River Lune salmon stocks plummet as over-fishing, agricultural pollution, disease and sea temperature rise create ‘recipe for disaster’

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The River Lune was once one of the most productive salmon rivers in England.

But anglers say a combination of problems including over-fishing, agricultural pollution, a rise in sea temperatures, and disease from salmon farms on the west coast of Scotland are creating a “recipe for disaster” in the Lune.

The Environment Agency (EA) has this year applied new regulations to stop salmon being killed by the net fishery in the Lune estuary, and has also said it will review regulations around the catching and killing of salmon by net and rod fisheries to allow as many of the returning adult salmon to spawn as possible.

It also says it will apply new regulations around farming and its impact on the water environment, to safeguard water quality in the Lune.

Figures from Forge Wier at Halton show a sharp decline in salmon stocks.

The EA’s electronic fish counter roughly averaged more than 8,000 salmon per year swimming upstream in the early 2000s but this has declined significantly since 2010 to around 3,500 salmon in 2014 and 2015.

John Cheyne, from the Angling Trust

John Cheyne, from the Angling Trust

“We broadly want to see numbers of adult salmon exceeding 4,500 to 5,000 per year, but recent years have fallen short of that level,” a spokesperson for the EA said.

Figures for 2018 reveal that just 1,908 salmon wer counted.

John Cheyne, national regions manager for the Angling Trust, which recently launched its Save Our Salmon campaign, said there are several problems that have compounded the issue.

He said: “Salmon stock in north west rivers are really struggling and have been on a decline for some time.

The Salmon Run is the time at which salmon swim back up the river in which the were born to spawn. These two are trying very hard to get "up river".

The Salmon Run is the time at which salmon swim back up the river in which the were born to spawn. These two are trying very hard to get "up river".

“There’s a plan that we, together with other fisheries organisations and the Environment Agency, are trying to put in place to improve the situation.

“There’s no one reason why stocks are struggling so much, it’s a combination of things, and it’s hard to find an easy solution.

“Degredation of spawning grounds due to agricultural pollution in gravel bed rivers like the Lune is an issue.

“Over a number of years this has limited the amount of successful spawning because salmon like clean water.

“There are also issues out at sea, which are numerous and hard to quantify, but certainly global warming and rising sea temperatures, changes in currents, over-fishing and changes to the marine environment in general.

“Another issue is the rise in salmon farming on the west coast of Scotland.

“Over on the east coast in rivers like the Tyne, the situation isn’t as bad, but on the west coast, we’re seeing farmed salmon escaping and bringing diseases to the wild population.

“We need much stricter controls over salmon farming in Scotland. Also we’ve seen a huge increase in bird populations, in particular the Goosander, which are particularly good at rounding up young salmon and eating them all.

“Salmon have an arduous life cycle, and a lot of things can go wrong.

“We’re seeing low water levels in the rivers, making it harder for salmon to track back upriver.

“Many of them give up, stay out at sea, and don’t spawn, further compounding the problem.

“The lack of any real funding from central government to address these issues is also having an affect.

“I have to praise the anglers in the north west for the pressure they’ve been putting on both local and central government to address this.”

Sarah James, from the Lune Rivers Trust, said that there has been some funding available to encourage more salmon to spawn in the Lune.

“What we’re trying to do is make the environment as good as possible for the salmon that do return and want to spawn,” she said.

“We’ve just got some funding from Defra to look at solutions at Skerton Weir, which is the biggest bottleneck for salmon getting back into the river.

“We’re also looking at how we can improve water quality by talking to farmers in the Upper Lune and the river Wennington to help them to do things that will limit run off of pollutants.”

She agreed that climate change, and indeed the loss of trees, are also having a detrimental effect.

In the early 2000s the net fishery in the Lune estuary caught roughly 1,100 salmon per year, while the rod fishery in the freshwater part of the Lune averaged a similar number of salmon per year.

In the last few years the net fishery has averaged less than 250 salmon per year and the rods are reporting less than 400 salmon per year.

The most noteable change in the salmon run in the last eight to 10 years has been the almost total lack of grilse - the smaller salmon that have spent just one year at sea before returning to the Lune to spawn and previously these formed a large part of the returning run of salmon.

The EA said that this pattern is being seen all across the rivers of the North East Atlantic.

It said that the exact cause of the decline in salmon is not yet known, but it is clear that it is largely happening during their life at sea, rather than in the river.

One former fisherman, who did not wish to be named, said: “I used to fish in the Lune in the 1980s.

“Over the last seven years there’s been a year on year decline, and it’s got to the point now where it might all be over.

“It’s the same on the Derwent and the Kent in Cumbria. The stock has plummeted.

“In 1998 the Lune was England’s most productive salmon river.

“The mantra has been that if you get rain, you get fish. This year we’ve had rain, but there’s no fish. That’s really serious.”

According to an article in The Times, Atlantic salmon, a species that once packed British and European rivers, is down to its last few million fish and faces extinction in many UK waters.

Figures show that just five per cent of the salmon hatched in UK rivers return to breed, compared with 25 per cent two decades ago, studies found.

A spokesman for the Environment Agency said: “We are working with partners to try to begin to understand where exactly salmon migrate while they are at sea.

“Next year we will be tagging young salmon in the Cumbrian Derwent and monitoring their migration down through the river and further out to sea between Ireland and Scotland.

“This will give us an insight into where the early phases of migration are and how many young salmon survive those first few weeks at sea.

“This will be just as relevant for the Lune salmon as it is for the Derwent.

“Our area teams have a good relationship with the Lune and Wyre angling association where we have pulled together habitat improvement projects and additional water quality monitoring.”

The EA invested £57,000 in 2018/19 in improving the habitat through projects including fish passage investigations and habitat improvements.

In 2019-2021 it said it is committing more than £1m through a variety of funding streams, including the Water Environment Grant scheme working with Lune Rivers Trust.

It also said that despite recent surveys of key nursery streams for salmon in the Lune being “poor”, numbers of juvenile trout are “good”.

This, it said, indicated that the lack of salmon couldn’t be blamed on water quality in the river.

The spokesperson added: “The immediate jurisdiction of the EA is over the freshwater environment, and that is where we are focusing our attentions.

“We want as many young salmon as possible to survive their lives in freshwater to make it to the sea.”

n Read about the Environment Agency’s “Salmon 5 Point Approach” HERE. https://environmentagency.blog.gov.uk/2016/05/06/restoring-salmon-stocks-our-journey-to-a-new-approach/.