A Personal Perspective on Declining
by John Gray
Sea trout, to
many of us, rank as the most valuable of all our game fish here
in the British Isles, providing unique night time sport on
rivers from Cornwall to Caithness, from Connemara to Cumbria. It
is therefore very worrying to read reports, in recent seasons,
from many parts of the British Isles of a continued decline in
stocks of sea trout.
appears to have been particularly severe on the rivers flowing
into the Solway Firth. It seems to me that the great problem, on
rivers like the Border Esk, is that no one can explain the
dramatic decline in sea trout stocks which has occurred there in
the last two years. Although 2005 was only my third season
fishing that river, my impression is that of a fairly steady,
though undramatic, decline in Border Esk sea trout catches over
a number of years, in common with many other west coast rivers.
2004, however, saw a dramatic collapse in the run of sea trout,
the number of sea trout, that year, representing somewhere
between ten and twenty percent of the historical average.
Sea trout would appear to have been in general decline in many
rivers for the past twenty years or so. In the absence of
extensive scientific data, it is, of course, impossible for an
individual angler like myself to see the whole picture. We can
only rely on what is often very limited personal experience,
perhaps of a few local rivers; on occasional snippets of
scientific information reported in the media; on river reports
published over half a century in Trout and Salmon magazine; and
on official catch statistics published by government agencies
such as the Environment Agency in England and Wales and various
agencies of the Scottish Executive such as the Fisheries
Research Services and a number of District Salmon Fishery
Boards. Nor has what appears to me to be a general decline been
uniform throughout the country. Indeed, some rivers have
reported recent improvements in sea trout catches, in particular
those in the North East of England, though I assume that this
increase is directly linked to the buy out of the Northumbrian
drift nets. It would seem to me, however, that east coast
rivers, those flowing into the North Sea, have fared rather
better - at least the decline seems to have been less severe -
than those on the west coast, this despite the massive
over-exploitation of the North Sea sandeel fishery, thankfully
now halted, at least temporarily (I must admit to some ignorance
on, among many other things, the extent of the sandeel fishery
on the west coast/Irish Sea area in recent years).
As to the cause of the decline in sea trout runs, I would list
the following as possible suspects:
1. Infestation by sea lice originating on the salmon farms of
the Scottish and Irish west coasts. There can be little doubt as
to the extent and nature of the problem. Despite the
unforgivable refusal of the Scottish Executive to accept the
facts, it is clear to many of us that the salmon farms have been
a major factor in the decline of sea trout stocks on many west
2. The uncontrolled growth in the populations of both grey seals
and common seals around our coastline.
3. The overfishing of sandeels and other marine prey species.
4. Changes in sea temperatures.
5. Netting of sea trout at sea.
6. Diseases such as UDN.
7. Predation by anglers and poachers.
8. Afforestation of the upper catchments and the associated
problems of both increased acidification and increased run-off
9. Increases in the numbers of protected species of predatory
birds, in particular Goosanders.
10. Increases in the numbers of mink.
11. Agricultural insecticides and pesticides which find there
way into rivers affecting both fish and invertebrate life.
12. Chemicals used in the control of the Foot and Mouth outbreak
13. The use of hazardous sheep dipping chemicals, such as
14. The introduction of non indigenous fish species into sea
trout rivers, in particular the stocking of farmed brown trout.
15. The increase in runs of salmon in sea trout rivers, putting
pressure on limited spawning and nursery resources available to
16. Climatic changes resulting in possible changes in the flow
regimes of rivers, e.g. extended drought in summer, milder
winters and big winter floods.
Many of the above might be linked to the long term decline in
our sea trout stocks, while few would explain the dramatic
collapse of the Esk sea trout run described above. The effects
of agricultural chemicals such as sheep dips and pesticides
might merit further close and urgent study. In the Border Esk,
for example, my impression is of a decline in the numbers of
parr in the river over the past two seasons. This might indicate
a new and particular problem in the river to add to all the
other problems that have been with us for some time. It would be
interesting to learn of rivers where sea trout fortunes have run
contrary to the apparent general pattern of decline and possible
explanations for any such exceptions.
Little has changed in the past two seasons. The general decline
seems to have continued. The Solway rivers - Nith, Annan and
Border Esk - show no sign of recovery. What is needed, I think,
is concentrated effort in scientific study of the reasons for
such a dramatic decline in sea trout stocks. In England and
Wales, this would, I believe, be the responsibility of the EA.
In Scotland, the Scottish Executive should show a little
interest in the subject. I have the impression that the east
coast rivers continue to fare better than those in the west. It
is perhaps worth mentioning that the Spey, although it has
suffered a steady decline in sea trout stocks, still has
worthwhile runs of sea trout, as, it would seem, does its near
neighbours, the Findhorn and Deveron. Loch Hope, in the north, which
appears to have been less
directly affected by salmon farming than other once famous sea
trout lochs, continues to produce respectable catches.