River reborn as nature gets a helping hand

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A FLAGSHIP salmon river opens for the season today, amid hopes that its dramatic recovery after years of depletion could become a model for others.

During the 1990s, the number of fish in the River Carron in Wester Ross plummeted almost to the point of being wiped out; in 2001, only six salmon were caught by anglers.

But after a restocking programme, a record 262 salmon were taken by rod last year, including a 32lb fish, the biggest caught on the river. Five 20lb fish were caught in 2006.

Now it is hoped other rivers can be similarly reborn by giving nature a helping hand.

The five-year average in the late 1990s had fallen to 6.2 salmon, a level at which the Carron's six proprietors felt there was no chance of recovery.

The 100,000 restocking programme, led by the Highland School of Aquaculture's Seafield Centre, began with the release of 150,000 salmon fry in 2001.

Eggs and smolts from the last remaining stock were reared in tanks and used to boost the number of young fish in the 15-mile river. Within three years, the annual catch had leapt to 141 and the five-year average is now 162.

Bob Kindness, who led the operation, said climate change had affected fish numbers at sea because of a lack of food. It had also meant heavier downpours, causing river levels to rise more quickly. This moves the gravel in the riverbed where the eggs are and can lead to loss of stock.

But he does not believe fish farming is to blame. "We live with a big fish-farming industry here and it doesn't seem to be a problem," he said. "We have these fish coming back now in good numbers and we still have the same farms there.

"I suspect it has been a combination of factors, both marine and freshwater, that caused the decline in numbers. But the important thing is that you can obviously turn it around. Our results have been spectacular."

He went on: "What happened on the Carron happened to a lot of Highland rivers, and I see no reason why a lot of these rivers cannot be turned around with a similar approach. But it needs effort. It is giving nature a helping hand, but in this day and age, when there are different things happening to the environment, we can't sit back and say nature will sort it out.

"Nature may not put it right and man has to intervene sometimes. In fact, continued intervention may be essential to keep things ticking over."

The Carron is privately owned by six proprietors, but a five-mile stretch is open to the community through permits, because angling is a key element of the local economy.

Gordon MacPherson, one of the owners, said: "There's a recognition that this is a community asset that needs to be developed. There's always a risk with any experiment, but if we had waited until the scientists had all the answers, the river would have been extinct. It was worth having a go, because we had nothing to lose.

"I suppose the ultimate aim is that the river should be self-supporting, and the results so far have been quite remarkable."