Your Majesty, ladies and gentlemen, first of all, I am enormously grateful to His Majesty for responding so positively to my invitation and giving up his precious time to be with us on this important occasion. Now, I well recall visiting Norway forty-seven years ago and having a brief opportunity in-between engagements to cast a fly in the river Rauma where, of course, I was regaled by old fishing stories about my great grandfather, King George V, who had inevitably caught a forty or fifty pounder in precisely the place where I was fishing! Rather ignominiously, and in absolute accordance with the operation of Murphy’s Law, I ended up catching a four pound grilse – but ladies and gentlemen, I think that was at the time when Norwegian rivers had been struck so badly by the dreaded Salmon disease, so perhaps it was an excuse.
Having started fishing for Salmon at the age of seven in 1955, when the rivers were crammed with fish and the seasons were in their proper places, I have never really wanted to fish for anything else and over the years my fascination has extended to wanting to know much more about this most enigmatic and noble of species. In particular, I have come to appreciate the sheer vulnerability of this once abundant natural resource. Now, as you all know as well as me, there are so many threats that lie in wait at various stages of the salmon’s extraordinary life cycle. Yet at the same time it plays an important part in the fragile economies of many marginal communities. So when stocks decline there is far more at stake than a heavenly day’s fishing. That, of course, is why I am so pleased and proud to be Patron of the Atlantic Salmon Trust and to have been so for the past thirty-three years of its fifty years existence.
As many of you may recall, the Trust was formed in 1967 against a depressing backdrop of rampant salmon disease and an increasingly difficult situation in relation to netting off the Greenland and Faroese coasts. The founders of the Trust were very clear that, without objective science, management could not tackle these very difficult and seemingly intractable issues. That was a far-sighted approach and as important now as it was then, even though the problems are rather different.
Within ten years of the establishment of the Atlantic Salmon Trust, salmon disease was on the wane and the problems in relation to the major high seas fisheries had been greatly reduced, with only a fraction of the original prodigious catches being taken.
The expectation was that, with these problems under control, Atlantic salmon stocks would rebound and rebound quickly. However, this simply did not happen, and within a few years it became clear that Man’s influence on the life cycle of the salmon was much more profound.
Well, our greatest concern today is the very small proportion of salmon smolts leaving their rivers which return as adult salmon. Thirty years ago, up to one in four would make it back. Today, it is only one in twenty. Yet we do not know why this is happening. And until we do, we will not be able to put solutions in place. And until we have solutions, stocks will continue to decline.
Back in 1967, the year the Trust was founded, the catch of salmon from the Dee in Aberdeenshire, for example, was almost 8,000, of which around three quarters were Spring fish. Last year the total catch was less than 4,000, of which only one quarter were Spring fish. As it happens, I remember the Dee in 1967 and the contrast with today was even starker than those figures suggest – especially in the upper reaches of the Dee at Balmoral.
Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot continue to lose ninety-five per cent of our salmon on their epic journey to and from our rivers. It is quite simply unsustainable. So we urgently need to know just what is happening to them along the way.
The Atlantic Salmon Trust is tackling this problem with its unique blend of science generated through its access to senior scientists across Britain and Ireland, a strong executive team and knowledge derived from those who own, manage and fish rivers. The Trust’s current work is geared towards understanding and solving some of the issues faced by our migrating smolts and post-smolts. Its science strategy covers the whole of the salmon’s journey from head water through its epic ocean migration and back to its river of origin. In this evening’s programme you can read about the three core salmon projects - acoustic tracking; D.N.A. chemical tracking and working collaboratively with the aquaculture industry and other wild fish colleagues to reduce the impact of net cage aquaculture on wild salmonids. They give an excellent insight into the Trust’s scientific work and the sophisticated methods they are using to establish the facts about what is going on.
At today’s symposium it was agreed that the key to understanding why less than five per cent of smolts which leave our rivers are returning is not only to understand where they are going, but to evaluate using current data where they are dying, and why.
The last decade of research has revealed a range of likely factors that may be impacting on migrating smolts and post-smolts. Some of these at least are amenable to direct management actions. And they include river barriers, river flows, predation, aquaculture and by-catch on the high seas. The Trust, with its partners around the Atlantic, is building a mathematical model which will identify the relative importance of these key suspects which may be affecting our salmon and seek to provide management solutions to the problem.
One of the most important factors to take into consideration when assessing the range of pressures facing wild salmon stocks is Climate Change. Whilst the impacts of Climate Change, now and in the future, on salmon stocks is still the subject of much research, it is understood that factors such as warmer and acidifying waters, drought and flooding, scarcer feeding opportunities and invasive species are all affecting survival rates of salmon both in the marine environment and in our freshwater ecosystems. For example, it seems that there is evidence that the plankton that Salmon rely on to feed at sea, as well as other species, are moving North due to warming temperatures. Similarly, it would appear that more frequent storms, leading to changing currents at sea, and flooding in rivers are impacting migratory routes, feeding patterns and survival of salmon eggs in rivers. So, given the “multiplier” effect, the “threat multiplier”effect, that Climate Change is having, it is ever, ever more important to work together in an holistic way to start to relieve the pressures on salmon stocks at sea, in our rivers and in our estuaries, in order for them to continue to survive.
Ladies and gentlemen, one of the many outstanding attributes of the Atlantic Salmon Trust is its uncanny ability to sense well in advance the key issues which need to be tackled and it has established an outstanding track record in relation to the practical, management-orientated research that they have commissioned or supported over the past five decades. I am hugely impressed by its work and achievements, and only too proud to be Patron of such a successful, innovative and dedicated organization.
In commending the work of the Trust to you, I do just want to welcome George Percy, Robbie Douglas Miller and Sarah Bayley Slater to their new roles and hope you will give them your full and enthusiastic support. Their predecessors have given us much to build on and emulate, not least the drive, leadership and huge generosity of the much-much-missed, late Duke of Westminster.
As a parting thought - a Spring salmon cycle in Britain takes, on average, five years to complete. So the Trust in its fiftieth year has only been around for ten full Spring fish cycles. I am sure that with your active and generous support, ladies and gentlemen, the organization will continue to thrive and prosper for many more of those cycles, helping to deliver the increasingly abundant and resilient stocks that we all want to see.
The majestic, wild Atlantic salmon is a powerful symbol of the health of our rivers and ocean, and of our relationship with the natural environment that sustains all human activity. To me, the salmon is the ultimate aquatic canary. When all is well with the salmon, all is well with the world! So I hope, ladies and gentlemen, that you may be able to help the Trust in its battle to put things right…