Below is the response, in full.
The SGA Fishing Group wishes to make no representation on individual river gradings. This response focuses solely on the consultation questions regarding catch and release in Scotland. It answers questions 5,6,7 and 8.
The view of the SGA Fishing Group, which represents ghillies and river workers, is that it supports further encouragement of voluntary measures to increase take-up of catch and release but opposes making this mandatory through legislation.
In our view, the extent to which fishery workers and anglers have taken salmon conservation seriously is reflected in the continued increase in voluntary adoption of catch and release, even on rivers where gradings do not make it compulsory.
The 2021 statistics of 95% of total rod catch being released and 99% of spring catch being released ought to be seen as a tangible indication of fishery and angler responsibility when it comes to conserving the iconic wild salmon.
SGA Fishing Group members are well aware of the conservation challenge, are willing to answer the call and understand the aspiration to see further increases in catch and release. Our members are involved in salmon conservation work across Scotland. We have members who have been directly involved in the award winning Allt Lorgy river restoration programme. Similarly our members are voluntarily working to prevent erosion by removing invasive plants such as Knotweed from riverbanks. Many are involved directly in the conservation of threatened freshwater pearl mussels and are undertaking riparian tree planting projects. Others are working locally to see barriers to spawning areas corrected or removed.
This vital conservation work- from people with a direct stake in improving the health of rivers- will be threatened if more anglers stop paying to enjoy experiences on Scotland’s rivers. This is a concern to us, as is the conservation of salmon and sea trout.
At a time of falling angler confidence, this is where the balance must be struck, to preserve the important conservation investment for the future, the knowledge contained within the fishery community, and ghillie jobs.
When statutory catch and release was introduced in parts of Wales, this resulted in a decline in angler numbers. Some rivers reported considerable percentages of diminishing angler effort and the argument was made that anglers will choose not to exercise a right to take a salmon but that that right was still important for them to retain. This should not be underestimated.
Similarly, there is a perception issue, which the mandatory catch and release proposal seems blind to.
The Scottish Government’s delayed Scottish Wild Salmon Strategy rightly acknowledges that anglers are the ‘eyes and ears’ on the river. It states that they will report pollution incidents and are helping with freshwater pearl mussel conservation. It states that Scottish Government want anglers to be ‘fully engaged in the delivery of’ the Strategy.
However, there already exists a perception amongst sections of the angling and ghillie community that the blame for salmon decline is being placed upon them, or that they are being targeted for the heaviest responsibility as ‘low hanging fruit’ while the majority of the other pressures on wild salmon are not being tackled with the same urgency by government agencies such as SEPA and Marine Scotland.
Fish farm reform has been painfully slow and apparently lacking in will, the impact of predators has been largely brushed under the carpet as an uncomfortable topic, water abstraction issues have become critical on some rivers and Scottish Government is still yet to publish an implementation plan for conservation of the species, despite the publication of its Strategy.
Still, the direction seems to be to return again to the anglers and target efforts, there, despite 95% voluntary catch and release rates.
Ignoring this perception- and thereby increasing perceptions of alienation- would be unwise, from a salmon conservation perspective, for jobs and for the aspiration to engage anglers in the Strategy, whenever the corresponding implementation plan comes forward.
We would suggest that introducing mandatory catch and release would represent a negative tipping point, particularly when the difference it could make is negligible compared to the many other pressures facing wild salmon and sea trout which are not being addressed.
The SGA Fishing Group recommends instead -and is happy to participate in- efforts to increase voluntary catch and release further. Indeed, the need to provide more and better education on best practice catch and release is something the Group has itself highlighted as vital.
Additionally, there could be a focus on identifying where catch and release take-up is slower, perhaps due to resource issues. If resource is the problem, how can these beats be better supported to deliver?
The SGA Fishing Group, September 2022.