BBC News

DCAL takes wild salmon off menu in Northern Ireland

By Mike McKimm
BBC NI environment correspondent

image captionNumbers of salmon in NI rivers have failed to reach conservation targets

Fishermen and anglers around Northern Ireland have been asked to help protect wild salmon populations.

The call comes after research indicates a significant downturn in the abundance of wild Atlantic salmon.

"The continued commercial exploitation of wild Atlantic salmon and killing of salmon caught by rod and line in the DCAL jurisdiction is currently untenable," said the Northern Ireland fisheries minister, Caral Ni Chuilin.

"We have to take further steps to conserve salmon populations."

The concern comes from the annual monitoring of salmon rivers in Northern Ireland.

Conservation targets had been set for a number of rivers and subsequent monitoring of those rivers showed they failed to reach the targets most years from 2002.

Long-term monitoring of the survival of salmon during the marine phase of their lifecycle at Bushmills Salmon Station showed a decline from about 30% prior to 1997, to less than 5% today.

The Northern Ireland Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, which issues fishing licences, has asked those who fish for salmon offshore not to apply for 2012 licences.

The department has written to Lough Neagh draft net licence holders asking them to not take salmon in 2012.

It has also asked anglers to practise catch and release when fishing for salmon rather than killing them.

"With the exploitation of wild Atlantic salmon minimised in 2012, this would offer the department time to consult on a range of options on the future of both commercial salmon fishing and recreational angling for salmon," said Ms Ni Chuilin.

"This is not an easy decision, nor one that the department has taken lightly. It comes after years of work and research by DCAL officials, other agencies and stakeholders themselves.

"We all have a vested interest in this situation, and everyone must play their part if we are to resolve it."

Assembly member Robin Swann said he wants to see even tougher action taken to protect salmon and has already tabled a debate on the sustainability of indigenous fish stocks.

Commenting on DCAL's call for a voluntary ban on catching or killing salmon he said: "While this is a massive step forward it is not yet enough.

"The minister must follow this up with a robust legislative agenda and a comprehensive programme to address illegal fishing across all waters and species.

"Voluntary or not this should be the end of netting for salmon in our waters."

Farmed fish threat

There are also other pressures on wild salmon.

Many of those that make it back up rivers to breed are caught by poachers despite considerable attempts to police key river areas.

And genetic interference between escaped farmed salmon and wild salmon produces a sterile offspring that reduced the numbers of wild salmon even further.

The escaped farmed salmon, which are now considered by some as a damaging alien species, can spread disease and parasites to the wild salmon and even damage the spawning grounds of wild salmon.

The decline in salmon numbers is a global issue.

At the 'Salmon Summit' in La Rochelle, France, in October 2011, international scientists confirmed that wild Atlantic salmon are dying at sea in alarming numbers.

Southern stocks, including some in North America and Europe, are threatened with extinction.