Wye monster salmon return

Friday 30 March 2012, 12:02

Martin Aaron Martin Aaron

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The 1960s and 1970s was the golden age of salmon fishing on the River Wye when 'monster' salmon were regularly caught weighing in excess of 30lbs and measuring over 4ft long.

During the late 1980s up to 6,000 salmon were being caught each year but by 2002, this number had nose-dived to just 357, but early signs in March indicate that the larger fish are slowly returning.

Local fisherman with a recent 30lb salmon.

A local fisherman with a recent 30lb salmon caught in the River Wye.

Salmon stocks rapidly diminished due to a number of factors including pollution, habitat degradation and overgrazing of livestock.

The top of the river is at fairly high altitude and full of forestry and as acid rain fell, it made its way into the river, wiping out growing areas and salmon habitat in the tributaries.

Over the years a number of pollution incidents have occurred including the accidental discharge of 20 tons of sugar at Hereford in1994.

The following year the River Elan (an Upper Wye tributary) and the Upper Wye itself both received an inadvertent chemical release which killed tens of thousands of juvenile fish.

A healthy river would normally have a pH balance of around 6.5; the Wye during its worst period fell as low as 4, at which point fish reproduction can be affected. Vinegar has a pH balance of between 2.4 - 3.4.

Flood defence schemes on the Lugg - a major Wye tributary were also a contributing factor as fish passes were not initially included, preventing fish from migrating.

Habitat degradation caused by overgrazing of sheep was another contributing factor as the increased livestock (caused the river to become wider and shallow rather than narrow and deep which is preferable to the salmon and brown trout.

A 15lb salmon being returned at Upper Bigsweir on 3 March - The Wye & Usk Foundation

A 15lb salmon being returned at Upper Bigsweir on 3 March - The Wye and Usk Foundation

The historic practice of coppicing also ceased many decades ago which meant trees such as alder began shading large areas of the river banks, killing off the ranunculus weed which provided habitat for insects and their larvae - a vital food source for the fish.

In 1997 work began to improve the river and the results are now being seen. Despite the lack of rainfall, the River Wye is enjoying the best start to the salmon season for at least 20 years and after less than four weeks fishing, 95 fish have been caught and safely returned.

A decade ago the total salmon catch for March and April was just three.

Four fish have been over 30lbs and 27 more than 20lbs, evidence that the monster 'portmanteau' salmon, for which the Wye was famous last century, are returning.

Other positive evidence is that a much higher than average number of 'kelts' (salmon which have spawned) returning to the sea, have been caught, indicating good levels of spawning fish from last year.

Dr Stephen Marsh-Smith, Director of The Wye and Usk Foundation, explained: "The success has been very much the result of partnership working."

Adding a note of caution, Dr. Marsh-Smith says: "In spite of this excellent start, we are now seriously short of rain and salmon catches are increasingly confined to beats below Monmouth that benefit with fish coming in on the tides."

Watch salmon on BBC Wildlife Finder.

BBC Wales News: 'Timeless Wye' is voted public's favourite river.

BBC Wales News: Climate change danger to salmon in River Wye.

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