Is angling a threat to salmon recovery on the Shannon?

The Lower River Shannon is currently managed as a ‘catch and release’ river, where only hatchery fish can be retained. However, there is currently a significant possibility that the salmon fisheries on the Lower River Shannon will be closed to angling from 2014 onwards. This will be presented as a measure to address the poor conservation status of salmon in the middle and upper Shannon, and also as an effort to address the continued high level of illegal fishing in the river. But would closing the lower River Shannon to salmon angling really have any significant effect of either of these issues?

“Without seriously addressing fish passage and water management issues there will never be a recovery of salmon stocks in the River Shannon”

It is clear that even if there was no salmon angling – and even no illegal fishing and netting – in the Lower River Shannon, stocks in the middle and upper reaches of the River Shannon would still have no prospect for recovery at present. Without seriously addressing fish passage and water management issues there will never be a recovery of salmon stocks in the River Shannon. Let’s be clear about this. We should be opening the Shannon – not closing it to angling – if things are going to stay the same in relation to fish passage and water management. It would be better to manage the Lower Shannon as a self contained unit if management of the river is not going to be significantly changed, as under this scenario – the current situation – there is no hope of restoring salmon runs to the upper river.

Salmon angling at Plassey (Old River Shannon)

Salmon angling at Plassey, Old River Shannon

Closing angling would also have little positive impact on the levels of illegal fishing in the Lower River Shannon, and would be likely to be counter-productive: levels of illegal fishing could actually increase as it is clear that the presence of genuine anglers on the river provides some level of a deterrent to poachers. Just a quick review of Inland Fisheries Ireland’s historical press releases on successful prosecutions for illegal fishing usually start with an admission that their officers were acting on a complaint. These complaints almost always come from concerned anglers on the river.

“The current stagnant archaic management regime is the problem – not the anglers”

Inland Fisheries Ireland will also say that log book returns are not being fully completed by many anglers, and use this as an excuse to close the fishery. They will also claim that they have evidence that catch and release is not practiced fully, with ‘wild’ fish being recorded as hatchery fish. However, these practices, which are undoubtedly a problem on the River Shannon, are not best addressed by closing the fishery.

On a river with such widespread and obvious illegal poaching of fish, set against the background of smolt turbine mortality, absence of credible fish passage facilities at Ardnacrusha, a compensation flow in the old river that is at drought flow levels (QN95), a Parteen fish pass that is closed (with fish directed to a 6″ pipe instead), and a succession of apparently cynical PR driven stunts from ESB (i.e. Bunowen Pit tag project), it is clear that closing the fishery will really just increase the disillusionment of anglers and be counter-productive.

The problems on the Lower River Shannon are significant and complex, and increasing the level of alienation among anglers will only work against the interests of conservation. The problem is the absence of a sincere fisheries partnership at present. The current fisheries partnership works only to serve the interests of the ESB and deflect attention away from the issue of fish passage at Ardnacrusha and Parteen.

Ardnacrusha

There are no credible fish passage facilities at Ardnacrusha hydroelectric station

Before targeting the anglers of the Lower River Shannon, Inland Fisheries Ireland should look at themselves first and question the reasons behind their absence of action on the key issues affecting salmon in the River Shannon. They should ask themselves if they are currently taking any money from the ESB (are they?) and is this in any way compromising their regulatory role? They should also consider whether another easy option of targeting the genuine angler on the Lower River Shannon is really what is required here.

” the genuine angler on the river is a very easy target when compared to tackling the fish passage and water management issues associated with the ESB’s dams”

Closing the Lower River Shannon to salmon angling in 2014 is an easy solution and fits right into the ESB’s fishery management approach of being seen to be doing something but in reality not actually doing of achieving anything [for salmon stocks]. Blame the anglers, climate change and pollution for the salmon’s decline and ignore the elephant in the room that is the Shannon scheme.

There are no salmon in the upper River Shannon because of fish passage problems at the Shannon scheme. Water quality is generally satisfactory and significantly better than many highly modified European Rivers (such as the River Seine) which now have more salmon returning to them than the upper River Shannon. The habitats for rearing juvenile salmon are in abundance in tributary rivers such as the Little Brosna, Inny, and Boyle  to name just three. The technology and know-how is also there to solve the problems at Ardnacrusha and Parteen. There can and should be salmon in the upper River Shannon. The current stagnant archaic management regime is the problem – not the anglers.

Mulkear grilse run; anglers on the river deters poaching in most cases

Mulkear grilse run; anglers on the river deter poaching in most cases

So what should be done? At Parteen all that is needed initially is just to remove the trap and allow fish a free run at the river. A system is required to keep salmon out of the tailrace, and modern graduated electric barrier technology could be considered for application here. There needs to be more water in the Old River Shannon; particularly during the downstream smolt migration period. Alternatively we need new fish passes and downstream bypass guidance systems at Ardnacrusha. Closing down Ardnacrusha station at critical time periods and spilling water may be the best option and this would have significant ecological and fluvial geomorphological benefits for the old river. Parteen hatchery needs to be closed down and failures admitted, and a new hatchery in the Upper River Shannon should be considered as an interim measure. However, as has been the experience on other European Rivers (i.e. Tyne and Seine), when you give salmon a chance they will come back by themselves.

