Did you know that salmon briefly returned to the upper River Shannon in 1994?

We visited the beautiful Rivers Boyle and Feorish in the upper River Shannon catchment in August 2014 to look for juvenile salmon. We found that there was a good stock of brown trout present in both rivers – but salmon were absent. However, did you know that in 1994 significant numbers of salmon returned and spawned successfully in these rivers – along with other parts of the upper Shannon catchment – for the first time in decades?

The River Boyle, Co Roscommon, downstream of Lough Gara
The River Boyle, Co Roscommon, downstream of Lough Gara, August 2014. Salmon returned and spawned successfully here in the winter of 1994/95 for the first time in decades

The salmon that returned to the Rivers Boyle and Feorish in 1994 had been artificially restocked as unfed fry during the spring of 1992. Facilitated by the productive juvenile salmon rearing habitats present, significant numbers of them migrated down the Shannon system as one year old (1+) smolts during April 1993, many managed to get through the turbines at Ardnacrusha during May 1993, and then some returned as grilse during June 1994.

Having no salmon in the upper River Shannon is just a decision that ESB have made to favour hydroelectricity generation over biodiversity

The summer of 1994 was very wet and the ESB unusually spilled extra water from Parteen weir, above the base compensation flow. Attracted by the higher flows these fish ran through Castleconnell – rather than the entering the ‘dead end’ of the tailrace of Ardnacrusha. When the Parteen trap and fish pass was finally opened in September, the surviving 100+ of this cohort finally got through this obstacle and ran the Shannon. They passed through Lough Derg, onwards through Meelick weir, jumped Athlone weir, swam through Lough Ree and negotiated the weir at Termonbarry before perhaps resting briefly below Jamestown Weir, then onwards through Knockvicar weir, and finally arriving back into Boyle town and their natal River Boyle – even negotiating the small hydro scheme at Stewart’s Mills.

Naturally spawned salmon were also found during 1995 in the Feorish River, Ballyfarnon, Co Roscommon; an SAC quality limestone river. This photo was taken during August 2014.

It seems like a long journey; however a smolt can do this in a week and an adult salmon with the drive to reproduce can do it in two. Geographically the Shannon is relatively small compared to what salmon were known to achieve on long European rivers; for example on the Rhine and Loire. Once past the Shannon dams, it’s plain sailing through the loughs and canalised River Shannon – with just a few bumps along the way – for an arch navigator like the Atlantic salmon. That winter these salmon spawned successfully in the River Boyle and the River Feorish. This was not known until the following summer when juvenile (0+) salmon turned up in electrical fishing surveys of these rivers – confirming that salmon had spawned in the upper Shannon for the first time in decades.

Boyle River Salmon Parr 1996
One of the naturally spawned salmon parr derived from the spawning that took place in the Boyle River during the 1990s; this photo was taken in 1996.

We did not find any juvenile salmon in the Rivers Boyle and Feorish during this survey, but we should not forget that some salmon managed to complete their life cycle in these watercourses for a brief time in the 1990’s. Salmon are not in the upper Shannon because the ESB apparently ‘pulled the plug’ on the River Shannon Salmon Management Programme once it was clear that the salmon would come back if they were given half a chance. The achievement of getting salmon back to the upper Shannon in 1994 apparently worried the ESB as a Shannon with salmon runs would pose a conflict to their hydroelectricity generation requirements. Recent projects like the River Shannon AARC project have looked genetics, habitats, etc. while incredibly ignoring the key issues which are fish passage and water management at Ardnacrusha and Parteen.

We recorded fantastic stocks of Brown trout in the Feorish and Boyle catchments dueing our surveys this week; however we would have liked to have also recorded salmon
We recorded fantastic stocks of Brown trout in the Feorish and Boyle catchments during our surveys this week; however we would have liked to have also recorded salmon (and eels!).

So here we are, over 20 years later, with just a few hundred salmon making it though the ESB Shannon dams each year in a river that has a conservation escapement target of c.49,000 adult salmon annually. Our survey in 2014 confirmed that the habitats for salmon are still present in the upper Shannon, and there should be thousands of salmon returning each year to rivers in the upper Shannon catchment. Even if we were to partially address the water management and fish passage issues at the Shannon dams, salmon would return again to rivers like the Boyle and Feorish in Co Roscommon.

