JEREMY PAXMAN: The net is closing in on the King of Fish

The net is closing in on the King of Fish… and we’re all to blame: He has been hooked on angling since he was a boy. Now, in a despairing elegy for the wild salmon, JEREMY PAXMAN says polluting fish farms are threatening its future

Some of the happiest days of my life have been spent fishing. It was my grandfather who taught me. I was ten or 11; he I suppose 70, his big frame stooped by old age and his eyes pale and watery. It is the same age I am now.

We used to go to the River Ure, a few miles from Ripon in North Yorkshire. I haven’t been there for 40 years or more, but I remember it as if it were yesterday.

Beside the bridge, a few cottages, beyond them the church. On the upstream side, a high cliff on one bank and beeches and willows on the other. Between them, the river babbling from pool to stream was the colour of dry sherry.

In my memory, the sun always shone on those days. The trees dappled with water and, however badly you tossed your Treacle Parkin (technically, a trout fly) into the stream, you always seemed to catch something.

After years of catching minnows with my brothers, it was a rite of passage, I suppose. I was hooked for life, and have made yearly pilgrimages to salmon rivers ever since.

We used to go to the River Ure, a few miles from Ripon in North Yorkshire. I haven’t been there for 40 years or more, but I remember it as if it were yesterday

The fisherman’s quarry is a stupid, cold-blooded creature, so far down the evolutionary scale that his pursuit seems an absurd waste of the talents of Homo sapiens.

Yet these primordial beings have such quicksilver reflexes and such discriminating senses that the fisherman’s only chance of outwitting them is to make himself inconspicuous — by somehow inserting himself into the natural environment by keeping the sun on his face, hiding beneath trees and creeping through the undergrowth.

No wonder it can seem so comic. Yet there is nothing to match salmon-fishing for sheer exhilaration, the vindication of artifice when a fish breaks the water to seize your imitation fly.

Over the years, I have fallen into rivers, been half-drowned and drawn blood with many a rogue hook. Yet I’ve never lost enthusiasm for trying to catch a salmon. Being out in the middle of nowhere, oystercatchers and sand martins, dippers and ospreys doing their thing as you try to be invisible.

You hear the birds, the water — sometimes you even hear a friend falling in. When you’re fishing, you’re free. I’ve never found anything to equal it.

In the unlikely event that you connect with a fish — a strong, healthy, wild fish — it is like an electric charge down your arm. These moments may last minutes, but they are never forgotten.

Which is why I am so downcast following my return from a few days’ fishing in Scotland. I fear we may be looking at signs of the end of the Atlantic salmon. And it is all humans’ fault.

They used to call the Atlantic salmon ‘the king of fish’. Its life story is not far short of a miracle. Hatching from an egg in a cold, freshwater stream, after two years or so the young fish migrates to the mouth of the river and begins to swim, often for thousands of miles, through saltwater.

In the unlikely event that you connect with a fish — a strong, healthy, wild fish — it is like an electric charge down your arm. These moments may last minutes, but they are never forgotten. Which is why I am so downcast following my return from a few days’ fishing in Scotland

During this time its lithe body grows hugely, until a year or more after leaving, and at many times the size at which it embarked on its migration, it returns to the very stream where it hatched from an egg. It is an astonishing tale.

For years, fishmongers traded on the rarity and quality of salmon to sell it expensively to the public. And then someone had a brainwave. Supposing you could avoid all those risky migrations and produce flesh which looked like salmon from the wild, and lay it out on the shelves of supermarkets. You could make a fortune! As long as it had the right ancestry, you could even call it salmon.

So the very first salmon farmers set to work. And soon — just as they had been promised — they made a lot of money from selling what they produced to the public.They were unlike the sort of farmers who tended fields and cared for their livestock. Efficiency — getting the maximum weight of fish per kilo of feed and parasite-killing chemicals was all.

Since the fish lived in an environment alien to farmers, much nurturing of the stock was based on trial and error. If the fish could survive the chemicals in the water they were obliged to ingest, that was called a success.

The fisherman’s quarry is a stupid, cold-blooded creature, so far down the evolutionary scale that his pursuit seems an absurd waste of the talents of Homo sapiens

The pioneers in this early form of aquaculture were Scandinavian. Soon, over half of the seafood consumed in the world was farmed.

In their quest for expansion, the salmon farmers hit upon the great long coast of Chile, which was soon producing more ‘Atlantic salmon’ than Norway. You do not need a PhD in geography to know that not one bit of Chile has an Atlantic seaboard.

These ‘Atlantic salmon’ may be symbols of freedom but they have been reared in cages in the Pacific. I once visited Calcutta zoo. The creature in the tiger pen terrified everyone. It had developed that figure-of-eight walk which is the sign of the captive animal’s madness. It still had the unmistakeable markings, but it had been turned into the shadow of a tiger.

