An award-winning hydro-electric generating plant may have to be shut down during peak high water flows – to allow salmon to reach their spawning grounds.
The Environment Agency says it may have to insist on stricter controls over the operation of the hydro plant on the River Ribble at Settle because of evidence that it is preventing salmon and sea trout making their way upstream to spawn.
The Ribble is celebrated as one of the best salmon fishing rivers in the North of England but since the hydro plant was opened two years ago anglers have reported a dramatic fall in catches, as revealed by the Yorkshire Post in January.
Brian Shields, senior fisheries specialist for the Environment Agency, said: “ We believe there is sufficient evidence that fisheries have been affected for some form of action to be taken.
“There is a whole range of options and in discussion with the operators we will have to find something that is workable and legally enforceable.”
He said that among options being considered was a ban on operating the hydro plant for 12-hour periods during the peak salmon migration season in the autumn.
He said the agency would also investigate the idea of tagging salmon so scientists can find out exactly how the generating plant may be affecting migration patterns.
The £410,000 Archimedes Screw-type hydro plant is operated by Settle Hydro, a community consortium which uses profits from electricity generated to help local environmental projects.
It has been built alongside Settle weir next to an old salmon ladder – a series of artificial pools which should allow salmon to bypass the weir and swim upstream and public notices next to the generator describe it as “fish friendly”.
But anglers have claimed that since the new plant began operating fish have been scared away by the noise and vibration caused by the equipment.
Norbeck Anglers, a consortium with fishing rights on a one-mile stretch of the Ribble upstream of Settle, says records show average catches have fallen from 17 per season to just two.
Norbeck Anglers’ bailiff John Breckon, 76, said: “What’s happened over the last two years has been absolutely disastrous.
“It niggles me to that we are losing something we have spent a lifetime trying to preserve. Over the years we have done all we can to conserve and improve fish stocks – at times we’ve even carried salmon up Stainforth Foss (waterfalls) in nets to help them past.”
According to the Environment Agency, the drop in fish numbers reported by anglers is corroborated by data from a fish counter just upstream of Settle weir. Mr Shields said that owing to various environmental factors there had been a general decline in North East Atlantic salmon numbers.
However he said the reduction upstream of Settle was “a larger than background reduction”.
One of the main spawning grounds for the Ribble is the waters around Ribble Head, nearly 15 miles upstream from Settle. Further downstream leaping salmon at Stainforth Foss have in the past drawn tourists and photographers from all over the country and have featured on BBC 2’s Autumnwatch programme.
No comment was available last night from Settle Hydro, but previously the organisation has stated it was working closely with the Environment Agency on the issue and that it had gone to great lengths to ensure its impact on the ecology of the area was minimised.
Settle Hydro was set up to generate “green”’ electricity and use any surplus cash from the power it sold to regenerate the community and promote the environmental sustainability of the area.
Information on its website concedes that parts of its work would be “speculative” owing to the pioneering nature of the engineering involved.
It is expected the hydro plant will generate enough electricity for 50 homes, with an anticipated lifespan of 40 years.
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