Paradox: heavily regulated, yet still threatened
Scotland's salmon paradox: heavily regulated, yet still threatened

Review: ‘Saving Scotland’s Salmon’

Derek Mills :: Medlar Press :: £25.00

IT IS something of a paradox that the Atlantic salmon is one of the most regulated fishes in the world, yet today seems to be as threatened and as much at risk as ever.

The so-called king of fishes has inspired generations of naturalists, writers, poets and artists, both amateur and professional, to marvel at its lifecycle from gravel bedded egg in some burbling Highland headwater, migration to rich feeding in the seas off Greenland and eventual return to spawn in the waters of its birth.

‘O! mark him rinnin’ frae the tide,
In blue and silver braw, man;
The ticks upon his gawsy side
Shew him a new-rin saumon.
And though he ’scape the Berwick net,
The Duke at Floors an’ a’ man,
There’s mony a chance remainin’ yet
To catch that bonnie saumon.’

Medics at a dinner at Edinburgh’s Aesculapian Club in 1867 were treated to 11 other verses on the precious salmon, and history over hundreds of years has charted its role and fluctuating fortunes in the life of Scotland’s rich and poor.

Game fish, sport fish, farmed and famously poached; in the wild, stalked from cradle to grave. Its eggs are plundered by greedy trout, its fry by voracious pike, by goosanders and cormorants.  As smolts, migrating downstream, it is preyed upon by otter and mink.  Free in the sea at last, it runs the gauntlet of drift nets, trawlers and, more insidiously, its diet of sandeels, capelin, herring, krill and squid among others, increasingly seems at risk from climate change and pollution.

Urged on by Nature to return to spawn in freshwater it faces coastal net and coble, seal and dolphin attacks and, waiting on the river’s edge, stands the heron-like angler.

Salmo salar is today the object of non-governmental organisations, committees, conservation trusts, strategic forums, scientific research projects and some 800 years of legislation.

It is indeed a kingly creature, ferae naturae, belonging to no-one until caught. Highly valued and immensely charismatic it remains extraordinarily fragile, susceptible to disease and the predations of man. As the great angler Arthur Oglesby noted in his 1970s classic, “Salmon”:

“The whole future of our migratory fish stocks seems to hang in a precarious balance. The salmon are faced with overwhelming odds and, if mankind does not offer some respite in the very near future, they could just pass into history as the greatest, but extinct, fish once sought by the sporting angler.”

Derek Mills
Derek Mills: essential reading

More than 30 years on, respected scientist Derek Mills in his authoritative new book, Saving Scotland’s Salmon, is confident that, in Scotland’s rivers at least, our biological research, pollution controls and governance “should ensure its survival.”

At sea, however, the picture is less certain. There, the salmon vanishes perhaps for several years, to become just another sea creature among thousands of species whose existence depends on a delicate ecosystem which no longer seems to be in balance.

Dramatic reductions in drift and coastal netting operations have resulted in huge falls in commercial catches of salmon, but alarmingly rod catches have not increased in proportion. In 1967 the annual Scottish haul by all methods was 2117 tonnes; the ten year average to 2006 was just 248 tonnes.

Mills, one of the world’s pre-eminent salmon experts, explores advances in DNA profiling which are helping to identify from a single salmon scale, its river of origin, but points out that we still know little about the fish’s populations at sea nor can we predict the effect which rapid changes in ocean temperatures may wreak.

Mills lives in Melrose on the banks of the Tweed and has authored dozens of books and papers charting the changes in our understanding of migratory fish during an illustrious 50 year career as biologist, university lecturer, consultant and administrator.

His breadth of knowledge is vast and his latest book will undoubtedly qualify as essential reading for anyone with a passion for conservation, especially those who need to understand the ecological, social and political issues influencing the existence of this iconic fish. It is crammed with facts and statistics, mostly delivered without comment or speculation. His simplified matrix of 20 marine, environmental and biological factors affecting salmon survival should be mandatory reading for all.

Overall, this is a serious, one might say cold-blooded, study: fish do not, as far as anyone knows, possess a sense of humour and there is little by way of levity here to cheer the reader. The book’s immense value is to present a large volume of detailed information in logical context from historic origins through almost inevitable over-exploitation, to the latest care and conservation projects.

If ever a creature deserved a 21st century biography it is the Scottish salmon, and Mills’ new book leaps up to fit the bill perfectly.