For further information on the problems for River Shannon salmon and their solution see these previous ORSRG posts:-

One thing is very clear however and that is that completely closing the Lower River Shannon to salmon angling should come well down the list of what is required to give salmon a chance. If Inland Fisheries Ireland cannot control illegal fishing on the River Shannon, this is their failure and removing the genuine anglers from the river will just make this issue worse. There will still be coarse angling on the river, and it will be just as difficult to police. The tail race of Ardnacrusha has always been closed to angling and Inland Fisheries Ireland have been unable (or unwilling) to control illegal netting and angling here, for example.

If there was a true “fisheries partnership” on the Shannon and if the new fish passes and management protocols were introduced, it is likely that the majority of anglers would agree to stop fishing temporarily to allow stocks to recover. However, under the current scenario you can’t expect anglers to accept any further restrictions, especially when they will bring no significant benefits to salmon. Indeed, the Shannon should actually be fully opened to salmon angling, because in the absence of a real change in management there is no prospect of recovery of stocks above the dams.

The elephant in the room is fish passage

The elephant in the room is fish passage at the Shannon dams

It is time for an end of cynical fisheries management programmes on the Shannon. Further restrictions on anglers should not be first on the list here, and under the current regime the absence of anglers on the river would not contribute significantly to the restoration of salmon in the River Shannon. At present the majority of salmon in the Lower Shannon are produced either in the Mulkear or Kilmastulla Rivers, or from the extensive areas of juvenile salmon habitat at Castleconnell and Plassey. These salmon stocks are all doing fine and have been consistently at favourable conservation status; as evidenced by the consistently high densities of parr that are present in these areas.

“If Inland Fisheries Ireland cannot control illegal fishing on the River Shannon, this is their failure and removing the genuine anglers from the river will just make this issue worse”

The only salmon migrating to the upper Shannon at present are the survivors of artificial restocking programmes – with stocks above the Shannon scheme completely dependent on ongoing restocking and unlikely to contain any significant naturally spawned stock component (i.e. of relatively low current conservation importance). Any natural spawning component is limited to first generation only. Indeed, these stocks have no chance currently of becoming fully self sustaining – despite 50 years of sustained stocking from Parteen hatchery. The impact of angling here, set against the background of fish passage problems, is insignificant.  However, the genuine angler on the river is a very easy target when compared to tackling the fish passage and water management issues associated with the ESB’s dams. Closing the salmon fishery on the Lower Shannon in 2014 would be little more than a distraction from the real issues, will be counter-productive, and will do nothing significant for salmon in the River Shannon. If the Shannon was closed to angling for the next 50 years under the current management regime there would still be no self sustaining salmon stocks in the upper Shannon. Unless there is a real change in management the Lower Shannon should just be opened up fully, not subjected to further restrictions, as having it closed currently makes no significant contribution to salmon stocks above the dams.

Castleconnell fishery, beat 5

Castleconnell fishery, Beat 5, Old River Shannon

There can and should be salmon in the upper River Shannon. The current stagnant archaic management regime is the problem – not the anglers. The Shannon needs to be protected effectively from illegal poaching by the agencies who are paid our tax Euros to do so. A real fishery partnership needs to be set up now; one that balances the objectives of the Water Framework and Habitats Directives, with the requirements of the catchment residents and varied users of the river: not the current one that is run by the ESB with the apparent aim of frustrating the recovery of salmon in the River Shannon.

” If the Shannon was closed to angling for the next 50 years under the current management regime there would still be no self sustaining salmon stocks in the upper Shannon”

The Old River Shannon Research Group (ORSRG) was set up to research and raise awareness about these and other issues affecting the Old River Shannon. Our stated purpose is to investigate, raise awareness, provoke discussion and advise on suitable future management protocols for this internationally important water body, in the interests of ecology, hydrology, fluvial geomorphology, cultural heritage and of course the catchment residents and varied user groups on the river. We are not an anonymous organisation, no more than Inland Fisheries Ireland is one. We are the Old River Shannon Research Group and if you have comments on this article please contact us at info@oldrivershannon.com and one of our volunteer representatives will reply to you directly.

3 responses to “Is angling a threat to salmon recovery on the Shannon?

  1. It is wonderful how people(politicians especially ) blame other people for their short Cummings . Instead of people in power standing up and saying toght we need more bailiffs or a decent fish pass because we made a mistake in blocking the river for the fish to have a clear path . They don’t take the blame for putting dirty big spinning blades In the way . Noooooo why should they when they can blame the angler ,the only person who actually cares about the river and what’s in it probably .

  2. I am English angler and have been fishing the shannon since 1955.
    I fished there for trout particularly lough Derg mayfly month. Lower reaches of the shannon for Salmon and coarse fish in middle stretches for bream, rudd and tench in early summer on the hot water stretches.
    I can assure you that the decline has been unrelenting and very sad.
    I saw a salmon caught at shannon bridge in the late1950,s with my father. Never seen one since!
    The salmon fishing decline is a direct result of the powerstation dam being fitted with inadequate migration access and little interest by the politicians with little interest to correct tier failure. The bream and Rudd fishing has collapsed from the massive hauls in the 1970 due to the uncontrolled expansion of roach which spawn earlier and eat the other breeds eggs.
    I read with incredulity the zebra mussel saga as the culprit. I caught a small roach in 1972 at Lanesborough hot water stretch in those days you were encouraged to report it which I did.Everyone came round to see it. Now there are so many roach you can almost walk over the Shannon.
    All I have are photographic memories of my three holidays a year on this beautiful river since the fifties.
    The Irish fisheries management of this mighty river have been abysmal.
    Dudley mallett (in my seventies)

  3. Pingback: Salmon | Irish waterways history·

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