THE startling numbers of salmon caught in the Tweed last year have left anglers wondering whether the figures are a sign of climate change or just a blip.
The second-best year ever for salmon catches on the River Tweed has generally been welcomed – 20,836 salmon were reported caught last year (down from 31,321 in 2010), 4,154 were caught by nets and 16,682 by rod and line – 68 per cent of the latter being released by anglers.
Last year was the first in which full catch and release for salmon was compulsory for the whole spring season.
The record-breaking figure was released by the River Tweed Commissioners (RTC) this week in their report for 2011, which includes details of salmon and sea trout catches.
Although 2011 saw the highest spring salmon catch since 1966, most were caught after April. Salmon catches were higher in every month from May to August than in recent years and were also extremely high in September, at almost 4,000 fish.
Catches dropped to below average in October and slumped further in November, though large numbers of fish were seen in all parts of the river.
Whilst more fish were caught over the summer months there was a noticeable lack of grilse – salmon that have stayed at sea for only one winter – and salmon were much larger than usual and with a preponderance of hen fish in all parts of the river.
The timing of the year’s main salmon run was also unprecedented in recent years, starting in early August, over a month ahead of schedule,. It was largely over by late September.
This unexpected earlier run of fish may have been accompanied by a lower fishing effort over these months, so catches may not have represented the full abundance of the returning stock.
Angling conditions were generally ideal throughout the later part of the season and were accompanied by unusually warm water – it was the warmest November on record – and a large number of diseased fish.
By November there were so many mature fish that many beats banned fishing in some pools, it being judged that there were too many unseasonable fish and a low chance of hooking a fresh, takeable one.
In his final report as Commissioners chairman after eight years, Andrew Douglas-Home said it would be fascinating to see whether, given favourable summer water conditions, the oddities of 2011, with really remarkable numbers of summer fish, were a blip or a precursor of something more fundamental.
“I suppose 2011 was the year when most of our recently acquired beliefs as to what would happen were shown to be incorrect – with the exception of the early spring [February to the end of April] when there were very small numbers of salmon yet again –proving, if proof were needed, that the commission’s policy, of protecting its early running fish by applying 100 per cent catch and release, is the right one.”
While sea trout catches also enjoyed an excellent year, with a total of 5,608 taken (3,109 by net and 2,499 by rod and line), Mr Douglas-Home said it seemed a different story when it came to brown trout, with the possibility that the reductions in offshore and in-river netting in recent years had allowed the sea-going variety to predominate over the brown trout.
“There are all sorts of consequences if this is so, not least for local brown trout angling clubs, and I have written to proprietors and clubs with my views on how a start could be made in addressing this,” he said.
Clerk to the RTC, Nick Yonge, said something “quite strange” seems to have happened. “It was a very different sort of year, again,” he told TheSouthern. “Fish came into the system in large numbers – just not when they were meant to.
“We have seen a very stable run pattern for quite a long time. But in 2010, there were unprecedentedly large numbers of fish for recent times. Last year, they were coming earlier than usual and were a different sort of fish, bigger in size.”
Mr Yonge said it was too early to point the finger at a link to climate change, but one theory gaining credence was that there had been some kind of change in food distribution patterns in the Norwegian seas to the east of Scotland and the western oceanic regions close to Greenland.
At last count, the Tweed fishery pumped £18million a year into the Borders economy and supported almost 500 full-time jobs.