by his late wife, Lilias, during the many years in which she was associated with the Montrose Branch of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

He was an active recorder of birds for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.