Rebuilding Ireland's Wild Salmon Stocks

"Creating a legacy for future generations"

                                                                                                                      HATCHERIES DO WORK

SUCCESSFUL HATCHERY PROJECT ON THE CARAGH RIVER IN KERRY

 

I have personal experience of the success of a hatchery restocking program.

 

In 1980 I built a salmon hatchery on the Caragh river in Kerry, at the time the annual catch from rod and line was about 60 salmon per year.

 Ten years later the catch was up to 400.

 

Currently on the Caragh River the hatchery returnees make up 70% of total catch.

 

 

  

Natural mingling of hatchery and non-hatchery fish is not necessarily a problem and it may actually have long-term benefits for the species.

In support of this view, I put forward the following argument;

The Caragh River in Kerry is a classic spate river, characterised by lots of deep holding pools, punctuated by plenty of nice streams and glides. Being a ‘spate’ river means the runs of salmon are dependent on there being sufficient water to allow access to the system. Such rivers make salmon access difficult in low water conditions. Consequently, the salmon populations in such rivers have evolved as a smaller more compact breed (up to, on average, 12 to 14 lbs.) which makes them more adaptable to the precarious access conditions which can exist in such rivers during periods of low rainfall.

Back in the 1950’s, in an effort to improve the run of spring salmon, smolts were introduced by my Father, Jack Daly, to the Caragh from the Cork Blackwater river. Because the Blackwater is not a spate system, being wide, deep and slow flowing, with access readily available throughout the year, its salmon tend to be much larger (up to and greater than, 30lbs.). That transfer of smolts from the Blackwater to the Caragh had a lasting benefit to the spring run.

In 1985 I landed a 23lb. salmon on the Caragh (see photo on left) which was more than likely a descendant of those Blackwater smolts which  were introduced 40 years previously.

 On occasion, down through the years, fish in excess of 20lbs. continue to be landed on the Caragh.

The man who introduced those Blackwater smolts told me that in his view the Blackwater progeny led to a more robust Caragh ‘spring run’ and ultimately led to the Caragh being one of the best early season fisheries in the south west of Ireland, a distinction it maintains up to today, augmented, it should be pointed out, by the introduction of a salmon hatchery in 1980.

 

 

Although our wild salmon stocks declined a lot over the past 50 years, most of our salmon habitats have remained relatively intact.

There is extensive international evidence, and also home-grown projects, which illustrate how stocks can recover and prosper given effective management.

A major part of such effective management is the implementation of a national hatchery restocking programme, in collaboration with other measures such as habitat protection and improvement. Iceland is a prime example of the benefits of a hatchery restocking programme.

 

Unless abundant stocks exist there is nothing to manage.

Therefore, the differences between the biological and economic arguments relating to hatcheries need to be judged in the light of what is best for Ireland, rather than the recently prevailing argument of “we must preserve genetic integrity at all costs.”

That is not to say for a moment that the salmon’s well-being will not be taken into consideration at all times, it’s just that previous arguments about issues like ‘genetic pollution’ will have to be seen as rather obscure arguments in the light of Ireland's pressing economic needs and the desirability to take full advantage of what natural resources are available in this time of national economic crisis.

 

 We must also take into account that hatcheries have been used as an effective salmon management tool in Ireland for well over a century and in practically all cases, when the job was done properly, have been shown to improve the salmon stock in the river in which the hatchery was installed.

 

But we also have advice on stocking which is contradictory.

Critics emphasis the heavy costs set against, what they perceive, as modest gains. Some people will also point to the potential threats to the health and genetic integrity of existing fish.

We will demonstrate further on that these concerns are to a large extent groundless.

Ireland is not wholly endowed with ‘renewable’ natural resources and as we go forward to rebuild our economy we must sensibly exploit a ‘renewable resource’ like our salmon stocks in building this new economy.

Such endeavors should also be seen as creating wealth for future generations.

 

ARGUMENTS AGAINST HATCHERIES

The main concern by those opposed to hatcheries as a restocking tool relates to the impact on the genetic fitness of the wild population.

They generally cite cost benefit analysis and hatcheries success rates in maintaining fisheries and protecting biodiversity (Biodiversity is the variation of life forms within a given ecosystem).

The genetic integrity of a population is essential to its long term survival and most scientists accept that genetic fitness should be maintained and conserved if a population is to be protected into the long term.

The genetics of salmon on the River Shannon (which has been heavily stocked with hatchery fish since the river had a dam installed for electricity generation at the foundation of the state) has been studied in detail by Professors Tom Cross http://www.ucc.ie/zeps/pages/staff/cross_t.htm , Noel Wilkins and other research workers.

Their studies showed few genetic differences between juvenile salmon in tributary rivers and between these fish and the hatchery broodstock. They also concluded that the genetic variability was similar to that in other Irish rivers.

Ireland’s wild salmon stocks are currently a fraction of what they were in years gone by, due mainly to over fishing by drift-netting and poaching, these two issues have now been dealt with by the government buy-out of the drift net licenses and the tagging of salmon caught in freshwater.

 

Paradoxically, salmon farming (which has had some detrimental effects on the wild salmon stocks) has also been responsible for the saving of our wild stocks by way of reducing the food price of salmon down to that of a commodity item, from that of a premium food item such as caviar which it was for many years prior to the advent of salmon farming.

 

WHY HAS A NATIONAL SALMON RESTOCKING PROGRAMME NOT BEEN DONE BEFORE?

There are many answers to that question.

The wild salmon spends half its life in salt water and half in fresh water; commercial net fishermen exploit it in salt and brackish water and game anglers in fresh water.

The critical breeding and early stages of a salmons life occurs in freshwater so whatever hatchery propagation has occurred in the past has largely been done by the freshwater interests.

But over the years the indiscriminate salt-water drift-net fishery got a disproportionate share of the catch and freshwater interests justifiably felt their restocking efforts were not benefiting those who were doing all the work.

This situation has now changed with the recent ban on drift-netting.

 

Another reason for the lack of an effective restocking policy has been the view by some that it can result in the spread of disease.

Most restocking programs use eggs which are stripped from the salmon in the river where the restocking occurred, but in situations where the indigenous stock has dropped to such a low level outside eggs are brought in for two to three years until stocks build up.

Some people have then been putting forward the notion that this can lead to a spread of disease in native waters by such fish transfer programmes and that it also creates possible threat to future salmon populations.

South West Regional Fisheries Board (1998), “genetic pollution and the risk of spreading disease in native waters by fish transfer programmes is considered a possible threat to future salmon populations."

Such statements are confusing at best and obstructionist at worst.

 Wherever possible, eggs for a hatchery are stripped from the fish in that same river system.

Eggs are only transferred in from outside fisheries if the native stock has declined to a critical level and can no longer support itself.

What is the alternative, to do nothing and let the fishery die a slow death as the scientists busy themselves monitoring the extinction of its unique genetic pool?

It’s all very well for Fishery Board staff to concoct flowery arguments about genetic pollution and the like, many of these people have secure guaranteed salaries paid by the taxpayers every week, but people living in rural communities who have scant employment opportunities are entitled to expect concrete developments which will maximise the wealth of a natural resource which exists in their community.

While I appreciate that study groups, environmental surveys, joint scientific projects might be highly interesting for those so inclined and involved, if we want to get Ireland moving again we need to initiate concrete actions which take advantage of all economic opportunities which are available.

 Hatchery restocking worked in the past, it works in the present (around the world) and perfect operational examples like those illustrated on this website clearly signal that it will also work in the future.