I noticed something similar during a visit to a salmon farm off the west coast of Scotland a couple of years ago. Fish still looked like fish, slashing at the wall of their cages as they turned to complete their 1,000th circuit before being released from their tedium by 2,000 volts, in readiness for the supermarket shelf.

It was life, but not as anyone would wish to live it.

Very bad things happen when animals are concentrated together unnaturally. About one fifth of caged salmon are killed by disease and parasites before they can be ‘harvested’. Survivors produce enormous amounts of waste, which accumulates beneath the cages in which the fish are imprisoned, killing all life on the seabed below them.

Salmon are also vulnerable to parasitic lice, whose numbers explode prodigiously in the cramped conditions in which the salmon are reared. Unlike their hosts, they are not confined by the cages and latch on to — and kill — passing young wild salmon.

Attempts to control lice epidemics on the farms have generally involved almost indiscriminate dumping of chemicals into the sea. Academic research in Chile has now shown the development of chemical resistance among the parasites.

Recently, the fashion has been to take tens of thousands of fish called wrasse from the wild, confining them in the salmon cages, where they are meant to eat the lice, before being killed at the end of the salmon production cycle.

Central to the lie of salmon farming is the importance of this industrially produced food being seen as ‘natural’. For the farmed-salmon industry, the key is to cultivate the impression there is little to choose between authentic wild fish and their farmed namesake. But the name is all they have in common. 

Being out in the middle of nowhere, oystercatchers and sand martins, dippers and ospreys doing their thing as you try to be invisible. You hear the birds, the water — sometimes you even hear a friend falling in. When you’re fishing, you’re free. I’ve never found anything to equal it

Over the years, I have fallen into rivers, been half-drowned and drawn blood with many a rogue hook. Yet I’ve never lost enthusiasm for trying to catch a salmon

It is a decade since it was revealed that ‘Lochmuir’, the imaginary home of Marks & Spencer’s farmed salmon, didn’t exist. As for so-called ‘organically farmed salmon’ of the kind occasionally to be found in posh fishmongers, there is no such thing. The farms are still permitted to use many of the same chemicals.

You won’t catch a salmon fisherman like me eating a fish that has been reared like this, even though salmon farming began in hatcheries on little braes, where tiny alevins (newly spawned salmon) were bred to please anglers to improve the odds of catching a returning salmon in a few years’ time. Hatcheries have since fallen out of fashion, and were anyway nothing compared to the giant factories that turn specially-bred flesh into fake fillets.

There is an obvious problem in trying to work out why stocks of wild fish have declined: there is an awful lot of sea and no way of knowing accurately where wild salmon will be in it. We cannot blame the salmon farms exclusively for the lack of wild fish caught.

Those who travelled to Scotland this year to fish for salmon mostly returned home dejected because there had been no significant rainfall in many river valleys since May, and with no water in the rivers, whatever wild salmon remain at large could not get in from the sea. (On the other hand, if you happened to be there when the heavens opened, you could fill your boots. That’s fishing. Always has been.)

The North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation estimates that wild salmon numbers have halved since the 1980s. The dangers multiply by the year. There are the rising sea temperatures, which mean ever longer migrations to find the food to sustain wild fish on their return to fresh water.

The fish farmers’ cages clutter ever more of the inshore waters, producing a lethal sea-lice soup, through which migrating young fish must run the gauntlet at the start of their marine migrations.

So we arrive at the absurdity that the only allies the king of fish has are those who want to stick a hook in it and wrestle it to the bank. Salmon fishing still has an image problem, right enough: tweedy old men in plus fours with deerstalkers and luxuriant moustaches (though many of the best fishers now are women). But it is a strange thing that they are almost the only friends the wild salmon have now.

Occasionally, an angler might catch a salmon that has escaped from a fish farm and been led by some deep instinct to swim into a freshwater river where some ancestor might have spawned. You can always spot them — flabby and feeble things, with mangled fins, whose only experience of life as they should have lived it has been in the few hours before they snapped at your fly.

You know the decent thing would be to let it live. But you have no idea where its ancestors came from and the fear of genetic contamination should it breed with a native fish means it has to be knocked on the head. It doesn’t have to be like this. Wild salmon need all the help they can get. Salmon farms are an invention of humans and we could start by doing something about them: the Norwegian companies that dominate the industry prefer to raise fish in Scotland because the controls there are more lax than in Scandinavia.

Since the UK farms are north of the border, regulating them is the job of Holyrood. Two committees of numpties from the Scottish parliament tore themselves from the fleshpots of Edinburgh to investigate the salmon industry. They produced dozens of recommendations and declared ‘the status quo is not an option’. That was three years ago.

Perhaps author T.H. White put it best in his book England Have My Bones: ‘When people talk about salmon they call it ‘a fish’. Trouts are just trouts. A fish means salmon.’ 

Black Gold: The History Of How Coal Made Britain by Jeremy Paxman is published by William Collins, £25.

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