By Atlantic Salmon Trust 24/10/2012 10:09:00

Atlantic Salmon smolts - a critical time for salmon survival Atlantic Salmon smolts – a critical time for salmon survival

Melfort Campbell and Tony Andrews, the Atlantic Salmon Trust’s Chairman and CEO, recently visited New Brunswick, discussing alternatives to the destructive and unsustainable open cage method of salmon farming currently used in Scotland and Canada. Details will be released soon of the outcome of their discussions.

In the meantime we can report on a conversation Tony had with Canadian local anglers and fishery owners. He was asked about the Atlantic Salmon Trust‘s three most important issues to ensure the survival of the Atlantic salmon. Read on to see what he said. 

“I think everyone involved in salmon management recognises the importance of each river producing the maximum possible number of naturally generated smolts. Rivers as productive smolt factories are everyone’s top priority and should remain so. In the last few years our management of the freshwater environment has improved by leaps and bounds. While I wouldn’t want to crow about it, I think we are well on the way to doing the best we can to ensure our rivers are producing optimum numbers of smolts. We mustn’t be complacent, especially with the big changes in fresh water quality and availability, temperature and habitats resulting from climate change. But I think all fishery managers understand that there are problems, and that they have to stay on the case – a relentless round of measuring, recording, and taking practical steps to deal with the problems.”

Tony explained that for AST the main issue is the extraordinarily high mortality rate of salmon at sea. “Some people say to me ‘but there’s nothing you can do about the loss of salmon at sea, so why waste precious resources chasing a problem you will never resolve?’ And I reply that there are three priorities for AST as it homes in on areas of study and action where results can be achieved.

“First we must look at the whole life of the salmon in salt water and decide where we are most likely to be able to reduce mortality. Little fish – our post smolts – are at their most vulnerable to pollution, predation, and accidental exploitation or damage by man in the days after they leave their rivers. We must get a detailed handhold on, say, the first four weeks of the lives of post smolts and then make a list of priorities for action after risk-assessing each threat. Our number one priority is therefore to find ways of protecting very small salmon immediately after they enter salt water.

“Then we need to develop a better understanding than we now have of the routes – the migration corridors – used by post smolts to reach their marine feeding grounds. Part of that mapping, much of which has already been done, will include knowledge of the effects of climate changes in the ocean on prey species. Ken Whelan told me during the Salsea project that the ideal scenario would be to make the migration corridors into something like Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) so that smolts can be given protection from pelagic trawling at the time and place they are swimming as they migrate each year. Protecting salmon from becoming accidental by-catch is achievable, and we now need to get on with putting measures in place.

“The third priority is to go for sustainability. I know we all feel the ‘S’ word has been so over-used as to lose much of its meaning, but let me explain what I mean. There are two activities of man that, in the context of the survival of the Atlantic salmon cannot continue. The first is salmon farming as currently practised on both sides of the Atlantic which, beyond any doubt, is causing serious damage to wild salmon and sea trout in the aquaculture zones, mostly at the post smolt stage. Thank goodness that new technologies, such as recirculating close containment (RAS) and effective floating closed containment systems are now coming forward, and show promise of being commercially viable. We at AST, with our partners on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, are giving maximum support to their development.

“We’d also urge the global salmon farming industry to do more to demonstrate that the offshore technologies they appear to be espousing will substantially reduce the risk to our wild salmon and sea trout. Thus far, we have seen claims of reduced risk, with no data to back them up. One thing is certain: the status quo, where salmon are farmed in open pens in sea lochs and fjords too close to salmon and sea trout rivers, is unsustainable and untenable.”

There was general agreement that getting salmon farming into a sustainable form was a priority for all of us. Tony then outlined his second priority under the ‘S’ heading.

“We should be thinking of our returning adult salmon as the survivors, and we should be looking after them as such. Sometimes, when I think about the 93% + rate of mortality at sea, leaving so few fish to regenerate stocks, I feel we should stop exploiting wild salmon altogether. I know that is unrealistic, but I often think along those lines. It is obvious that any form of exploitation that kills fish from unknown rivers of origin, and where the condition of stocks is largely unknown too, is reckless and unnecessary. Ivor Llewelyn, AST’s director in England and Wales, once said to me, ‘no-one has a human right to exploit a threatened species’. If we follow the logic of Ivor’s statement, and with the knowledge we now have of the genetic differences between populations, catchment and regional stocks, there really is no excuse for continuing mixed stocks exploitation, especially coastal netting.

“Those two issues, salmon farming and mixed stocks netting, are the two most intransigent problems we have in certain parts of our coastal waters. I feel sure that if both were resolved we would see more wild salmon and sea trout in our rivers within the zones affected.”

In summing up the AST’s position Tony added, “of course there are many other challenges for all of us involved in wild salmon conservation and management. You asked me what AST’s three priorities are. Put concisely, they are protecting our post smolts, reducing accidental damage to stocks and achieving sustainable exploitation and salmon farming. There are of course many other things AST is doing to improve knowledge and management of the fish, but wouldn’t it be a great start if we could resolve those three priority issues, preferably tomorrow!”