Why a Yorkshire river revival has spawned a new controversy

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Salmon are a symbol of the recovery of Yorkshire’s rivers. But should hatcheries be part of their future?

It was late afternoon when I spoke to David Bamford, Senior Fisheries Officer for the Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust and sole employee of the Ure Salmon Group. He was sitting in a Dales cafe thawing out cold hands.

He’d spent the day ‘stripping’ hen salmon – that is, taking the eggs from a wild, female salmon that had returned to his local River Ure to breed, then artificially fertilising those eggs in a salmon hatchery for later release into the river as young fish.

The idea is that after spending some time in the river they will go off to sea, then return to spawn in the River Ure and so complete the cycle. “It’s like aquatic lambing,” says Bamford, laughing.

The salmon is the totemic species for the recovery of Yorkshire’s rivers. That this magnificent fish can once again be seen jumping at Yorkshire weirs proves just how much water quality has improved over the last couple of decades. It is justifiably used as a symbol by the Environment Agency and water companies to demonstrate just how far we have come in cleaning up our river environment.

But still the Atlantic Salmon is a species under threat. UK wild stocks have fallen by around 45 per cent since 1971, though Yorkshire rivers do seem to be bucking that trend.

There are three pieces to complete the jigsaw of a successful salmon river: water quality, removal of any obstructions, and habitat, so there is somewhere for young fish to thrive.

But some maintain that there is a fourth, and more controversial way to build up a river’s salmon population: hatcheries, such as the one being operated by the Ure Salmon Group, through the Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust (YDRT).

The Ure Salmon Group is made up of local landowners and businesses which saw the potential for developing salmon angling on the Dales rivers. They have the support of Richmond MP Rishi Sunak, who recently backed them in their campaign to have the salmon season start earlier, this month, to bring it inline with major salmon rivers in the UK.

David Bamford reckons they have put “about quarter of a million smolts” (young salmon) into the river since the hatchery was created in 2011.

A good salmon river can bring a lot of money into an area through angling tourism, and the group didn’t need to look far for its inspiration. The River Tyne, just up the coast, is one of the great river recovery stories of our time. It was heavily polluted during the industrial period, but is now the number one salmon river in England, frequently basking in the media spotlight thanks to celebrity anglers such as James Stokoe and Robson Green.

The Tyne also has a salmon hatchery, to make up for the salmon spawning grounds lost when the Kielder reservoir was created in the 1970s. To many anglers, the near-miraculous recovery of the Tyne is down to this hatchery. Scientists though, almost unanimously, disagree. They say the hatchery has had little or no effect on the salmon recovery in the river, and it is almost all down to the improvement of water quality, and habitat work.

Even the Environment Agency’s own research concludes that the main reason for the return of the salmon was due to wild populations and the improvement of water quality, and very little to do with the hatchery.

Even so, the near mythological status of the hatchery remains amongst many salmon anglers.

“Virtually every salmon angler you talk to believes that Kielder brought the River Tyne back,” says Bamford, “Whereas a lot of fishery scientists don’t.”

That word ‘belief’ crops up a lot when talking to people about rivers. Counting fish in a river is every bit as difficult as it sounds, and estimates, even by the professionals, can vary wildly.

But conservationists and some anglers are becoming increasingly uneasy about the presence of a hatchery on Yorkshire rivers. They state that the recovery in salmon numbers was already well underway by 2011, when the Ure Salmon Group first began to artificially harvest salmon eggs. In fact, they point out, 2012 saw the largest run of salmon in recent years – before the hatchery could have had any effect.

One of those scientists is Prof Jon Grey of river conservation charity Wild Trout Trust, who is currently working with other conservation charities and volunteers to restore the river habitat around Gargrave on the River Aire, ready for the salmon’s return.

Prof Grey has two main concerns about the hatchery. First, when the river is suddenly flooded with huge numbers of young fish released from the hatchery, they will be competing for food and resources with the wild stock of salmon and trout that are already making their living there. “Of course it is going to have a massive effect,” he says.

Second, and perhaps more insidious, is the potential effect on the genetics of the wild salmon stock over time. It seems that no matter how hard we try, we just cannot match nature when it comes to the art and science of salmon romance.

“It is a fitness thing really, when it boils down to it,” says Prof Grey. “If we take native stock from a river, we are still artificially mixing eggs and sperm from salmon to create a fertilised egg. There is no choice there by the fish, in terms of choosing a mate that would give the ultimate fitness for the river in any given situation.”

Salmon are highly adapted genetically to their river, even to one specific section of it, explains Prof Grey.

There is a lot of science now telling us that fish resulting from artificially fertilised eggs do not have the same chances of survival as wild fish, but they do have the potential to enter those ‘weaker’ genes into the wild fish population. At a time when salmon are so under threat from climate change, for instance, this lessening of their ability to adapt could have serious consequences.

David Bamford believes that getting on for one in 10 salmon caught on the Ure are hatchery fish, but he does accept that the hatchery hasn’t played a significant role in the recovery of the river overall.

“Some people would like to claim that we have been a part of that, but the main reason is obviously the improvement in water quality in the lower river, that is what has driven it all,” Bamford says.

“But it is not just about the fish we get back. We get people wanting to fish the river because if it is stocked, then it must be worth fishing, you know. And we get a lot of people interested as volunteers because they want to get involved with it. There are more benefits than just the numbers of fish you get back.”

This often gets lost amidst all the science of the hatchery debate. Anglers tend to be passionate about their sport and the salmon is a species under threat. They also tend to be a practical lot, and actually breeding fish and putting them in the river feels like they are doing something constructive.

The North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation (NASCO) is an international body that advises on best practice for restoring wild salmon stocks. They say hatcheries should only be used as a last resort and caution particularly against risking the genetic integrity of the wild salmon.

So should we be risking that essential wildness of the salmon on an angler’s whim – risking the very thing they are trying to save?