Other posts related to this this can be found at the links below:-

There can be salmon in the upper River Shannon again. Having no salmon in the upper River Shannon is just a decision that ESB have made to favour hydroelectricity generation over biodiversity. So what do you want – highly paid jobs for the privileged few or thousands of salmon returning to rivers like the Boyle, Feorish, and upper Shannon at Dowra and the associated economic benefits of this?

ESB’s Ballintra gates

There is of course more to this story. Some of the salmon that returned in 1994 were also destined for the upper River Shannon above Lough Allen. However, these fish had to negotiate yet another one of ESB’s dams on the River Shannon – Ballintra Gates at the outfall of Lough Allen – and this one is impassable. This dam has a dysfunctional ‘submerged orifice’ fish pass that was so badly designed that fish can’t find it, and any fish that enter it are overwhelmed by turbulence ‘noise’. In the winter of 1994/1995 two adult salmon were found dead downstream of this dam apparently unable to get through, and many others at this time are likely to have cruelly died here. In extensive electrofishing survey searches of the upper Shannon at Dowra and above, and other rivers such as the Owengar, Owenayle, Arigna and Yellow which flow into Lough Allen, no evidence of salmon spawning was ever found again despite millions of juvenile salmon fry being released in these areas. Today this ESB dam is another major barrier to fish migration on the River Shannon.

ESB dam at the outflow of Lough Allen (Ballintra Gates) – an impassible barrier to fish migration

Do you have any records of salmon in the upper River Shannon? If so or if you have any comments please do not hesitate to contact us.

10 Thoughts

  1. I have, from the Irish Times archive, reports of salmon at Boyle in 1863, 1910, 1911 and 1922. Email me if you’d like more info. bjg

  2. Enjoy your work immensely! Have you looked at the new salmon cannon being trialled in the USA. Utube pictures look amazing.
    Could we see this design being trialled at the shannon dam.

  3. I saw salmon showing in quite large numbers along the Pullough Shoreline on Lough Ree for the first and last time ever in 1994.
    Two years earlier I witnessed the biggest salmon I’ve ever seen, close on thirty pounds,( and I’m a fisherman for fifty odd years),land on the weir wall beside the lock gates in Athlone, balance unbelievably on top of the stone wall for a second before slipping into the water and swimming on upstream! I’ve never seen the likes in my life, before or since.
    I took it as an indication of what one could expect to see if the ESB ceased chopping and blocking salmon trying to return to the upper Shannon catchment to spawn.
    The ESB and the government is guilty of environmental vandalism for decades on the River Shannon, and the ESB has the nerve to charge for permits along with your salmon licence to fish for no-existent salmon on the Brosna, Inny and other tributaries of the Shannon.
    I is an absolute scandal and I cannot understand why the EU hasn’t acted against Ireland for allowing such behaviour to continue.

  4. Can a company get formed called salmon and eel with a person as its director to bring esb to court.once in court it could be augured that the ESB did not look after their welfare and that the salmon were using the Shannon to migrate long long before the DSM was built.the ESB undertook to look after these species but are not doing so now

  5. I visited Ardnacrusha for the first time yesterday and was given an impressive tour of the whole amazing complex, including the salmon tower and spawning process. I was told that the mature salmon which were originally hatched there eventually choose to navigate back to precisely that location as it is their original spawning ground. Is this accurate?

  6. hi
    as a regular follower of munster rugby from dublin
    id stop in pubs in killaloe ,obriens bridge and see old photoes of salmon catches on the wall
    its always been on my mind to follow it up as why i never hear of anyone fishing for salmon onthe upper reaches of shannon,and was there if any where being caught ….
    i knoe the story now.
    i fish in connemar,and never hear chat re fishing in the shannon,
    i came upon a great 2 hour film by m murtagh on the casle connall
    fishery,,,,,,,,,on u tube,a must by all people who fish
    this prompted me to enquire more re salmon and the lack of in the shannon
    language ,being good or bad good not express things about the mess
    the esb have made
    cant understand how things have not gone to court ,re there
    has there being petitions made /?
    fund raisers?

    keep up good work
    get fishermen together to complain
    get it on tv
    get it on radio,, george hooke
    and many more

    love to help

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